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A pedestrian walks on Yonge Street, north of Sheppard Ave., in Toronto, on Jan. 17, 2018.

Christopher Katsarov/For The Globe and Mail

Toronto is pushing ahead with long-debated plans to remake a stretch of uptown Yonge Street into a grand boulevard more amenable to people on foot and bicycle.

The plan would see a transformation of much of Yonge between Sheppard and Finch Avenues – by narrowing it from six to four auto lanes, adding space for cyclists, and improving the pedestrian area – and has been years in the making.

“What we’re doing today is really about the future,” said local councillor John Filion, noting the extra space this would create for restaurant patios and street trees.

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“What we get is a boulevard wide enough for a huge number of pedestrians, and that’s what we have. There are literally 80,000 people within walking distance of this area and that will soon be 100,000.”

This project has failed before to make it through council but passed early evening Thursday after a restrained debate that featured none of the “war on the car” rhetoric of previous years.

Thursday’s vote – by a margin of 18-5, with two absences – is not the final word on the project the city dubbed REimagining Yonge. Officially it only endorses the project design and authorizes an environmental assessment. The project would still have to find funding in a future budget year, and construction is likely at least half a decade away. But this is the most support the project has received and moves it a large step closer to reality.

Mayor John Tory reversed his earlier skepticism about the plan, calling it Thursday a way to breathe life into an area that has “no soul.”

In its current form, this stretch of Yonge Street dates to the 1950s, long before former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman helped kick-start a development wave that brought office and residential towers to the area. Large numbers of people have come to live and work nearby, but their movements are constrained by the wide road and often fast-moving cars.

City staff recommended the remake, which they said would bring “a minimal change” to traffic delay. And their report – which noted that the street is aging and due for “full reconstruction” within five to eight years – laid bare Yonge’s shortcomings.

“The quality of the Yonge Street streetscape has not kept pace with the area’s transportation network and the scale and density of development,” staff wrote.

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“Today, the area has numerous challenges including boulevards that have deteriorated … sub-standard (narrow) sidewalk widths and few opportunities for safe pedestrian crossings, as well as an overall need to improve safety and health outcomes for people who walk and cycle.”

One of the few councillors to oppose the plan was Etobicoke representative Stephen Holyday, who warned about making traffic worse.

“I just question the wisdom of doing that,” he said. “Especially if we’re on the cusp of a return back to the city, where we want to welcome people back, we want to make it easy for them to return to work, to go to the downtown businesses.”

The remake of Yonge Street has taken years to get through council. It has been opposed by those who say it will slow down drivers, though supporters note that the majority of motorists using it are not from Toronto.

When this debate last made it to council, in March, 2018, both supporters and opponents were happy to support a deferral motion, normally a sign that neither side is confident it has the votes.

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