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For eight years, leaders of Toronto's downtown Chinatown have been trying to build a traditional gate to their community, like the ones found in Chinatowns in Montreal, Vancouver and San Francisco. At one point, there was a proposal for a huge structure that would span Spadina Avenue, just south of Dundas. But the ambitious project was blocked by landowners concerned about their frontage. Subsequent proposals, including one spanning Dundas Street, have been marred by technical difficulties involving streetcar and hydro wires.

This spring, however, it will be Chinatown East that will be getting the ornamental gate -- a joint venture between the local chamber of commerce, the Toronto Parking Authority and the Chinese government, which has donated a pair of ornate stone lions.

In contrast to the Spadina-Dundas proposal, the Chinatown East gate took just two years to plan. It will straddle the entrance to a municipal parking lot near Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street, the centre of Chinatown East, just steps from the Toronto (Don) Jail. The entire venture is expected to cost $200,000 to $250,000, including in-kind donations.

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"They are definitely ready to start construction when the snow melts," says Councillor Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina). "East Chinatown will be the first such gate in the city of Toronto, so it will be very significant."

When it is completed, the gate will take its place among Toronto's diverse and growing collection of urban gates. Some (such as the Princes' Gates at the Canadian National Exhibition) loom large in the city's imagination, while others (the ornate pillars at the end of Philosopher's Walk at the University of Toronto) have so blended into the scenery that passersby almost forget they exist.

With most gates, "the original idea was one of ceremony," says landscape architect George Dark, a partner with Urban Strategies Inc. "Cities used to mark events with gates."

Over time, however, their roles evolve. Mr. Dark mentions the intricate portal at the entrance of Trinity Bellwoods Park on Queen Street West. Once the entrance to the Trinity College grounds, today it serves as a landmark where people sit and chat or arrange to meet.

"In China, they're everywhere," Ms. Chow says, comparing these types of urban adornments to the ubiquitous fountains in the piazzas in many Italian cities. "A gate brings together the merchants and the community."

The construction of the Chinatown East gate will coincide with a much smaller urban gate restoration in the St. Clair West area. At Claxton Boulevard and Bathurst Street stands an imposing stone gateway to one of Toronto's rare divided boulevards. That structure dates to 1913, shortly after a developer came up with a grand scheme to build a huge residential enclave, to be called "Cedar Vale," on the Connaught estate, extending west of Bathurst and north to Eglinton Avenue. Cedar Vale was to have wide, elegant streets, including a thoroughfare traversing the Nordheimer Ravine.

The so-called Connaught Gate was the first structure to go up and, similar to the ornate, landscaped gates that mark the entrances to so many suburban subdivisions containing dozens of nearly identical dwellings, served as an ad.

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"The message was that this was going to be a very exclusive, very high-end neighbourhood, like Rosedale or Forest Hill," says Howard Katz, a consultant who heads the Connaught-Lonsmount Area Ratepayers Association. "All that was behind the gate was a dirt road and a farm. It was like adding the sizzle to the steak. How else are you going to attract people to a piece of farmland?"

But little came of the developer's dreams. Over time, the community evolved very differently, with a mix of low-rise apartments, middle-class homes and duplexes.

In 1999, a neighbourhood historian, Terry McAuliffe, urged Councillor Joe Mihevc (St. Paul's West) to see if there was a way to restore the deteriorating gates -- a familiar local landmark, but one that few people knew much about. Mr. McAuliffe, who has since passed away, also touted the project to Mr. Katz's group, and soon a fundraising campaign was under way.

Two years ago, the city anted up $25,000 to clean the stonework. The ratepayers group is currently raising $20,000 to rebuild and reinstall a pair of ornamental lanterns for the tops of the pillars; the originals have long since disappeared. Mr. Katz's group has found $12,000 so far, commissioning a firm to make the lanterns out of wrought iron. "We're planning to turn the lights on on Victoria Day."

If the Connaught Gate was intended to make home buyers imagine what could be, the University of Toronto's stately new gate off King's College Circle is there to prompt city dwellers to reflect on the heritage of one of Toronto's foremost institutions.

Designed by the Philadelphia firm Andropogon Associates and due to be completed this year, the gates frame U of T's massive engineering buildings, Convocation Hall and, in the distance, historic University College. They are the first byproducts of a landscape master plan commissioned a few years ago by the university.

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The gate project includes a narrowing of King's College Circle, sidewalk landscaping and the removal of an ugly security booth. When completed, the gates will serve as a ceremonial entranceway to the geographic heart of U of T, says Mr. Dark, whose firm conducted the master plan.

"They're hard to do from a design standpoint," he says, citing the considerable internal debate over style, materials, size and whether they should be equipped with barriers so they can be closed off to traffic on certain occasions. "Every university eventually gets into this discussion."

As with Connaught Gate -- named after the wealthy family that owned the property -- U of T's self-important front door will likely bear the name of a patron. But Mr. Dark says he expects that students, ever pragmatic, will incorporate the imposing structure into the day-to-day life of the campus. How? They'll use it as a meeting place.

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