Some days when Nick Cluley steps into the laneway that runs between Massey Hall and the ING Direct office where he works, he'll run into a celebrity, such as William Shatner, grabbing a smoke outside the stage door. But most of the time, Mr. Cluley sees a conspicuously forgotten strip of the city, one strewn with trash, dumpsters, used needles and worse.
The 29-year-old Chicago native and manager of the bank's storefront at Yonge and Shuter wants to transform the O'Keefe Laneway, which runs south from Yonge-Dundas Square to the backstage door of the Elgin. His vision is to turn it into an intimate pedestrian and cyclist-friendly space, featuring greenery, public art, good lighting, signage and even some small-scale retailers and coffee houses.
"We think we can turn it into a flexible use space," he said. "We know there's a lot of interest in making something better."
Over the coming months, a somewhat unlikely partnership – armed with a $25,000 grant from Ontario's Ministry of Health Promotion – will solicit the public's ideas for revitalizing the laneway, and perhaps creating a template for other such spaces around the core. Joining ING, the urban mobility organization 8-80 Cities and the legendary Danish urban design firm Gehl Architects will develop a plan to breathe new life into a long-neglected interstice.
ING, which is investing $9,000 in the project, will host public consultation sessions in February and March on the second floor meeting space of its funky Yonge storefront. But Mr. Cluley, who sits on the Cyclists Union board, said the Dutch banking giant isn't interested in plastering the laneway with its corporate brand. "We would leave the naming rights up to the powers that be at the city."
Toronto's residential laneways have long been the subject of planning scrutiny, and have attracted growing interest from architects and home-buyers looking for gritty urban settings. But many downtown laneways, still used almost exclusively for commercial loading and garbage, remain functional and abandoned. "The laneway system is under-utilized and under-valued," said local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who is a strong supporter of reclaiming alleys for small-scale retail and housing as a means of promoting economic development and density.
8-80 Cities executive director Gil Penalosa is a cycling and pedestrian advocate who once served as the parks commissioner for Bogota, Colombia. He said the inspiration for this particular project came from Jan Gehl's work in Melbourne.
Mr. Gehl, a former Danish planner, gained international fame for banishing cars from downtown Copenhagen. More recently, he advised New York on transforming a chunk of Times Square into a car-free zone. Mr. Gehl also spent many years in the Australian financial hub, working with the local planning commissioner on a long-term strategy to revitalize its decaying downtown by promoting café-lined pedestrian zones, lively squares and laneway redevelopment.
Between 1994 and 2004, in fact, Melbourne's network of accessible and revitalized laneways and arcades expanded from a mere 300 metres to 3.4 km. The city now ranks at the top of global urban livability rankings.
To bring life back into Melbourne's laneways, the municipality cleaned them up and found tidy ways to store the dumpsters. It also offered $50,000 one-time start-up grants to entrepreneurs to open shops and cafes, with the proviso that they keep late hours to promote a sense of safety.
The result is intimate and authentic. "The grittiness really adds something to the feeling," said 8-80 Cities director of partnerships and programming Emily Munroe, who visited Melbourne last fall on a fact-finding trip. "When we were there, it really did feel like it could work in Toronto."
While the idea may fire the imaginations of public space enthusiasts, such a transformation turns on mechanical issues, such as dealing with the garbage. Mr. Cluley said he's been talking with Downtown Yonge BIA officials and Ms. Wong-Tam about finding ways to have the dumpsters emptied during a specified overnight window and then creating curtains or other means of concealing them. "It just comes down to the co-ordination of logistics."
After a frigid stroll up the windswept O'Keefe Friday, Mr. Cluley sounded confident that the area's storekeepers, landowners and municipal officials can clear away the procedural obstacles. "We feel very confident that if we put a great plan together, it will be executable and something the City of Toronto can be proud of."
Special to The Globe and Mail