I am taking a tour of Bloor Street's renovated Mink Mile with the head of its merchants association, a woman with the wonderful Yorkville name of Briar de Lange. The reno is having its big reveal on Sunday with a street party featuring a one-kilometre red carpet, restaurant tasting stations, a display of luxury cars and a lunchtime concert headlined by Platinum Blonde. I ask Ms. de Lange how she is feeling, given all the hassles and delays that dogged the $20-million project, paid for by local businesses. "What delays?" she replies. "I don't know what you're talking about."
She can be forgiven the little joke. Now that the work is finally done – construction crews gone, planters overflowing with flowers, new trees leafing out – she is enjoying a moment of sweet relief. The Nightmare on Bloor Street is a fading memory. The street looks terrific.
The sidewalks have been widened by four feet to accommodate the bustling street life of Canada's ritziest retail strip. The tired concrete of the old sidewalks has been replaced by Quebec-quarried granite paving stones of dark "Atlantic grey." The 134 new London Plane trees are planted in specially designed soil cells to ease them through the stresses of urban life. Stone benches and specially designed new bike rings punctuate the avenue. On a late spring afternoon, shoppers and gawkers stream along the street, passing the gilded storefronts of Hermès, Tiffany and Holt Renfrew. Despite all the bad press, the project is an unmistakable success – proof that some city-building exercises are worth the wait.
That wait was considerable. Work was held up for a nearly a year as Toronto Hydro worked on more than a dozen buried vaults for high-voltage transformers. Troubles with buried cables caused another hitch. The delays highlighted what seems to be a chronic problem in Toronto: poor co-ordination among city agencies and utilities.
But as anyone who has fixed up a house knows, renovations rarely go according to plan. Unexpected complications and delays are par for the course. Similar things can happen when you rip up a road, with its web of buried pipes and wires. When glitches occur and the work drags on, people get annoyed.
As politicians, downtown Councillor Adam Vaughan says, "we undersell the hard work and the difficulty" of getting complicated projects done. "The good news is that Bloor Street is now stunning and will be for the next 20 or 30 years."
On Roncesvalles Avenue, too, a major renovation is coming to a happy end. As on Bloor, the street had to be torn up for major work – in Roncey's case, the laying of new streetcar tracks. The merchants took advantage of the opportunity to spruce up the streetscape. Handsome, pale grey paving stone has been laid for the new, wider sidewalk, with planters, benches and raised transit stops that allow easier access to streetcars for strollers and wheelchairs. New street-level tree planters, replacing the old, raised "tree coffins," hold 85 new trees, from oaks to maples to chestnuts.
There were delays here, too, and lots of complaints from irritated merchants and residents. The belated discovery that a gas main lay too close to the new tracks meant that the project could not be finished last fall as expected. A dispute with a contractor over manpower caused holdups, too. But the job is on budget and just two weeks from completion, city officials say, with crews laying the final paving stones, putting in bike rings and clearing debris. Councillor Gord Perks says the city held no fewer than 37 community meetings on the design of the street, dealing with everything from the colour of the pavers to the design of the tree grates.
The result is quite marvellous. Roncesvalles, always a lively street, with its pastry shops, delis, bike stores, public library and Revue cinema, was looking a little tired before the do-over. The renovation has given it a fresh, new face. For all the pain they cause, projects like these are just what an ambitious city should be doing, seizing the chance to transform mediocre streetscapes into something better.