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Drawing of Yonge Street closed to vehicular traffic during a street event. (KPMB ARCHITECTS, GREENBERG CONSULTANTS INC/KPMB ARCHITECTS, GREENBERG CONSULTANTS INC)
Drawing of Yonge Street closed to vehicular traffic during a street event. (KPMB ARCHITECTS, GREENBERG CONSULTANTS INC/KPMB ARCHITECTS, GREENBERG CONSULTANTS INC)

Toronto eyes bold makeover of busy Yonge Street corridor Add to ...

More room for pedestrians, fewer lanes for cars.

A new planning blueprint for revitalizing the tired retail strip on Yonge Street north of Dundas envisions sidewalk cafes and street vendors, mid-rise buildings and heritage storefronts and one lane less in each direction for traffic on the city's main drag.

The privately funded study will be unveiled Wednesday by local Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam after consultations with residents and businesses. The rookie councillor, who began her career in real estate, says Yonge Street has never lived up to its full potential as a commercial corridor. Without a plan, she argues, the main face of Toronto will continue to deteriorate or eventually come to resemble nearby Bay Street - a corridor of tall condo towers.

"We need a strategy for all of Yonge Street and especially this troubled stretch," she said.

The new study examines the section of Yonge between Dundas and Gerrard streets, long home to head shops and strip clubs, but now poised for dramatic change. Ryerson University's new student centre is slated for the former Sam the Record Man site, and to the north a towering 75-storey condominium is under construction that will add more than 900 residential units to the neighbourhood. Primaris, a major retail landlord, also has bought properties on both sides of the street, including a heritage building at Yonge and Gerrard streets.

Taking its cue from projects such as New York's transformation of Broadway or, closer to home, the redo of Kitchener's downtown, the plan offers a solution to the growing numbers of pedestrians and recommends more street closings for special events.

"Pedestrians are literally falling off the sidewalks at busy times," said planner Ken Greenberg, author of the study along with architect Marianne McKenna. More than 53,000 pedestrians use Yonge and Dundas in an eight-hour period, he said, making it the country's busiest intersection, and foot traffic already outnumbers cars by more than two to one along Toronto's main street. "We want to provide an opportunity for life to spill out onto the street," he said.

The plan also proposes new northern entrances for the crowded Dundas subway station and setbacks for upper stories of new developments to keep the current scale at street level. One large tower is anticipated on the southeast corner of Yonge and Gerrard streets.

The proposal comes at a time when councillors are contemplating ripping out bike lanes and is sure to face headwinds at city hall. In response, Ms. Wong-Tam says she will remind potential opponents that the plan comes with the support - and funding - of business. Still, she expects some "Herculean lifting" will be required to move it forward.

James Robinson, executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area, says the new plan strikes a balance, recognizing most people come to the area on foot but also leaving the door open for development.

A pilot of the expanded pedestrian space is proposed for next spring, and Mr. Robinson said his group will work with tenants to respond to concerns over issues such as loading zones before that happens.

Ms. Wong-Tam said she wants all Torontonians to wade into the debate on their main street and is looking for support from other levels of government. If the plan is successful, she would like to see it rolled out beyond the few blocks in the study and become a template for economic revitalization of main streets in other urban centres.

"We can do absolutely nothing and leave it alone, or we can try it and not be risk-adverse," she said.

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