The city is rolling out flaming "warming stations," art installations and other changes to King Street in an attempt to revitalize the key downtown roadway.
The changes announced on Tuesday by Mayor John Tory – which are intended to bridge the gap until more permanent improvements can be ready in April – are an attempt to counter rising concern from some business owners about a street that has been prioritized for streetcar over private automobile travel. A competition looking for ideas to use newly freed-up road space was also launched on Tuesday.
Passersby were quickly attracted to a trio of fire pits installed at David Pecaut Square, beside Roy Thomson Hall. Among them was Anna Svirski, who works nearby and stopped her walk to stand beside the dancing flames and immerse herself in an electronic device.
"It's fun," she said. "Instead of just strolling by I'm here, reading a book."
Although Toronto is forecast to enter the deep freeze again on the weekend, there is plenty of precedent that people will brave the cold if given a good enough reason. The Bentway, a skating venue under the Gardiner Expressway, attracted thousands when it opened last weekend. And The Forks, an outdoor attraction in the much colder city of Winnipeg, says that some of its busiest days are in the winter.
About two months ago, Toronto implemented a series of changes to King Street, key among them removing street parking and forcing cars to turn off the east-west road at most intersections. The logic was that the streetcar, which carries about 65,000 people each weekday, was being held up by the roughly 20,000 private vehicles on the road.
The pilot project is designed to last one year and has led to improvements in speed and reliability for streetcar riders, without substantial traffic slow-downs on nearby streets. But there has been a tide of push-back from some local business people, who say that their revenue is down substantially since the changes.
There are complaints about access for delivery trucks, the loss of street parking and the relocation of many of the streetcar stops. But the biggest concern is that King now appears emptier, without the same level of activity.
"Just look at the street. There's no traffic, it's a ghost down," said Harry Guloien, general manager of District Eatery. He said that the restaurant opposite the TIFF Lightbox hasn't been open long enough for a proper year-over-year comparison of its revenue, but that it feels as though business is lower now than it should be.
"I'm wondering if people are avoiding King altogether, because they can't park on it. They feel it's a hassle to come."
This is a perception that has been fanned by opponents of the King Street pilot, including mayoral candidate Doug Ford, who took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to call it a "car exclusion zone."
The mayor said that part of his message on Tuesday was to reiterate that "King Street is open for business" and that "there is no ban on cars." Mr. Tory told reporters that he remained receptive to ideas for adapting the current situation as needed, but argued that "the integrity" of the idea must remain intact.
"This pilot project will not be ended early, we're going to see it through," the mayor said. "We're certainly willing to watch and listen and learn and make changes that are going to help both keep the streetcars moving and make sure business stays healthy and happy."
A Winterlicious-style promotions campaign to encourage dining on King Street was part of Tuesday's announcement, as was the competition for ways to use the road space no longer used by cars. Ideas from nearby business owners will get precedence, although many details, including how or if they might be charged for the use of public space, remain to be worked out.