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official plan

The PATH system of underground shopping malls and thoroughfares under downtown Toronto.Donald Weber/The Globe and Mail

More than a century after Toronto's first underground pedestrian walkways were built, the city is finishing off a master plan that calls for the PATH system – the world's longest underground shopping complex – to extend south toward the waterfront.

As more people start living and working south of the traditional financial district, the PATH will have to be able to get them there, said Michel Trocmé, a partner in Urban Strategies Inc. He helped develop the draft plan, expected to be voted on by city council in 2012 and which will also influence the city's official plan review in the fall.

The system, which joins subway stations, business towers and food courts, now contains more than 1,000 stores. With about 100,000 commuters passing through every day, nearly $1.5-billion in sales revenue is generated each year.

As well as looking at where the sprawling path should spread next, a draft version of the plan also looks at how to fund it all.

"The PATH, you have to realize, has grown from being a retail connection between a couple of stores, to a commuter network," said Tim Laspa, project lead and manager of transportation planning with the city.

Where to grow

Extending down to the waterfront is essential for the PATH's growth in Toronto, according to Mr. Trocmé.

But it may not be through those typical underground tunnels.

"Continuing with an underground system is just not really that viable," Mr. Trocmé said, noting that topography drops close to Lake Ontario. As well, the Gardiner Expressway limits aboveground tunnels so developers would need to find a way to go over or under it. The answer, Mr. Trocmé said, is at least one major pedestrian bridge crossing over Lakeshore Boulevard but under the Gardiner.

"It's really tough because there are all these on and off ramps but there's a few places where you could actually do that," he said.

The draft plan suggests a southern extension from the Air Canada Centre, connecting by bridge close to Harbour and York streets. Andrew McAllan, Oxford Properties managing director of real estate management, said his company plans to have that bridge joined from the ACC to a new office complex in the area, WaterPark Place III, by 2015.

"This opens up the whole waterfront to the PATH," he said, noting thousands of employees will be working out of the building.

As well, the plan suggests there should be access from Union Station to waterfront development east of Yonge Street.

The report also says the system be extended west from Yonge Street toward University Avenue, where there are a cluster of hospitals near part of the University of Toronto campus and Queen's Park.

"It's an important piece of the employee population downtown that would be better served," Mr. Trocmé said.

Clear entrances, complete with overhead shelters and bicycle parking, should eventually mark key points of the network, according to the plan, which cost $200,000 to draft and more than a year to develop. The entrances, or "PATH portals," would also include large signs and maps.

Right now, Mr. Laspa admits, it can be hard to tell when you're entering some PATH locations that blend in with subway or business entrances because signs are small or non-existent. Locations suggested for portals are Osgoode subway station, Berczy Park in the St. Lawrence area, Dundas subway station and Metro Hall.

And inside, it can be notoriously difficult for people to find their way around, too.

Barry Shapiro, the owner of greeting card and gift store You Send Me, said being located at the underground equivalent of King Street West and University Avenue and between two major office towers has been his best location in 26 years of business. But many of his shoppers are regulars and those who aren't have a hard time finding him.

"Some of them will be from another building and they've been there for five years," he said. "They'll say, 'I didn't even know you were here.' " Updated maps and signs should include "You are Here" pointers for landmarks, according to the plan, and other graphics that would make navigation easier. As well, there's potential to develop a digital network that's accessible throughout the PATH so that pedestrians can get maps on their phones through cell or Wi-Fi networks.

Coming up with the money

For a brief period during the mid-1970s, the city chipped in when developers wanted their latest project to connect to the PATH but didn't have the finances to make it happen.

It hasn't been that way since, with most sections being privately built and maintained. But Mr. Laspa said there will be discussions about whether an incentive program should be put in place again for development that will provide growth according to the master plan.

For developers, Mr. Laspa said, an underground connection can add between $2- and $5-million to a project; a bridge typically adds between $2- and $2.5-million.

Beneath York Street, near Bremner Boulevard, the PATH is being extended to the Ice Condominiums at the York Centre. Digging beneath the ground anywhere is time consuming because soil conditions and barriers have to be examined carefully, said Linda Warth, director of planning and development with Lanterra Developments, the company behind the condos.

"There is a premium, when you're marketing, to say you're on the PATH," she said, noting the added value depends on what immediate connections are made.

Bringing together land owners, the TTC and groups connected to the system, such as universities, hospitals and businesses, to discuss growth is another recommendation.

Underground property is snatched up fast, according to Joseph Bumbaca, co-owner Maverick Studio for Men, which opened its latest location a few months ago in the PATH.

"The idea that you're able to access it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of what the weather's like outside, it's beneficial," he said. "We know that whether it's raining or shining or sunny outside, there will be people walking down here."