Since Upper Canada's lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe built the first part of Yonge Street as a military access route in case of an American invasion, Toronto's most famous roadway has gone through several phases: as a way in and out of the city for traders, farmers and stagecoach passengers; as Toronto's main shopping street, crammed with horse-drawn carriages and trolleys; as a music mecca where people came to buy records or visit smoky clubs; as the sleazy "strip" of massage parlours and head shops.
Its latest phase may be the most dramatic yet. Yonge is about to go through big changes, becoming not just a renowned national street but a world street, with a level of density and activity that will make it feel more like Tokyo or Shanghai than the jumbled, still shabby downtown stretch that visitors see today.
More than 30 building projects, many of them soaring towers, are in the works. At one intersection alone, Yonge and Gerrard, six towers are coming, and that is on top of the immense glass skyscraper that already stands on the northwest corner. The local business group, Downtown Yonge, says that, altogether, more than 700 floors of new development are going in, bringing thousands of new residents and workers. Big retailers such as Saks and Nordstrom are coming, too.
Some see all this manic change as a threat to the character of old Yonge Street. It is. The days are numbered for places like the Ultimate Tattoo parlour and Jessi Nails, not to mention the venerable Club Zanzibar, where "The girls never stop."
But Yonge's evolution is also an opportunity for Toronto. Here is a chance to remake Yonge along 21st-century lines, with less sleaze and more sparkle. A visioning study for the area, released on Wednesday, foresees a pedestrian-friendly street of wider sidewalks, patios, trees and even temporary (perhaps one day permanent) closures to car traffic.
Will all that mean a sanitized, homogenized Yonge Street? People had the same worry when New York cleaned up Times Square. Today, opened to pedestrians, it's still a bustling place, and a much more inviting one.
City councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says Toronto should seize this chance to humanize its central thoroughfare. "We need to do this," she said. "Sitting idly by is not an option." She has put aside $31-million of city money for Yonge Street improvements, which could come when the street is dug up anyway to put in new water mains.
Ms. Wong-Tam leans to the left in her politics and thinks a lot about poverty and inequality. But she is smart enough to know that if she works with the rich developers who are clamouring to build in her ward, they can help pay for big improvements like putting in new parks, displaying public art and replacing grimy, cracked sidewalks with a nicer set boasting paving stones and planters.
Mark Garner, executive director of Downtown Yonge, says he, too, will press developers to beautify the street. He looks with mild disgust at the ground floor of a condominium tower, where side-by-side bank branches present blank glass faces to passersby. That sort of thing kills the street, he says. He insists that as Yonge evolves and more big buildings move in, it will keep the street alive, with independent cafés and swishy international retailers.
The opinion survey that he unveiled on Wednesday, called Yonge Love, shows that people want a green and walkable Yonge, with street festivals, arts events and a busy nightlife.
If it all seems a little pie in the sky, remember that Yonge has already changed for the better in recent years. After a shaky start, Yonge-Dundas Square has become a big success. That intersection hums with street life at all hours as people use the scramble intersection to cross the street this way and that. Just to the north, on the east side, the shimmering glass walls of the new Ryerson University Student Learning Centre bring a modern splash to the streetscape. Students perch on the tall concrete steps, looking out on the street scene. A new eatery is going in at street level. It's a glimpse of what could be.
If the city takes up Ms. Wong-Tam's challenge to seize the day, the new Yonge could become a brilliant success, denser, busier and more urban without sacrificing its vivid street life. Mr. Garner calls Yonge "Canada's main street." There is no reason it shouldn't be a great one.