Last week, at a bar at Yonge and St. Clair, partygoers celebrated the official unveiling of an eight-storey mural by the British street artist known as Phlegm (yes, Phlegm). Painted on the side of an office building, it shows a human figure in a sitting curl, its body formed of scenes from the city: churches, parks, office buildings, the CN Tower, the Royal Ontario Museum.
It's pretty edgy for dear old Yonge and St. Clair, a staid quarter between Rosedale and Forest Hill, where the demographic skews old, white and prosperous. But change is coming to Yonge and St. Clair. The mural is tied up with a push by Slate Asset Management to bring some buzz back to an intersection long past its heyday.
That effort springs from a remarkable real estate coup. Starting in 2013 and wrapping up earlier this year, the company snapped up buildings on all four corners. Slate's Lucas Manuel says that, as far he can determine, it is the only real estate firm in North America to own four corners of a major urban intersection. Now Slate is spending millions to rejuvenate both the buildings and the streetscape.
It's about time. When I was growing up nearby, on the other side of the St. Clair bridge, Yonge and St. Clair was a busy place with a newspaper vendor calling out from the sidewalk, a Tamblyn's drugstore on one corner and a United Cigar Store on another. A classic bakery sold butter tarts and a Laura Secord's sold chocolates. The vast Hollywood Theatre showed the latest movies. Dining out meant Fran's or Swiss Chalet, where you could buy deliciously soggy French fries from the kitchen counter in the back.
Then office buildings went up on the corners, and apartment buildings nearby. In this growth spurt, modern glass-and-steel towers were sprouting downtown and smaller nodes of development were growing at places like Yonge and St. Clair and Yonge and Eglinton. A Roots outlet opened on Yonge, and Bregman's Bakery was a fixture for years.
Yonge and Eglinton continued to develop. Now it is booming. So is Bloor and Yonge. Yonge and St. Clair stood still. "Over the years the neighbourhood lost its identity," says the Slate website. "Office buildings became out of date, restaurants came and went and the area became overlooked as surrounding nodes were gentrifying."
Mr. Manuel says, "Frankly, there hasn't been change here for decades." Slate is going all out to get things moving again. Workers are busy renovating the building on the northeast corner. There are plans for a multilevel restaurant across the street on the northwest, where the Gateway newsstand outlet stands now. The facades of the office buildings at the intersection will get an overhaul to make them more open to the street, in the modern way, and the sidewalks will get new seating and landscaping
When the facades are done in 2018, says Mr. Manuel, the intersection should have a lot more polish and pop. There is no good reason for it to have languished for so long, he says. "It's going to be great again."
If residents fear an explosion of new buildings, he says, they should put their minds at ease. The company has no plans to tear down its suite of buildings and put up new ones, at least in the near term. The layout of the area, with St. Michael's Cemetery and the Badminton & Racket Club just to the southwest and residential neighbourhoods close by, means this will never be a Yonge and Eg, though a developer has proposed a tower south of St. Clair on Yonge.
In time, however, the intersection could stand some of what city planners call intensification. It's on the subway line, of course, and the St. Clair streetcar, with its dedicated right of way, runs right through. The Weston family owns the big surface parking lot back of the stores on Yonge, on the east side north of St. Clair – an obvious spot for development. They own an adjacent office building, too. It wouldn't hurt to build up some more, with taller buildings and more people working and living in them. It is exactly at hubs like these, well served by transit, that the city should look to increase urban density and the vitality that comes with it.
For now, though, it is just good to see something – anything – happening at Yonge and St. Clair. Cities are always growing, changing, evolving. This midtown crossroads has been stagnant too long.