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Great Streets project could create a downtown Toronto worth getting out of your car to enjoy

OPINION

Great Streets project could create a downtown Toronto worth getting out of your car to enjoy

The city's planning department is looking at how streets, sidewalks and park space in the downtown area, including University Avenue, could be reshuffled

The Great Streets project in Toronto envisions a new downtown core that prioritizes public space.

It's plain to see: Downtown Toronto is growing like mad. The city is hunting for new parks to serve hundreds of thousands of new residents and workers. But there's a wealth of public land waiting to be turned into park space. Just look out your car window.

Yes: the roads. Across the city, roadways take up about a quarter of Toronto's land area. Now, with a vision called Great Streets, the city's planning department is looking at how streets, sidewalks and park space in the downtown area, including University Avenue, could be reshuffled.

"It's about taking what you already own," Adam Nicklin says, "and using it better."

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Mr. Nicklin is one of the two partners in Public Work, a landscape architecture firm doing a Parks and Public Realm Study as part of a new downtown plan dubbed TOCore.

The most exciting proposal in the Great Streets project is for University Avenue, which would see the four car lanes and centre median reshuffled to make space for a linear park.

Great Streets, which the young office has cooked up for the city, is visionary. It suggests that 12 major streets across the core should be looked at "with a new lens," as Ann-Marie Nasr, planning's manager of strategic initiatives, puts it, "to support public life as well as mobility." In other words: streets as places to do things as well as to get around.

The most exciting proposal is for University Avenue. It should – although it won't – get built tomorrow.

Currently, University Avenue has two corridors of car traffic, separated by a landscaped centre median that encompasses about three acres. Right now, "it's so poorly used," Mr. Nicklin accurately points out, "that it barely counts at all." In Public Work's scheme, all the car lanes would be pushed to the west side, the median pushed over to the east, and a new linear park would occupy most of the east side.

And, presto: an 8.9-acre park. It would connect Nathan Phillips Square and Osgoode Hall all the way to Queen's Park, providing space for gatherings, patios and water features, and adding a ceremonial feeling to this grand street.

Across the city, roadways take up about a quarter of Toronto’s land area.

University Avenue began in the 19 th century as a pair of ceremonial, tree-lined boulevards. But right now, let's be frank: University is lifeless, cut through by what is essentially an expressway. Four lanes of cars drag race each way around Queen's Park and down University, before squeezing back into three lanes at Front Street.

So what will happen to the car traffic? In a recent meeting at City Hall, planning officials stressed that Public Work's vision is just a vision, and that none of this has been studied yet, much less implemented. "We simply don't know," transportation director Barbara Gray said, "and there's a lot of work to be done before any decisions get made."

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But if they have to hedge their bets, the simple genius of this plan is clear. What would be lost? A curb lane on each side is used primarily for parking and drop off. You can't drive in it most of the time anyway. Mr. Nicklin argues that the car capacity of the avenue could be kept just as it is, and the relatively few parking spaces moved elsewhere. The new park space, meanwhile, would provide a much improved place for tourists and hospital visitors alike.

It's not too good to be true. Just look at the King Street Transit Pilot project. In the past few weeks, Toronto has seen that changing a road can be done quickly and relatively painlessly. The project, which eliminates through car traffic on King Street between Jarvis and Bathurst, has had a dramatic effect on transit – the 504 King streetcar actually moves, to the great benefit of most of the people who use the road.

TOCore is an effort to co-ordinate the city’s vision on everything from sewers to libraries, as it deals with a wave of tall, dense development that’s going into existing city districts.

But the physical impact on the roadway is equally large. I've walked King Street a few times in the past week, and the atmosphere is dramatically different. Instead of being chronically clogged with cars, it's now quiet, peaceful and comfortable. In the spring, the excess space in the curb lanes will be filled with seating and plantings; if it becomes permanent, it will become "the city's front porch," as Mr. Nicklin puts it.

It's hard to imagine right now, but Gregg Lintern, the city's acting chief planner, argues that it's necessary. "Imagine the city in 2041: What kind of city do we want to live in, and how are we going to get there?" Mr. Lintern says.

As planners push toward bringing TOCore to City Council in the spring, they know that downtown will keep evolving – and that all the growth that's come to the area in the past 20 years is just the beginning. Right now the "core," from Bathurst Street to the Don River and the lake to Dupont Street, has about 240,000 residents and 500,000 jobs. Planners expect those numbers to increase hugely, to 475,000 and perhaps 900,000, in the next quarter-century. (Why more of that growth isn't going elsewhere is a good question for another day.)

In that context, TOCore seems both ambitious and constrained: It's an effort to co-ordinate the city's vision on everything from sewers to libraries, as it deals with a wave of tall, dense development that's going into existing city districts. Parks and public realm – the latter term includes other publicly accessible spaces – are a critical component. A lot more people, most of them living in apartments, are going to need a lot more public space. Most of them won't be able to get around by car. These are facts.

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And roads are resources. "We have to marshal our resources in an efficient way," Mr. Lintern says. True – so why not link street design to parks, as Public Work suggests, and rebuild the roads so they give character to their neighbourhoods, and are places for hanging out, playing in a splash pad or ordering another bottle of wine? Toronto could build a downtown that's worth getting out of your car to enjoy.

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