The memory is foggy now, but about 20 years ago I'm pretty sure I read a piece by a journalist who spent a month living inside West Edmonton Mall – the hotel as residence, the food courts as kitchen and the fake beach and amusement park standing in for vacation. The closest item I could find was a February, 2013, piece by Avenue magazine's Omar Mouallem, The Great Indoors, that placed the author at the city's "most revered and jeered place since 1981" for three days.
Three days? Bah! Plenty of Torontonians routinely spend four to five starved for fresh air in the downtown core's underground PATH system, Toronto Financial District BIA communications manager Tim Kocur says: "When I lived in an apartment in Maple Leaf Square, I guarantee you I spent entire weeks, maybe a month, where I didn't go outside," he deadpans. "I started taking vitamin D supplements because I felt tired all the time, and I realized it was because I wasn't getting any sunlight."
On Oct. 14, registrants of this year's NXT City symposium, Future: Proof, will have the opportunity to join Mr. Kocur as he interprets the city's (in)famous 30-kilometre-long labyrinth connecting the (mostly) subterranean levels of almost 80 buildings that more than 1,100 retailers call home. And because the NXT City crowd will likely consist of young "urban-planning types," it's likely he'll customize the event on the spot, since their questions won't be the same as those from, say, the time he led 70 government workers from India through.
He will, however, start with a little history. Depending on where you drop the historical pin, the PATH system may have begun when the T. Eaton Co. joined its Yonge Street store with its "bargain annex" in 1900. Or it started when Union Station and the Royal York Hotel were connected in 1927. The big pin dropped, however, in the mid-1960s, when excavation was under way for Mies van der Rohe's TD Centre.
"Toronto has these narrow streets, you're now going to have a complex of 22,000 people, potentially, working in just one block," he says. "Well, all these people leave right at five o'clock on the dot; what's going to happen?"
The solution was to add relief via an underground concourse with multiple exit points. And the developer and city planners were so forward-thinking, he continues, they roughed in a bunch of connections, knowing the other banks would follow with their own new towers (and that's exactly what happened, as I.M. Pei's Commerce Court opened in 1972 and Edward Durrell Stone's First Canadian Place in 1975).
"On the one hand, it's an underground mall," offers Brodie Johnson, Toronto Financial District BIA planning and advocacy manager. "But I would say most people don't realize that it's all privately owned."
We begin our walk underneath Santiago Calatrava's soaring, light-filled galleria with a conversation about lease rates, and how a prime spot in one of the Union Station arteries can cost 10 times as much as a tiny slice of corridor in an underused, dead-end appendage. First-time retailers, Mr. Kocur says, will often test their concepts down here because "there's so much foot traffic.
"A few times a year, we tend to see a new business open up that doesn't go anywhere else, something like Kupfert and Kim."
"Monday to Friday, nine to five, you have 200,000 people that pass through, that potentially walk past your store, so it's significant," Mr. Johnson adds.
"If you counted the PATH as a mall, it's the biggest in North America," Mr. Kocur continues. And, he notes, with the grade change from the waterfront up to Yonge and Dundas (where the PATH system currently ends), it's also a six-storey building. Plus, the newer, above-ground walkways south of Union Station mean the PATH is not fully subterranean any longer, so it's now referred to as a "pedestrian network."
After checking out the new and improved wayfinding system, which rolls out fully in 2018, we wander through TD Centre and reminisce that, in the early years, all store signage sported a "Mies-approved" typeface. In the glossy, all-white First Canadian Place, we note there are regular lunchtime concerts at the Waterfall Stage and, at Scotia Plaza, we admire the towering 115-foot-high Waterfall painted onto 69 canvases by Derek Besant in 1989.
And while it may seem pedestrian, I note how, if signage or artworks fail to help navigate the four million square feet, one can always look for changes in flooring to orient oneself; or, in the case of the heritage portion of the Commerce Court complex, the beautiful door handles and winding staircases.
To give tour-goers a break from the artificial lighting and canned air, Mr. Kocur promises he'll shepherd them outside to see sculptor Joe Fafard's bronze cows that graze, at the TD Centre courtyard, grass, dead leaves or snow, depending on the season. "It's a good place to point and look around and say, 'Every single building you can see is connected underground.' I think there might be one exception."
And that one exception is probably planning to tunnel soon since, with the condo and hotel boom of the past two decades, it's no longer solely a network of office towers. "The PATH has become so expanded and so useful for so many people, it's not just for businesspeople any more," Mr. Kocur offers.
"Being connected to the PATH is highly sought after," Mr. Johnson says.
For more information on NXT City, visit nxtsymposium.com. For more on the PATH system, see torontopath.com.