Goodbye, Yonge

Urban Development in Downtown Toronto

Words by Kody McCann
Photos by Grace King and Hana Nikcevic

Finding a common ground between municipal growth and preserving local culture

Toronto’s Yonge Street stretches from Lake Ontario at the Harbourfront to Steeles Avenue in North York. It is the physical, and arguably, the metaphorical spine of the entire city of Toronto. East-west streets are demarcated by their relation to Yonge (Queen West being West of Yonge, etc.) and the Yonge TTC line runs under 90% of it, linking the suburbs in the north to downtown. At the intersection of Yonge Street and Dundas Street is the famous Dundas Square and Eaton Centre; farther down, there’s the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Stanley Cup.

Yonge Street is as old as Toronto but the area south of Bloor Street is coming to an end.

Currently, there is a tax revolt organized by the Yonge Street Small Business Association. The “revolt” is protesting a 100-500 percent tax increase on businesses along Yonge Street south of Bloor. Historically, Yonge Street has been home to smaller businesses like bookstores, barber shops, sex shops, and art supply stores. Over time, increasing numbers of chain stores and fast food joints have moved in. The biggest threat, however, is the building of a condominium tower. Building this condominium tower requires erasing an entire block and restarting from the ground up.

According to Urbantoronto.ca, between College and Yonge and Bloor and Yonge—only a kilometer in distance—there are 12 condominium projects in pre-construction or under construction. These projects include the tearing down of storefronts between Grenville and Grosvenor Streets (but keeping that old clock tower)—notably where the 100-year-old art supplies store Curry’s had been—and using the space to build a 130-metre-high condo tower. Another example is the destruction of the block between Dundonald Street and Gloucester Street for a 150-metre-high condo tower.

The pièce de résistance of the Yonge Street development is called “The One,” located at One Bloor West, at the corner of Yonge and Bloor. Upon completion, this condo tower with retail space will be the tallest skyscraper in Canada, taller than the BMO Building. (Yes, you read that right, the CN Tower is a tower and is not technically considered a building.)

Between the municipal and the provincial governments, Yonge Street south of Bloor is slated for sacrifice in the growing metropolis of Toronto. This is a result of heavy investment in one of North America’s largest cities. Toronto has been experiencing steady growth since the 1950s. From 1996 to 2016 the average growth rate was roughly 3.74, which, if kept up—and projections predict it will—means that Toronto will double in population in 20 years. Already, from 2011 to 2016, over 100,000 people have moved into the city. While Toronto continues to be a destination for newcomers worldwide, it is also one of the most technologically advanced and fastest-growing hubs.

Toronto is growing and therefore it is changing. The brick mural down on Queen Street West stating “You’ve Changed” is addressing you and me and the city that surrounds us. All growing cities burst at the seams to encapsulate changing demographics. Toronto is like any growing city in history. In a very broad sense, if a city is growing it cannot stay the same. Building a store or developing a neighbourhood does not guarantee its permanence. Neighbourhoods evolve through history, and forcing an area to stay the same can restrict its growth. Not every historic neighborhood in Toronto will survive the next 50 years. Change is necessary for growth, but people, myself included, have an immediate aversion to change.

With that said, what is happening on Yonge Street is a very intense form of gentrification, where a wealthy demographic moves in and the neighbourhood is torn down and built anew. Forcing people out by increasing taxes too quickly because the property values have skyrocketed is wrong. As someone who has a keen interest in North American urban development, I am not surprised that the city decided to allow a less authentic Yonge Street. We can look at parallels in New York City. The area around Times Square in the 1980s was extremely run-down and dangerous, featuring sex shops, strip clubs, and adult movie stores. It had a high crime rate and was avoided by most. Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, decided to gentrify the neighbourhood using city revenue. He tore down buildings and evicted tenants to “save 42nd Street” and created one of the most recognizable tourist attractions in the world. This decision angered many, but was seen on the whole as a good move. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, it would be silly to argue for a return to Times Square’s former “glory.”

Yonge Street is pretty skeevy. A UofT graduate, who graduated in the late 1980s, told me that they were always told to stay off Yonge Street at night. Two weeks ago, one of my friends was flashed while on their way home in front of the 7/11 on College. I live right on Yonge Street and I have seen my fair share of interesting sights. It is safe to say Yonge Street downtown has earned a reputation.

Yonge Street is going to be torn down within the next 10 years. Take a nice long walk through it and take in those sites because they are an endangered species. Condo towers will reign from Bloor down to Lake Ontario and Yonge Street will be a condo tower jungle by 2027. All that makes Yonge Street good and bad will be erased to form a modern 21st-century downtown core. This is Toronto’s Yonge Street of tomorrow.

Zooming out, this is not at all about being scared of low-income housing and saying they should be removed from a historic area; far from it. We are talking about the issue of gentrification and a changing city. I am here to argue that a complete rejection of any gentrification grinds the open culture of a city like Toronto to a halt. However, using property value and location to force people out because they cannot afford living there is immoral. We cannot allow nameless, faceless real estate appraisers to dictate how the city should grow. That is the distinction. If an area becomes a student apartment neighbourhood over time because of proximity to campus, and it changes the demographic of that neighbourhood, that is a dynamic sign of a growing city.

Another side of gentrification is that when a neighbourhood is not doing well economically, it is bought out by larger and more profitable enterprises. It is important that small businesses belonging to these well-established communities are supported. Regardless of urban transformations, if a small business is not getting customers, it will disappear. Saying you want things to stay the same and then ordering books on Amazon does not work. The slightly higher costs of items at small businesses may offset a necessity to save money, but it preserves culture instead of eliminating. Or you can seek out a $22 haircut at a barbershop and strike up a great conversation for free. There has to be much more of a dialogue about gentrification in growing cities.

What I am now addressing can be paralleled to actively trying to live sustainably: recycling, composting, using reusable bags, biking, and cutting down on meat consumption. Supporting local city culture is tantamount to a lifestyle change requiring active thinking and not passive convenience. It is harder in a city than a smaller town. There are hundreds of stores at our disposal, but waking up means going to Canada Computers instead of Best Buy when faced with a broken computer, or buying that book you want at Seekers on Bloor instead of at Indigo. These multi-million dollar investments on Yonge Street definitely inject lots of money into the city but it does not trickle down and disperse throughout the city; it corporatizes the neighbourhood in which convenience is valued over culture.

While urban development, like carbon pricing and net neutrality, is not everyone’s favourite topic to discuss, it is necessary to understand. We should care and be active about our city’s culture because we cannot let more neighbourhoods fall by the wayside strictly because of grand investments of real estate giants. While we may have lost Yonge Street, it’s not too late for Toronto. No matter where you come from, being a part of city culture can start today. Towers will scrape the sky as Toronto develops more and more onto the global stage. But we have the responsibility to strike a balance between explosive, ambitious growth and sustaining the local culture.