Yonge and Bloor is one of the most notable intersections in Toronto, the meeting of our central north-south street with one of our longest east-west streets (one that is often considered the northern border of downtown). It is also the meeting point of two subway routes, and one of the busiest transit transfer points in Toronto. In some ways, it can be thought of as the centre of the city. A few years ago, when I asked people what was Toronto’s iconic meeting place, several people suggested Yonge and Bloor.
Unfortunately, the intersection’s reality doesn’t live up to its central part in Toronto’s imagination. Its buildings are uninteresting, and what’s worse, there’s no real public space to define it or provide a gathering point.
When the property on the south-east side was up for redevelopment, the then-Toronto Public Space Committee tried to get a public square there, but the land was far too valuable, and instead we are predictably getting a very tall (though reasonably well-designed) condo tower.
But now there’s another opportunity to get some decent public space at Yonge and Bloor. For a long time, I’ve thought that the RBC bank branch on the north-east corner should be demolished and turned into a public plaza. One can tell there’s a desire for such a space, since people use the slightly wider sidewalk in front of it for busking and pamphleteering, and often sit on the steps to the bank branch overlooking the square despite the signs asking them not to. When people think of meeting at the intersection, it’s usually at this north-east corner.
The bank branch is a single-story carbuncle sticking out from the base of the main building. The architectural ensemble would actually look better without it, and the main entrance to the department store would be far more visible and prominent. So its removal would improve the building, as well as create space for a real plaza.
Now, news has just come in that The Hudson’s Bay Company is planning to convert its HBC store at Yonge and Bloor into a Saks luxury department store. In the process, it plans to transform this remarkably ugly building into one that is much more attractive.
This project is the perfect opportunity to take down the bank branch and transform the entrance to the new luxury store into an attractive civic square. Since it will be on private property, I have no problem if they choose a self-publicizing name for it (Hudson’s Bay Plaza? Saks Square?). It would create a spectacular (rather than hidden) entrance to the new store, and introduce the new brand with a wave of positive public sentiment.
So there are good reasons for HBC to be open to this idea. They would lose some rent, but it’s a relatively small proportion of the overall value of the building complex. They will still take some persuading, but since the plans are in their early stages, there is time to do so. There’s probably section 37 money to fund the building of a nice design, given the large amount of nearby development, and the City could set up a Privately Owned Public Space agreement with HBC to manage it.
Demolishing the branch wouldn’t create a huge space, but with good design it could be an effective one. I can imagine a couple of the London Plane trees the Bloor-Yorkville BIA has planted along Bloor in that area — or perhaps a fir tree for decorating at Christmas. Perhaps patterned paving underfoot that evokes the rivers HBC traders travelled in its early years trading for furs. One thing I’d hope for is some stair-like seating, echoing the current bank steps, like they have now in New York City’s Times Square (they would have to be a bit shorter and steeper in the tight Yonge and Bloor location). This is the perfect location for hanging out and watching Toronto go by, and they would serve as an excellent meeting point.
Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (
@kristynwongtam) is already working to get some parkland near Yonge and Wellesley in conjunction with new development. Perhaps she can use her powers of persuasion and real-estate savvy to make this transformation of Yonge and Bloor happen too. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make this intersection iconic, not just in Toronto’s imagination, but also in reality.