REID: An opportunity at Yonge + Bloor

Dylan Reid

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 tallĀ (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.

 

8 comments

  1. Not mentioned, but I’m sure there’s ample space for RBC in a re-gigged development. I believe TD is building another branch (yes, another!) in 1 Bloor East, so that wouldn’t be an option.

  2. I remember when the stretch of Yonge Street between Queen and Bloor was cool to walk. There were interesting stores, restaurants and people. Now there is a lot of crappy stores selling junk and knock offs. The number of places to get Souvenir ID has decreased greatly.

  3. I remember when 2 Bloor East was refurbished a few years ago and I thought they might do something to address how the RBC meets the street. But that change was far too small to really improve the corner. What irks me even more about the bank is the huge stairs leading up to the bank machines, and the signs saying that this is private property and no loitering. It all seems so very wrong on such an important corner. I doubt the city can force the owner to make these changes, but what a great gift to the city it would be for the RBC to fix this, in conjunction with the owners of the building.

  4. Why would RBC give up that stellar hard-corner real estate? Sure the building design is awful but that retail location is almost unbeatable. Right behind the branch are the elevators so the branch would completely have to be relocated losing the corner visibility. I love your idea but RBC or the building owners would never surrender that prime location and prime rental rates.

  5. The real public need may be for another TTC exit depending on locations of this and that. We’re getting pressure to spend multi-millions due to capacity issues, and surely, if we plan, we should address cheaper options. Aah, we don’t plan….

  6. It’s not Hudsons’ Bay that could address the bank, it’s Brookfield Properties who own the centre. Here’s hoping that when HBC steps forward to redo the store, that Brookfield ploughs some money into fixing the rest of the centre too. Good luck to us all on having RBC do the right thing and giving up their carbuncle.

  7. There’s also the power of expropriation for public use eg. Yonge and Bloor subways. So it truly may be an opportunity to ease some of the platform congestion issues at Y/B, and we should at least look at this as a possibility, given overall costs and problems.

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