O’Keefe Lane and St. Enochs Square are areas of the city thousands of people walk by without noticing every day. Why? Because the lane showcases the dirty, grungy rears of otherwise fancy buildings like the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Pantages). Used by smokers on break and numerous delivery loads and garbage trucks, the alley beckons only the most adventurous of pedestrians — those willing to trust their luck in the alley.
One group of people recently came together, though, for a workshop aimed at finding a solution to the problem: a way to make O’Keefe Lane and St. Enochs Square not only safe, but also beautiful.
So began a project, spearheaded by 8-80 Cities, to investigate revitalizing these spaces. With the help of the renowned, Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects, and partners such as ING Direct, the project is off to a good start. Recent interest has been shown by many community members, as well as former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford and Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam.
“If we’re not building streets or public spaces that are beautiful and safe that are welcoming and inducing of pleasure, then we know that people are not going to come back, and what we want are people in our spaces,” says Wong-Tam, a passionate advocate for safe public areas.
Bedford, who has been active in the conversation about the space, agrees. He initiated similar projects during his time as the City’s chief planner, and being someone who is passionate about the city, he’s an advocate for public spaces that will invite people in and entice them to stay. Bedford says looking at pathways underneath Toronto’s downtown core and comparing them with laneways aboveground would provide many exciting places to look to develop. “You look at the potential, there’s a whole new layer of city that can be added, developed, utilized — commercial opportunities, restaurants, coffee, entertainment, whatever — and extend the pedestrian public realm through another whole layer of the downtown.”
There remain challenges, though, one of which being a lack of light. The lane is lined by buildings that are tall enough to disallow any light from Yonge Street sneaking in. The only light filtering through at night is what spills in from the end that faces Yonge-Dundas Square. Suggestions have been thrown around to put in strings of lights on the buildings so that it appears safer at night.
Ewa Westermark, an associate at Gehl Architects, says her hope for the space is that it becomes a destination, rather than just a pathway to somewhere else. The introduction of benches, pop-up cafés, and greenery may entice people to wander down and spend some time in the laneway. And with a world-class music venue, three theatres, a cinema, and Yonge-Dundas Square all nearby, it’s been suggested to turn O’Keefe Lane into a theatre –entertainment inspired walkway. Imagine skits in the laneway before a show at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, or impromptu recitals before a show at Massey Hall. The opportunity is ripe to attract people to what’s now an unattractive space, and provide an identity for area that’s lacked one since the brewmaster closed up shop.
At one point, the O’Keefe Lane was located right beside the O’Keefe Brewery, which operated under several different names from around 1840 until it was demolished in the 1980s. Eugene O’Keefe was an Irish businessman and banker who moved to Canada when he was five years old. The brewery, located at the corner of Victoria and Gould streets (where the AMC cinema and Ryerson Bookstore is located), was known as Victoria Brewery when O’Keefe acquired it in 1861. The brewery’s name was changed in 1891, and the adjacent laneway was also renamed from Victoria to O’Keefe Lane.
Although the lane pretty much retained its historic purpose as a route for deliveries and pick-ups, downtown Toronto has evolved; it is now a tourist destination, a shopping zone, and a supposedly pedestrian-friendly location. But with streets catering more to automobiles than foot traffic (pedestrian scrambles aside), Wong-Tam, Bedford, Westermark, and other urbanists are encouraged by the potential O’Keefe Lane presents.
Wong-Tam is especially excited about this project. Downtown, she says, is an area that needs to accommodate the amount of foot-traffic it gets, so that it attracts more. “I think that there is a time and that time is now that we start to rethink and re-imagine how we can use the city streets to foster some of our common city objectives.”