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Toronto Works To Create A Livable Downtown

People are flocking to downtown Toronto not just to work, but to live, putting a strain on the city to keep up.

Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner for the City of Toronto
Jennifer Keesmaat, City of Toronto chief planner

“Well, we’re not keeping up. We’re behind in the building of transit infrastructure, public space and affordable housing,” City of Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat said. “But as far as making downtown a 24-7 community, I think we’ve had some success. For many cities, the downtown can be a ghost town after five.”

Keesmaat said current figures put the downtown population at 275,000. That is expected to swell to half a million in the next quarter century.

“We need to identify infrastructure needs to create a livable downtown,” she said.

For Keesmaat, a livable, 24-7 downtown includes such successes as accessible sports venues where, on a given night, 75% of fans use public transit.

Site of CIBC Square
Site of CIBC Square

She said the new office tower development CIBC Square, which recently broke ground on Bay Street, is a good model for the downtown of the future.

“It’s a brilliant example of what it is we need to do," she said. "It provides a critical extension of traffic, brings the office to the east side of Yonge, and provides public space.”

A one-acre elevated park between the CIBC towers is being viewed as a small victory for a green-starved downtown. It is also a precursor to the $1B, 21-acre elevated Rail Deck Park, a proposal that will link the downtown from Bathurst Street to Blue Jays Way.

“[CIBC Square's park] will no doubt provide great lessons in moving forward on Rail Park,” Keesmaat said.

Mark Garner, Downtown Yonge BIA executive director
Mark Garner, Downtown Yonge BIA executive director

For Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area Executive Director Mark Garner, parks are all well and good, but he is more concerned with his community’s overburdened foot traffic.

He said more than 42 million people travel north and south on Yonge Street in a year, with more than 238,000 crossing at Yonge and Dundas in a day.

“It’s not just about parks. Not just about green space. Yonge Street can’t handle pedestrian traffic as it is,” he said.

The BIA’s recently released Living Yonge report discusses the difficult path to preserving a neighbourhood undergoing massive growth.

“It is a strategy, a way of starting a conversation,” he said. “How do you make this neighbourhood viable? That’s the biggest challenge for Yonge Street and Toronto right now.”

The intersection at Dundas and Yonge Street
The intersection at Dundas and Yonge Street

Garner does not oppose new condos — more than 7,000 units are expected on Yonge in the next few years. But he does fear what they can bring with them, such as skyrocketing taxes to adjacent retail operations.

“We try to draw attention to that because that forces people out, and can threaten what it is that you want in a neighbourhood.”

The rapid growth of the downtown population is already showing signs of strain. According to Social Planning Toronto, the number of preschool-aged kids in the city had doubled in the last 10 years. Many are the offspring of young, single condo owners who stayed on to have families.

The result has been a shortage of parks, local schools and daycares. Keesmaat points to the massive CityPlace development as a way to deal with growing downtown families. Included among its 29 buildings are plans for two child care facilities, two large parks, a library and a community centre.

“It will eventually have a public school and a Catholic school for its residents,” she said.

But dealing with the changing face of downtown can also be more subtle. Last month, Keesmaat tabled Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities, a report that calls for developers to build units with amenities like stroller storage, movable walls and shadow-free playgrounds. The city council is to consider the report this week.

“A livable downtown means people have the amenities they need and are within a reasonable walk or transit ride from home,” she said.