TORONTO — Mark Garner and Cory Bluhm are getting a guided tour down Yonge Street to see how the business improvement association there created more space for people along the iconic strip.
Garner, the head of the Kitchener Downtown Business Improvement Association, and Bluhm, an urban planner working in downtown economic development in Kitchener, are interested in the month-long event called Celebrate Yonge because organizers of the Toronto event looked at the redevelopment of King Street in Kitchener for ideas.
Evan Weinberg, the planning and development manager for the Downtown Yonge business association, says the four-lane roadway was reduced to two lanes and a series of patios, rest areas and pedestrian-only zones were put in place for two long blocks, between Gerard Street and Queen Street.
Celebrate Yonge is all about getting people to enjoy the street in a new way. It was timed to run with the Canadian National Exhibition, the Toronto International Film Festival and the return of post-secondary students.
Garner and Bluhm marvel at how one of the busiest commercial streets in the country has been transformed into a pedestrian-friendly environment that encourages people to sit down, eat, read, drink, watch people and relax.
“I think it’s a great use of space,” Garner says. “It’s a great use of the asset, right? It creates additional foot traffic for sure, and is making this more of a destination.”
When the City of Kitchener spent $10 million redeveloping King Street, it went with a pedestrian-first model. Sidewalks can be quickly widened to accommodate retailers or events by removing special posts called bollards. The curbs are so low you barely notice them, so when the street is closed to traffic for festivals it looks and feels more like a pedestrian-only zone.
“We thought our flexible parking was innovative, but this takes it to a whole new level,” Bluhm says of the temporary changes along Yonge Street.
Last year Weinberg came to Kitchener to look at the revamped King Street. He liked the way the street can be quickly configured for more parking, less parking or closed entirely to traffic for special events.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned from it,” Weinberg says.
One of the main lessons is that the space for pedestrians can be increased with little or no disruption to vehicles.
“The big thing is we wanted to create space for people to come down and enjoy Yonge Street. There is so much happening here,” Weinberg says. “It has been very successful so far for the businesses.”
When businesses were consulted, the top priority was getting more space for pedestrians along the street.
Metal barricades went up to create a series of licensed patios for eating and drinking. Wooden planter boxes set out non-licensed areas for young people and families. These start at the curb and extend out into the roadway.
“Anywhere there is not a patio or programmed space it is just general seating, so someone can come in here, grab a coffee, grab an ice cream and sit out on the street, read a paper and just enjoy all that energy that’s going on,” Weinberg says.
Reducing the four-lane Yonge Street to two lanes did not disrupt traffic that much because it was already functioning much like a two-lane roadway anyway. Delivery trucks parked illegally beside curbs, forcing cars to keep to the centre two lanes.
The temporary alignment actually made each lane slightly wider than before, making more room for both vehicles and bicycles.
“It’s not about one over the other, it is about urban mobility and the way people get around,” Weinberg says.
The business association provides some programming — chess, face-painting, caricature artists. There a bike-art gallery along one stretch where bicycles decorated by artists are chained to light standards. The art reflects what’s going on in nearby businesses or organizations.
If there was any doubt about the demand for more pedestrian space on Yonge Street, it quickly disappeared the first day Weinberg watched as the first Muskoka chairs were set out.
“We turned around for a minute and when we looked back people were already sitting the chairs,” Weinberg says.
“This is a unique event, in that it is not always about coming and being entertained, but coming and experiencing the streets in the heart of the city,” Weinberg says.