|Image copyright Craig White, 2012; from urbantoronto.ca|
My quick review of it is that it was overall a positive experience, but there was definitely a gimmicky feel to the entire thing. Early reviews have been suggesting that the experience has been mostly positive for retailers in the affected section, but much like I talked about before, encouraging pedestrian use is more than setting up some planters and chairs. I've got three bad things to say about the set-up, and three nice things. I'll start with the bad.
The first thing that kind of irked me about the entire set-up was that the expanded pedestrain realm was entirely on the east side of the street. Granted, the Eaton Centre takes up an unhealthy portion of the west side of the street, but I also believe that there should be plans to expand the road closure beyond Dundas St. on the north end.
Secondly, I thought there were some real missed opportunities to make the area more engaging. When the expanded area wasn't carved out for a local pub, the dominant feature was a mishmash of cheap furniture, placed in the cordoned-off section of the road seemingly to fill the space, rather than for any nobler purpose. I suppose I shouldn't take umbrage about the quality of the furniture (at least they didn't bolt it the street), but I felt that the chairs were too few in number to offer seating for a small group of people. Having lived on the Danforth for a few years, I'm reminded of the pub patios that attract friends and strangers to sit outside and discuss everything from the weather to politics; such a thing can't happen if the conditions to spur such vitality are absent.
Finally, I felt that the street patios looked awkward. As the sidewalk remained unmodified, these patios became a weird buffer between the sidewalk and vehicles. I saw a few signs giving awkward directions to go inside the establishment in order to be seated on the nearby patio, and moving hot plates of food and alcohol across a sidewalk (and with a curb for customers and waitresses to trip over) seems like a recipe for disaster. I suppose I should sit in one before making judgement, but being right next to a busy road doesn't sound like it would make a great dining experience. Of course, as the National Post article I linked above states that such patios are actually doing great business, but as I said earlier, I wonder if it's because of how gimmicky the whole event is.
That said, there were a few things I liked about the whole event.
The first was the attention given to the spaces to allow people who weren't customers a chance to enjoy the expanded public realm. There are a handful of art installations (that are apparently rotating in and out) to enjoy, and while I complain about the limited amount of muskoka chairs, the fact that they aren't tied to a particular business makes them feel welcoming even to those just passing through. The cutest thing I saw was a small stand that had a pitcher of water and some glasses, so that people could have a small drink as they were passing through. It was a really neat (and simple!) idea.
Secondly, traffic seemed to be moving just fine. The only awkward moment was when a police cruiser was forced to drive up the lane divider in order to go catch a criminal (or whatever they had sounded the sirens for). The decision to keep two wider lanes also seemed to allow bicycle traffic to move as well as it ever does on Yonge (although a bike lane would still be preferable, that obviously wasn't going to happen as a temporary measure). If anyone was worried that this section of Yonge would turn into a traffic nightmare, they should remember that rational human beings will take other routes (or other forms of transportation) to their destinations when the situation calls for it.
Finally, it gave that whole section of Yonge a sense of cohesion and identity that is often lacking given the mish-mash of different businesses and building types along the road. Not that I'm "branding"'s biggest fan, but sometimes getting people excited about a project is done by giving them something they haven't seen before. I keep referring to the whole thing as somewhat gimmicky, but that's not necessarily a bad thing in the short term (it's really a long-term problem). Nuit Blanche is itself pretty gimmicky, but as a one-night only thing it doesn't have to think long-term. The question now that the experts will attempt to answer is whether closing this experiment has been successful.
|Image from Reclaiming Streets for People:|
Sidewalk Cafés in Downtown Halifax, Argyle Street
Of course, such "boardwalks" would have numerous challenges on Yonge. For starters, it's nearly all uphill, compared to streets where you would find these in Halifax. I see this as more of a technical issue however, rather than a deal breaker.
Secondly, what's "lost" on Halifax streets are parking lanes, but there are no parking lanes on Yonge. Again, this is technical; as the current experiment seems to be showing (and I await the future report on whether "Celebrate Yonge" was successful with regards to traffic), the loss of the lane is merely an inconvenience.
The other issue would of course be that even if you have some of the local cafes and restaurants setting up patios, you're going to have gulf of spaces that are still asphalt on the surface. However, a slow expansion of the boardwalk each year could hopefully fill these gaps. More car-friendly people might jump at the idea of putting some parking in. I think such spaces would be perfect for added bicycle parking, as well as buskers, art exhibits, and charity.
Despite these technical issues, I think temporary boardwalks might be just the thing to test whether Yonge is ready for a further expansion of their public realm, hopefully on both sides of the street next time. Hey Toronto! Let's aim to expand up to College St. next year!