A neverending influx of condos. A subway platform that can look like Tokyo at rush hour. LRT construction chaos for the next eight years. Here’s why the formerly staid Yonge-Eglinton area could soon become the city’s most turbulent neighbourhood.
Yonge and Eglinton is bursting. If you need help forming a mental picture, think of it like this—enormous robotic creatures ascend screaming from the earth’s core, bringing with them a concrete and steel mini-city from the depths. In the coming decade we’ll see up to 30 new towers, about 23,000 new people, and few new amenities other than an under-construction LRT system that will add insanity to the traffic chaos, at least in the short term. In raucous, brain-shredding 3-D, an entire neighbourhood is transformed, seemingly overnight.
As far flung and foreign to some downtowners as Myanmar or Bahrain, Yonge and Eglinton is a ’hood that puts the Eglinton subway station in a three-square-kilometre bear hug—a transition zone that bridges downtown with uptown. In other words: Midtown. The recent census indicates that 39,171 people live here, a demographic pole vault representing a 14.5 per cent increase over the past five years, compared to a city-wide population rise of just 4.5 per cent during the same time. At rush hour, the subway platform resembles a chemical weapons strike evacuation, while the side streets, with their leafy single-family dwellings, are parking lots for late-model SUVs.
This is postmodern Toronto in miniature—a building boom so nonsensical that it seems there are more cranes than cars, more workmen than residents. Keeping count of the condo developments is a forensic endeavour. There’s the emblematic Neon, a 20-storey project rising at Duplex Avenue and Orchard View Boulevard, all set to engulf the nearby homes and the Northern District Public Library in apocalyptic shadow. Within spitting distance, there’s the soon-to-be 17-storey Berwick. And a couple of blocks east of Yonge, just off Eglinton, The Madison is coming—two towers with 703 units and a “Zen garden retreat with water feature.”
The jewel in the crown, and the project that, according to developer Bazis International’s market-speak, spurred interested calls “from all over the world,” is the E Condos proposal. This will flatten the northeast corner of the Yonge and Eglinton intersection and replace it with 64- and 38-storey towers, a pair of drag queen’s stilettos gussied up with essential mod-cons like a boxing ring and a cantilevered pool deck. Across the road, on the northwest corner, the grim Yonge-Eglinton Centre square will become a glass-encased shopping mall.
Part of the building mania can be explained by the coming Light Rapid Transit line, a.k.a. the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown. The LRT will join Black Creek in the west with Kennedy Road in the east, and will run partially underground—a costly logistical nightmare. When it’s completed in 2020, Yonge and Eglinton will have become a dense constellation of mixed-use urban space, zipping people hither and yon via its subway hub.
City Hall and developers insist that this is both manageable and desirable, and that the future will reveal a glittering ersatz downtown as vibrant and buzzy as, say, downtown. But where, locals wonder, are the plans for all this growth? Where are the amenities that will integrate the newcomers—the parks and schools and bike rings and shrinks’ offices needed to absorb so much development? Yonge and Eglinton, which was the site of Toronto’s only recorded armed rebellion in 1837, is at its breaking point—its furious residents on the verge of taking up arms once more.
Arising from the crazed Eglinton subway stop at 8:30 a.m. (typically, three trains must pass before there is space to board), one notices the following: Yonge and Eglinton is a wind tunnel masquerading as a neighbourhood. Arctic inclemency slams into lake effect, and pockets of meteorological turmoil roar through the Brutalist Yonge-Eglinton Centre to the northwest (soon to be that mall); the grungy storefronts on the northeast (soon to be E Condos); and the gloomy, ’60s-built Canadian Tire headquarters to the southwest (where TVO resides as a small rebuttal to all this newfangled vulgarity).
Just north of Yonge-Eglinton Centre and its two ’70s-era towers, there is the SilverCity entertainment complex, which would not look out of place had it been built in an Eastern dystopia 20 years ago. Nearby there are big box stores, Italian patisseries, D-grade sushi, clubs, pubs, entertainment complexes, apartment blocks—all maniacally assembled, like a Lego set in an asylum.
In the distance, all around, condominiums rise. No single development speaks more to neo–Yonge and Eglinton than the two towers that cast the emerging subway traveller in chilly shadow—Minto Midtown, the double-barrelled monstrosity that unofficially kicked off the neighbourhood’s transformation, and still troubles those who live within eyeshot of its architectural dissonance.
The problems started in 2000, when the developer Minto YE applied for a zoning by-law amendment in order to put up two buildings that would easily top 50 storeys—dwarfing everything in the immediate region. Following a community consultation in 2001, in which 600 enraged residents filled a nearby school auditorium, Minto became a lightning rod for local opprobrium. It ticked all the evil-tower boxes—it would cast shadows over homes, increase traffic on side streets, and behave like a virulent weed, bringing more and more high-rises to the ’hood.
That these complaints turned out to be entirely prescient didn’t stop city council from approving the amendments despite strenuous community objections. The local councillor, Anne Johnston, tried mightily to broker a compromise between residents’ associations and the developer, but made the mistake of reversing her “no” vote. That cost her the following election in 2003; she was unceremoniously booted from City Hall after 31 years of service, and replaced by Karen Stintz.
Up went the Minto Midtown, Quantum North rising 54 storeys, Quantum South 37 storeys—891 units in total. Completed in 2007, they are blue-grey giants that tightly abut Yonge Street, broken only by a sad, central parkette.
On a fall afternoon, I stand there with a man in his early 60s named Terry Mills, a Midtown local who spent his career as a home renovator and urban designer. Mills is tall and laconic; Henry Fonda would be perfectly cast in his biopic. As part of the Sherwood Park Residents’ Association, he’s played a decade-long role as a neighbourhood activist, which doesn’t mean that he’s as militantly anti-high-rise as his comrades. He runs a consultancy firm called Arris, and has developed a document called the Midtown Consolidation Strategy, in order to lobby some sense into City Hall, developers, and residents.
“I call the Consolidation Strategy a ‘planning thriller,’” says Mills, with nerdish delight. He closely observed the Great Minto War, and couldn’t help but notice how obsessed with height the locals were. “You see,” Mills tells me, “it’s not a case of saying, ‘It’s too big!’ That’s not a constructive argument, because this city needs intelligent density. It’s about saying to developers, ‘Hey, we want your first three children,’ which is the first, second, and third floors of the building, and using that to enhance the street.”
The way Mills sees it, if Yonge and Eglinton is to be a success, it will need to properly integrate the incoming condominium towers with what is happening at “grade,” planning parlance for “street level.” While we may live on the 30th floor, we experience the city on the sidewalk—and that’s where Mills hopes to influence intelligent planning.
“Every piece of dirt at Yonge and Eglinton is subject to an application,” says Mills. “Everywhere you look, there is going to be a development. We have to keep our eye on the ground level, and come up with good public solutions.” The alternative, as always, is an unlivable, unlovable dead zone.
In the olden days, Yonge and Eggers picked up muskets when there was a disagreement with the folks down by the lake. William Lyon Mackenzie organized an armed rebellion here in 1837, in part because locals demanded a post office. They received one—a century late, mind you—on the former site of Montgomery’s Tavern, where the rebellion began. It’s one of the few buildings in the Commonwealth to bear the insignia of King Edward VIII (thanks to his rapid abdication), and is currently under threat of being ripped down for a condo development.
Historically, Yonge and Eglinton has been a sort of cultural dividing line between Toronto and the Unknown. When the original Yonge subway line opened in 1954, Eglinton station was the final stop, and the nearby family homes were more an extension of Rosedale’s white Protestant establishment than suburban dwellings for swarthy newcomers.
Observed from a Minto penthouse, the area is neither a tight downtown grid nor a more generous suburban one. The blocks are enormous, because developers didn’t want to invest in roads back when the farms were urbanized. In the ’60s and ’70s, when apartment blocks went up in consort with the subway (high-rise buildings are not new here, regardless of what locals tell you), no one bothered to widen the sidewalks. As the ’80s dribbled into the ’90s, the area was dominated by young renters who crammed into the apartments—the cohort that gave the ’hood its Duran Duran–era “Yonge and Eligible” sobriquet. Those twentysomethings grew up, married their friends-with-benefits, and bought family homes in the area. And they do not like what they see happening around them.
Several days after meeting Mills, I visit local councillor Josh Matlow at City Hall. He is a pleasant, harried chap, preternaturally aware of Anne Johnston’s fate, and thus not terribly cozy with the ’hood’s circling developers.
“I understand people’s frustration,” Matlow says. But he very much wants me to get that there is a plan, and it comes not only from City Hall, but from an even higher power: Queen’s Park. “There’s a vision that articulates Yonge and Eglinton, not only as an official City of Toronto growth node,” he says, “but as a provincially designated growth node, as well.” If we don’t want Toronto sprawling into Thunder Bay—and the province insists it doesn’t—then we need more towers. And Yonge and Eglinton is one place the province wants them built.
Matlow brings my attention to a Final Report, filed by the city’s chief planner on Jan. 5, 2009, which flat-out encourages developers to flood City Hall with proposals. According to the document, within 15 years Yonge and Eglinton would ideally resemble a kindergarten drawing of Mt. Everest—majestic Yonge Street high-rise peaks, sloping gently into smaller buildings along the side streets, so as not to damage the character of the adjoining ’hood.
“Our challenge,” says Matlow, “is going to be how we ensure that the supporting infrastructure is in place to keep pace with the density. And can we be inspired by great architecture, great design in this area?”
Yonge and Eglinton has always had the aesthetic subtlety of a punch in the eye. Right now, “functional” would be an ambitious step up. But Matlow, bless him, wants people to be happy here. “We would like to create a village atmosphere at grade,” he says. “We need the centre to be livable.” And with that, he is swept back into the maelstrom of a city council vote.
If Yonge and Eglinton is indeed a village, it’s a discordant one. On Soudan Avenue, one block southeast of the intersection, some residents are locked in a battle with a developer called Compten Management Inc., and claim that they’re being pressured to sell their homes for less than market value. The dispute is another example of the distrust that exists between locals and condo builders—the wounds of Minto are still open and seeping.
The Soudan Avenue residents were furious when they received offers on their homes they perceived to be below market value, and didn’t like the tone of the letters Compten sent out. (In Matlow’s opinion, “they were not written in a very civil way.”) But, as Compten President Jack Greenberg rightly pointed out to Global News, “I can’t force anybody to do anything, can’t threaten anybody with anything.” This isn’t Beijing—no one is showing up with a bulldozer and a bill of sale.
Developers will be developers, and residents will be residents: The tension created by their competing interests, properly managed by regulation, is what actually defines livable neighbourhoods.
“There’s a certain acknowledgement and expectation that growth is going to come to this area,” says Gregg Lintern, Toronto and East York District’s director of community planning. “Then the questions become: How do we manage it to get the best out of that growth? How do we get high-quality design? How do we get a high quality public realm? How do we get the services that people want?”
Indeed, how? At Yonge and Eglinton, height and density are foregone conclusions. What happens at grade—what developers, residents, and the city are able to negotiate at street level—could create the village environment Matlow is banking on for his political survival. Some of the new plans do make concessions to street-level sanguinity, by pushing the towers back from the sidewalk and sloping up gently from the street, and by including neighbourhood improvement projects in the plans. We can even expect a new street, cutting through the derelict TTC bus barns south of the station, which will one day soon become a townhouse development.
Small glimmers of hope. The ’hood needs them—just as it needs a measure of adult decorum in the relationship between the locals and the builders. Because the towers will stop for no one.
They never do.