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2006 08 25
Is It Hip To Be Dundas Square?
Forget about the signs for now. That might be hard given Toronto’s Dundas Square is on its way to being the most signed public space north of New York’s Time Square -- but try.

Instead, think back ten years to the tired commercial buildings that stood on the southeast corner of Dundas and Yonge. In those days, the place opposite the main entrance to the Eaton Centre could have been one of any number of nondescript intersections in the city. There was nothing special about it. That was the problem.

Successful, the Eaton Centre acted like a giant vacuum. The city’s biggest shopping centre sucked the street and the people on it inside its doors. Outside, Toronto’s nearby blocks emptied. The only businesses able to thrive on the resulting vacancy were public space destroying bargain shops and shady entertainment vendors.

Things changed in the nineties.

First, the Eaton Centre let down its eastern walls. Instead of controlled entry points separated by hundreds of metres of blank walls, the Centre let shops open their doors all along Yonge at street level. This single design change breathed life into the barren strip of Yonge Street from Queen up to Dundas. It gave pedestrians a reason to walk along the outside street. Out of town visitors lining up for the increasingly popular Toronto Film Festival could feel the difference. The city’s main street – like its sister the thriving Queen Street West -- suddenly had a buzz.

Planners decided to make the corner of Yonge and Dundas the city’s symbolic core. To do that required an act of faith and a belief that “if they built it people would come.” The city expropriated buildings on the Dundas Square site and knocked them down.

In their place, officials wanted an urban square to act as a catalyst for development. It sounds wrong – knocking down buildings in the centre of the city helps development? It is true, but takes a while.

James Brown of Brown + Storey Architects, the square’s designers, says, “The square is a subtraction that allows you to add.” Skeptical at first, doubters are now beginning to see what he means.

Ryerson University is adding new buildings near the northeastern edge of the square. The “Olympic Torch” tower landmarks its eastern end. To the south, the Hard Rock Café’s terrace provides an edge. The Eaton Centre added giant signs to mark its new entrance while addressing the square. At the northwest corner, a sign-holding structure climbs ten storeys above the roof of a newly renovated GAP store.

There is more. The massive Metropolis entertainment and shopping development now rises on the square’s northern edge. Designed by Franklin and Baldwin Architects for Penequity Management, the 360,000 square foot, 10 storey building will dominate the square’s outdoor space (a review of the building’s design can wait).

This brings us back to the signs. Dundas Square is popular. According to Penequity, 56 million people visited the corner of Yonge and Dundas in 2005. That is why the Metropolis building will blast 20,000 square feet worth of digital signs at little Dundas Square. Those pedestrian eyeballs mean money to advertisers. Combined, signage around the square will top 40,000 square feet.

Some critics complain about the abundance of signs. They say that public spaces paid for by our tax dollars are no place for advertisements. It is a good argument. I am not sure it holds true here though. The square is helping to attract millions of people to Toronto’s core. The traffic keeps streets active and improves the public realm, not only at this intersection but up and down Yonge Street.

They designed Dundas Square to take the traffic the spectacle of all those signs generates. When first built, many said that the square was too, well, hard. Where were all the green trees that parks should have? Now we know. Public squares have to be rough and ready. The wear of 100,000 feet a day in a small space like this one makes even concrete a temporary material. The square uses granite as its surface of choice.

Go for a visit. Early morning is nice. Watch people enjoy this small but critical opening in the city’s fabric. Even as the signs loom their messages above you, thank the designers for improving Toronto’s streetscape. They make a difference.

A version of this story is also published in today's National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 08/25 at 12:23 PM

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