Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc’s political career will be forever linked with the St. Clair right-of-way. The street re-design around a central transit lane ensuring rapid passage for streetcars raised a furor when it was proposed and the question of its legacy, almost five years after its completion, still dominates city chatter.
St. Clair Avenue West has become synonymous with street design that puts pedestrian and transit user needs over drivers’ desire for an open road. Mihevc argues that the right-of-way is an example of how good transit planning can revitalize a neighbourhood. In a city-wide context it demonstrates the principle that transit has to be linked to an area’s capacity, in its existing density, to support either bus, streetcar or subway lines. Nevertheless, this year the misguided yearning for uncluttered roadways and subway lines extending to the farthest reaches of the city will be exploited by some mayoral candidates including the mayor himself.
Will the election be won by the candidate who can bring together a population divided between the haves and have-nots of effective public transit? Or will it be won by the candidate who can use best use transit as a wedge issue? One thing is sure, the epigram “St. Clair disaster” will be frequently heard. The transit/street design has become a lightning rod because it neatly marks the contrasting visions of the road in city life.
A century ago, the construction of the St. Clair streetcar line, featuring tracks on a raised central “boulevard”, radically transformed the district, connecting and intensifying such small settlements as Forest Hill, Wychwood, Oakwood, Earlscourt and Silverthorn. However, by 1928 the median had been demolished at the request of residents, leaving the streetcar “motorman” to fight it out among the other vehicles that wanted to move across and forward on the highway-wide city road. Join me this Saturday at market square to learn about the earliest chapters of St. Clair in its identity as both a cross-city transportation artery and local pedestrian avenue.
Interview with Councillor Joe Mihevic, March 20, meeting alcove Council Chambers.
What is the legacy of the St. Clair right of way?
History is cyclical, the thinking, re-thinking and debates that we think we are doing afresh is really the repetition of age-old battles. The St. Clair right-of-way was actually there in the 1910’s and 1920’s and into the 1930’s. It was really the community that opposed the right of way being taken out in the 1930s but it was a make work project at that time.
Could you describe it as it existed in that earlier version of the St. Clair transportation corridor?
It was at the edge of the city in the period of the First World War. You look at St. Clair and you wonder why are there all these sites, for example, the parking lot at my corner of Humewood, and right across the street from St. Matthews, there’s a gas station, the Midas, the Speedy, all those were gas stations. These are traces of the time when people would go to the area to buy gas and go picnicking in the woods—Pinewood, Maplewood, the street names reflect that it was a treed, forested area. And, because it was seen as the outer city limits, St. Clair was widened into a six-lane corridor with a streetcar line.
It was planned as a grand avenue.There was a theatre at St. Clair and Bathurst, there was a theatre at Vaughan, there was a theatre at Christie, there was a theatre at Oakwood and one at Dufferin. They were located all the way along the avenue. I frankly remember some of them when I was a kid. This was like 50 years ago. It was known as a theatre district and then, when they made the megaplexes, it all went.
Another example of St. Clair’s history as a grand street was the 1982 World Cup victory. Where was it celebrated? On St. Clair… though, it would be fair to say that by then, post seventies in fact, it had fallen into decline. Pedestrian traffic had dwindled, theatres had long closed. It suffered from being on the outer edge of two municipalities: York to the north and Toronto to the south. The street was also split along its course, sections of it were in different wards. One councillor had east of Christie and another had west of Christie There was no singular political leadership, it wasn’t at the heart of anyone’s ward; it was at the edge of everybody’s ward and there was no vision that knitted it together.
It was frankly a dying street up until the year 2000. Signs of that, you may remember the way it was, the dollar stores. We had 10 to 15 dollar stores just in my section of St. Clair. They were on month to month leases, in today gone tomorrow. These weren’t places where you lingered, where you wanted to hang out.
We knew that we needed to do something and we had one shot. The tracks were worn, they needed to be replaced and this was our chance to get it right. And, as with every big idea, the idea of old came back. It was also “best practices” what other people were doing successfully around the world: light rail in a dedicated lane, a dedicated right of way.
Those of us who travel on the St. Clair streetcar, I travel it virtually every day, will remember that it would always get stuck at Vaughan Road then again at Bathurst. It was easier to walk to the subway from anywhere from Winona east to Bathurst. And, of course, there was nothing really attractive to walk beside or near, it was a dying street.
Why were some people opposed to this renovation that was happening? Well people fear the change. Of course we’re always fearful that change will go in the wrong direction, but something in me said, ‘This is the right thing. This will bring new life to St. Clair.’ I knew it from the conversations and consultations, from what the “wise owls” were saying.
I was just at the opening of ‘the Heathview’, the newly opened luxury rental units at 310-320 Tweedsmuir around the park from Holy Rosary Church. I opened their brochure and a photo of the St. Clair street car is right there. You look at how “Rise” marketed their units—streetcar right there. The developers recognized an opportunity—lower prices, depressed area—get in there. Transportation is driving the renovation of St. Clair.
I want to do a study of St. Clair; enough time has passed to be able to do a before and after. There is some baseline data from before and what we’re waiting for is the alternate route, over the tracks just east of Keele, to re-open. Metrolinx is doing a railway express from Union Station to the airport and needed free access to the tracks. So that route that eases the congestion between Old Weston Road and Keele will be closed until the end of the year. Once it’s finished we will have the new normal. We will look at ridership, we will look at accidents. I had stories of people who would get whacked by someone going 60-70-80 kilometres an hour on St. Clair; that doesn’t happen anymore. Everything has calmed down.
And what’s interesting is not what people say but where they put their feet. Walking is up on the street. We’ve had more patio licenses in the past several years than ever before in the previous 10-15 years and you can see it on the street. People are saying, “Hey this is a street that’s pedestrian-friendly.” People are now going for a passeggiata, a walk, on St. Clair. It’s a cool street to walk on. I think the change is frankly happening faster than we anticipated. We thought it would be a 10-15-20 year process; it looks like it’s going to happen in 10.
The developers are coming. Every second month one asks me, “What’s for sale? What are the possibilities, here and there?” So we have developments on St. Clair and Bathurst, St. Clair and Raglan, St. Clair and Wychwood, St. Clair and Rushton and St. Clair and Winona. Money is coming into the area, investors are coming into the area, people are walking it, transit is happening and when we get the new streetcars within a few years, it’s done. We will have turned St. Clair around.
The new streetcars will be the last chapter in that process. You know how that’s going to work? You will have a presto card and your fare will be on it. Step on the island and tap something and it will take the money off the presto card. When the four doors of the new streetcars open you can get on by entering any of the doors.
How very European.
One of my neighbours on Humewood, he hated what we were doing at Wychwood Barns, he hated St. Clair: “You’re f-ing ruining this community.” But about three years ago I’m digging something in the front lawn and he comes by and he says, “Joe, I want to apologize. I love St. Clair and I love the Barns. I feel I’m in Europe.” And that’s a good thing? “Yeah it’s great, I love it.”
OK so that’s the good news story but in terms of St. Clair and now the LRT you’ve sort of become the whipping boy right?
(Mihevc motions to television monitor showing Rob Ford) Not this guy but his brother sits in front of me right? He stands up to make a speech, and I’ll say “Say St. Clair disaster.” And he’ll say “St. Clair disaster,” he will weave it into his speech somehow and then someone will feign giving me ten bucks. It’s a kind of little shtick we have. For these guys it’s the symbol of everything gone wrong, it’s “the war on the cars”. And in some cases the message has resonated. My good friend Glen Baeremaeker in Scarborough says, “We don’t want Scarborough to look like St. Clair.” Glen has been to St. Clair because he’s been to my house. “But we heard it’s terrible!” Actually, it’s changed the face of the street.
How important will public transit be as an issue in this year’s mayoralty race?
Will it be an issue in the upcoming election? Of course it will. Ford wants to try subways. He thinks subways are really it. And, we can do this much subway (gestures with palms close together) or we can do this much light rail (palms far apart). You don’t put subways in areas of low density. We need to be complex in our understanding. You have low density, you have buses, medium density you have light rail, high density you have subway. Every transportation planner knows that. Subways are not the sign that you’re pro-public transit. We don’t want a subway on St. Clair, that’s not the way to go because if you put it there you have to rezone everything to 20-30 stories along the entire corridor. I don’t want to live in that kind of environment. Medium density along St. Clair, that works; we’ve been through that conversation. That’s why you allow 25 stories at St. Clair and Bathurst because you’re right by the subway. You link land use planning with transportation planning. As you go away from Bathurst you go down to medium density which is anywhere from 7 to 10-11 stories. So that’s the vision of St. Clair. These folks, forget it, that sophisticated thinking is outside their pay scale.
John Tory wants to do subways. He wants to do the downtown relief line and the Scarborough subway. The downtown relief line will never get built. It’s ten billion dollars if you build it from Eglinton down to King or up. It’s not necessary. That’s one vision. Another vision is that you buy buses and light rail. It’s cheaper, you can buy a lot more of it and you can cover the suburbs, you can then bring the suburbs into amalgamation. That’s what you get. So, I’m one for getting the Sheppard built, light rail and extending it all the way to the zoo. And, extending from the new Finch subway station where the subway is built to York University and taking it into the airport. And then taking the loop and bringing it around to Eglinton. Those are the projects that I think will be real city building projects that will provide mobility for people in the suburbs. They want in. Some candidates, the mayor and Tory, think that subways are going to be the way that you’ll show them the love. But Soknacki, who by the way is a conservative, has the right answer and that’s light rail. Who gets it? Soknacki gets it and Chow gets it.
Who are you supporting?
Chow, and my second choice is Soknacki.
How do you see the Wychwood barns as significant to the story of public transit as part of Toronto history?
Wychwood Barns has become the heart and soul of our community. That’s the best legacy, best project in the world. I know Cookie Roscoe has given dozens and dozens of tours not just to other Torontonians but to people across Canada, United States, all over… The lesson of the Barns is, you can breathe new life into old bones, you can preserve history, you can preserve memory. The way it’s been done preserves the grandeur of public transit of a previous era. The building’s high ceilings, the pictures and the way the cement is done to mark where the underground pit and tracks were. It’s wonderful the way it’s integrated into the story of St. Clair. That was another big fight. Roscoe was part of that; others such as Peter MacKendrick were part of that. Their efforts are part of the story too now.
And we were the first. Our instinct is to knock it down and build afresh. In Europe, in my travels I had seen old factories, industrial heritage preserved. They had a phrase for it, ‘adaptive re-use’of residential but also industrial buildings. The idea with the Wychwood Barns was to help us recall a previous era when transit was the primary way that people got around the city. The people at Evergreen Works had an easy ride with their project. Now some of it is because it’s geographically isolated from a residential area. But we broke the ground at Wychwood. We proved that adaptive re-use is possible and it works. We set the template for the next generation. The lesson is: every time you’re ready to knock down a building take a look at it and see whether you can breathe new life into old bones. You might be surprised by the answer.