News In Focus: Yorkville’s historic vanishing act concerns residents
Another condo tower is heading to the northeast corner of Avenue Road and Yorkville Avenue
That Yorkville has officially arrived is not in question. But whether or not that is a good thing is still up for debate.
The downtown neighbourhood runs along Bloor Street from Church Street to Avenue Road and from Charles Street to Scollard Street. It is undergoing a dramatic facelift with a multitude of massive and ultra-posh condo developments in the works, a newly established Four Seasons Hotel that is expected to receive five-star status and a growing supply of couture on Bloor Street’s Mink Mile. There is no denying that Yorkville now equals luxury.
The area has come a long way from its shabby, hippie roots in the coffee houses and folk music clubs of the ’60s where musical giants such as Neil Young (for whom a private room at One restaurant is now named), Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot all crawled along the bohemian blocks of yesteryear while imagining their art in the local cafés.
Some buildings in the neighbourhood date back to the mid-1800s and have been well preserved. Yorkville Fire Hall (which Lady Gaga recently strolled into with her dog for an impromptu photo op) was originally built in 1876. Across the street sits Yorkville Public Library, built in 1907.
Yorkville Town Hall, gone but now a public square, was built in the mid-1800s, and the entire residential area from Scollard Street north to Davenport has heritage designation.
Today’s Yorkville has also kept some its celebrity. The opening of the Hazelton Hotel in 2007 was the first five-star calibre hotel in Toronto (rooms start at $500 per night) and has been a passing home to the likes of Elton John and Madonna.
Instead of folk music and coffee houses, the area is now known for its $30 burgers and its haute couture boutiques such as Gucci. It is on Cumberland Avenue or Yorkville Road that one can find a limited edition Ferrari parked in front of a limited edition Aston Martin … on an ordinary Sunday afternoon.
“You’re looking at some of the most expensive real estate in the city; retail rents are the highest in the country,” said Briar de Lange, executive director of the Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area (BIA).
But all this appeal has made Yorkville prime downtown real estate, and developers continue to swoop in and mark their territory amongst the real estate royalty of Toronto. This has some area residents worried they are losing what has made Yorkville so great to begin with.
“The village of Yorkville is fast losing its Victorian charm and appeal to high-rise developments. The majority of developers show little interest in the preservation of our fast disappearing heritage assets,” Gee Chung, president of Greater Yorkville Residents’ Association said.
Chung pointed to York Square where the current development proposal would see the destruction of the seven semi-attached and row houses dating back to the 1900s.
Chung said that the city is doing nothing to help preserve the heritage of Yorkville and pointed to the Bloor-Yorkville community, which includes the BIA, as doing most of the work.
“The biggest threats are high-rise developments, especially those approved, but yet to be built, in culturally sensitive streets mid-block, especially Yorkville Avenue, across from the 100-year-old Yorkville lending library, the fire hall and the site of the Yorkville Town Hall. The scale and density of new developments [there] are completely insensitive to these heritage assets,” Chung said.
Several other projects will include massive towers slated at Cumberland Terrace shopping mall; the former home of the Cookbook Store on Yonge Street and Holt Renfrew on Bloor Street (though that is not expected for another 10 years). Also coming online is 94 Cumberland at Belair and York Square at the corner of Avenue Road. And a tower is already underway at Avenue and Cumberland.
“Further down the line the Stollerys building will become a condo at some point,” de Lange said. She also believes another potential site is at St. Thomas and Charles Street West.
Heritage experts in Toronto are aware of the problems that could happen in the area if there is inconsiderate or poorly managed overdevelopment. “If Yorkville loses its heritage and character, then Yorkville is no longer Yorkville, it’s anywhere. And that’s the worst of what can happen to any neighbourhood in this city that has its own character,” said Gary Miedema, chief historian and associate director of Heritage Toronto.
However, Miedema believes there is a way to make it all work.
“What I would want to emphasize is, as the city grows, it is entirely possible and very important to build new with the old and not to erase the city that we have in order to build the future. And that’s going to make the city a much, much better place to live, and it can be done,” he said.
But the residential influx has already caused other problems, including a lack of parking and traffic congestion. Driving down Yorkville Avenue or Bloor Street at any time of day is difficult. And one of the last remaining parking lots — a Green P located between Yorkville and Cumberland — will also be taken down and redeveloped for condos.
“We have very specific needs in the neighbourhood, and businesses have told me that it is very important to keep parking in the neighbourhood,” said councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam.
“But I’m not a fan of above-ground parking. There is a human process of how the human form can interact with the storefront, and often the neighbourhood can be affected by above-ground parking.”
The BIA — whose annual budget is roughly $2.8 million — also say they are working to keep the essence of Yorkville alive and have a priority to preserve the heritage and walkability of the community.
BIA projects have included several reconstructions and refurbishings of area parks and boulevards. The Bloor Street Project, now complete, saw the investment of $20 million dollars into beautifying Bloor Street with the planting of 134 London Plane trees, widening of granite sidewalks and curbs, adding flowerbeds and 80 bike rings and the installation of 27 granite benches.
“We have a neighbourhood undergoing tremendous investments in the public realm, as well as the expansion of public park plan. There is a strategic plan on my part to make Yorkville the premier dining and park destination,” Wong-Tam said.