It’s been said before – when it comes to location, location, location, Yonge and St. Clair passes the litmus test with flying colours. Also known as Deer Park, this mid-town hub in Toronto has evolved into a bustling urban core.
Despite its soaring real estate prices, Yonge and St. Clair has been overlooked for decades, according to its inhabitants. Its traffic jammed streets, narrow over-crowded sidewalks, dreary building facades and garbage-infested planters are frustrating for area residents and professionals who feel beleaguered by the unseemly obstructions that have seeped into their public right of way, slowly but surely.
“That there is prime real estate here for new businesses and retails to thrive in is unknown. There are tons of green spaces. The ravine just east of the intersection remains ignored or forgotten,” says Jessica Myers, community manager of Yonge + St. Clair.
But change is around the corner.
Slate Asset Management has stepped up to address the community’s demands to revitalize their neighbourhood. A real estate investment platform with more than $4.5 billion in assets under its portfolio, Slate has a vested interest in spearheading the revitalization of Yonge and St. Clair. It has acquired 10 properties in the area, including all four corners, since 2013.
“If you walk into any of the neighbourhoods in the area and observe the people that live and work here, the buildings don’t really reflect the wealth, sophistication and elegance of its residents. This revitalization project helps us reinvest and reinvigorate what this neighbourhood already has,” says Katie Fong, Slate’s director of asset management in charge of overseeing this ambitious operation.
The change began incrementally in 2016 when Slate introduced an eight-storey mural on the west-facing façade of a commercial building at 1 St. Clair Ave. W. The mural was painted by internationally renowned street artist Phlegm, who rappelled outside the building to create something to represent the neighbourhood’s true feel. This was Slate’s first foray into using public art and interacting with the Yonge and St. Clair community. Undertaken in partnership with the STEPS Initiative and the City of Toronto’s StreetARToronto program, the month-long project sought the participation of local residents.
“We canvassed a lot of people through the streetcar stops. We had both a physical survey that was handed out to passersby and an online survey sent to Slate’s listserv of businesses in the area,” says Anjuli Solanki, director of community programs with the STEPS Initiative. What stood out through their responses was that art was the best way to raise the cultural profile of the vicinity. “A number of people felt that the neighbourhood had seen better days and wanted some sort of revitalization to bring more current street-life to the area,” says Solanki.
This initial success has ushered in a series of public space improvements. A “ravine bench” was conceptualized by design firm Gensler, which is partnering with Slate to unearth Yonge and St. Clair’s hidden amenities. The outdoor bench draws attention to the narrow sidewalks and how they impede public engagement and activity. Research showed that TD Bank’s storefront in the east corner of the intersection was the only sidewalk “wide enough to do something meaningful to the streetscape, so it became an important area of focus,” says Gensler architect Steven Paynter.
The challenges came in the face of varying ground levels between the store interiors and the sidewalk. But Gensler used this problem as an opportunity to create a unique bench that doubles up as a ramp. “We hope to be able to attract people more toward the ravine. It’s called the ‘ravine bench’ because people don’t know about the ravine. We’re trying to build these connections in their minds,” says Paynter.
Work is now underway to remove confusing mazes inside the St. Clair Centre and the flags that inhibited the interior skylight. Completion of Phase 2 will reopen the skylight and reconnect it to the retail spaces inside.
Slate kicked off 2018 by sponsoring the Toronto Design Off Site (TO DO) Festival at the Yonge and St Clair intersection in celebration of the city’s design week. As part of the festival’s 100+ exhibits, the company unveiled three public art installations by architecture and design firms Gensler, IBI Group and Superkül.
Of these, “The Space Between” is an art installation in the foyer of an office building at 55 St. Clair W. Conceptualized by the IBI Group, it is an interplay of 6,000 metres of coloured yarn and light in layers of horizontal and vertical patterns. The exhibit, created through a combination of digital and analogue components, shows how people move through space in a city where winters are long and cold.
But perhaps the most eye-popping installation was that of “#ohdeer”, at 2 St. Clair W., in the north-west corner of the intersection. #ohdeer is an indoor structure created to remind visitors that it’s called Deer Park for a good reason – it pays homage to the deer that roamed here.
“We wanted people to walk into the building and see #ohdeer, smile and say, ‘Okay, this isn’t someone trying to impose a serious piece of art in an office lobby saying how grand and important they are.’ This is a fun and frivolous piece of art – it’s pink and papery and is a real giant deer piñata. When people come into work on Monday at 9 a.m., the first reaction will be , ‘What the hell happened’? It’s supposed to be a whimsical piece,” says Paynter.
Slate’s revitalization of Yonge and St. Clair has already attracted high-end restaurants such as Buca, Greenhouse Juice and Mary Be Kitchen to the area. They are expected to set up shop soon.