For as long as I can remember, the area of Toronto’s core west of Church and south of King have had a sort of rundown allure to me. The area contained Toronto’s Victorian industrial history, but much of the business disappeared ages ago. The building and intersection that best exemplified this was Front and Cherry, where the mythic greasy spoon known as the Canary Grill resides in a building that had been a turn-of-the-century railroad hotel, and one of Toronto’s first schoolhouses. Around the Canary Grill was… almost nothing. Taking a trip on the 72A Pape bus via Commissioners, I was treated to vistas of old industrial buildings and acres of abandoned scrubland. It had the beauty of a wasteland. It was one of the few places where you could find barren solitude, if you were brave enough to try. It was like nothing else in the city.
Now that’s about to change. After two decades of complications, work has finally begun on the redevelopment of the West Don Lands.
Today, an old cement block warehouse will come tumbling down on King St., east of Toronto’s downtown.
The demolition of 15 other derelict buildings and dead factories between Parliament St. and the Don River will follow. But this isn’t the end of a neighbourhood, it’s the beginning. From the rubble of this industrial wasteland the new West Don Lands community will rise.There will be 5,800 new homes, an elementary school, a recreation centre and parks — all within a five-minute walk of a new public transit line. “This is an area that has been abandoned and left behind for a long time. I think people are really going to enjoy having a community there and a beautiful park,” said Cynthia Wilkey, who lives just north of the area and has long been involved in redevelopment plans.
The Star and Spacing Magazine is optimistic, and so am I. What has changed in the past twenty years is a growing appreciation of the residential delights old industrial stock has to offer. We’ve seen successful revivifications of derelict areas in the United States, including Omaha’s Old Market. Locally, the Distillery District is winning raves. We’ve learned from the mistakes of the central waterfront. The city of Toronto and the province of Ontario have taken time — possibly more time than they needed — but the result looks pedestrian friendly and on a human scale. More importantly, developers seem to be lining up, so the chances are good that what was once scrub land will eventually become a people place.
We shall see. Challenges remain. The City of Toronto knows that the development has to be backed up with solid transit, and there’s talk of a Queen’s Quay East LRT and streetcars down Parliament and Cherry Street, but that doesn’t come cheap, and with the City of Toronto still struggling to secure its fiscal future, one has to wonder if they can pull these support projects off.
But tomorrow there is every possibility that I will return to the corner of Cherry Street and Front, and I won’t be alone.