To the True End of Yonge Street VII:
The Downtown that Mel Built


York Mills to Finch


In the 1970s and the 1980s, the suburban boroughs of Metropolitan Toronto dreamed of becoming cities in their own right. Rather than just be receptacles of Toronto's urban sprawl, they decided what they needed was their own downtown cores. Scarborough set to work immediately, building up municipal offices next to the area's largest mall and encouraging the TTC to connect the new "center" to the subway with a high speed transit line.

While Scarborough tried to build its downtown along suburban principles, and the other boroughs just puttered about, North York mayor Mel Lastman rolled up his sleeves. In my opinion, he understood better than the other mayors that downtowns grew up around pedestrians, not just cars. He knew better than the other mayors that downtowns thrived on a mix of uses, and that they needed to be centred around a street rather than a mall. He knew better than the other mayors that transit had to be a priority, not sufficient parking. At the time, it was revolutionary thinking. Mississauga was building up its "downtown" around Square One Mall.

So Mel convinced North York to center its downtown along Yonge Street, near Sheppard Avenue. He convinced the TTC to add a station to serve North York's city hall, and he fought hard to establish a subway beneath Sheppard Avenue to try and create a subway crossroads (like at Yonge and Bloor) for the downtown to grow up around. Against the opposition of a significant minority on council and vocal activists in the community out to preserve the sleepy suburban lifestyle, he convinced North York to significantly increase densities around Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue.

As a result, though it's not perfect, North York can today boast a decent downtown with a diversity of uses that does a lot of business. However, leaving Toronto at Yonge Boulevard, it quickly becomes apparent that the car is still king in North York.

This is more than the result of Yonge passing through a deep river valley and its associated park. There are plenty of trails for people to access, but Yonge Street runs straight as an arrow, and is wider here than it was just a couple hundred metres to the south. Cars scream along the road and the narrow sidewalks offer little refuge for pedestrians puffing up the slope.


The Jolly Miller tavern, circa 1857.


There is little indication of the history of Yonge Street, here, because this section is relatively new. Simcoe's Queens Rangers had difficulty laying out Yonge Street through this deep valley, and a couple of blocks to the east you will see the emergence of a meandering Old Yonge Street, running through the old community of Hogg's Hollow. The radial railway that used to carry commuters from North Toronto to Richmond Hill as late as 1948 crossed the Don River on a narrow road and rail bridge that has since been obliterated. The Jolly Miller tavern (circa 1857) at 3885 Yonge Street is one of the few hints that the area has a past. The Auberge du Pommier Restaurant at 4150 Yonge is another, and that building was relocated from elsewhere in Hogg's Hollow.

Until recently, the Yonge/Wilson/York Mills intersection was a particular write-off, full of nothing but service stations, parking lots and an open air bus terminal serving the subway. This has improved with the construction of a glass office tower, and a new indoor bus terminal. The TTC has plans to redevelop its commuter parking lot to take advantage of its location near the subway. However, the developments pull what few pedestrians there are off the street with mall stores huddled inside air conditioned comfort.


Highway 401 at Yonge. Note construction at the onramp.

The situation gets worse north of here, as Yonge Street passes beneath Highway 401, leaving pedestrians to contend with busy off-ramps as well as leaving the Don Valley. Immediately following the 401 and approaching Sheppard, Yonge Street is wide, at least six lanes, and densities are low. You see strip mall buildings dating from the fifties; the office buildings that exist are set well back from the street, and the whole area feels exposed.


Yonge, looking south from Sheppard.

It's interesting that Sheppard Avenue is at the edge of North York's downtown rather than in the thick of it. The south side of Sheppard Avenue offers none of the expected vista of high rise buildings or office towers; they're all to the north or east. It's also interesting that, north of Sheppard, wherein Yonge Street has the densities of a downtown, there are fewer people strolling about. The heat of the day may have had something to do with it, but on this day Yonge Street hopped from Eglinton on south.

Instead, most people here were to be found in the shopping concourses beneath the office towers around around Sheppard-Yonge and North York Centre stations. Very little business activity faces the street, and Yonge Street is still a wide road with fast-moving cars, meaning that the malls have little difficulty luring people indoors. Near Park Lawn Avenue you find the heart of North York's downtown, rather egotistically named Mel Lastman Square (named while Mel was still mayor of North York). Despite its connections to the subway, community offices and a major library, the square has a fraction of the activity seen at Yonge-Dundas square or even Nathan Phillips square. Again, I suspect people are staying indoors.


Subway murals at Sheppard-Yonge station (above) and North York Centre station (below).


North York has always been a somewhat schizophrenic borough. Even as it continues to build its downtown, and fills in all the remaining spaces with suburban development, it celebrates the rural heritage it ploughed under. At Sheppard-Yonge subway station, there is a wonderful tile mural depicting the rural run of Yonge Street in about fifty feet, even though above it, the original Lansing village general store was moved from its location to make way for the construction. North York Centre station has a similar piece of artwork that TTC passengers see as they get off the trains and head for the mall. It's as though the city is desperately clinging to the identity it had, as though insecure about the identity it is attaining.

Fortunately, this attitude has led to some successful examples of historical preservation, Gibson House being one. Located at the corner of Yonge and Park Home Avenue, this elegant Georgian manor was built by the Gibson family in 1851. This was after David Gibson spent 11 years in exile in the United States for his participation in the Upper Canada Rebellion. In the early part of the 19th century, Gibson helped map early Toronto and prepare Ontario's wilderness for settlement. The building has been restored to its original grandeur and offers a variety of education and community programs. The Lansing General Store, moved from Sheppard/Yonge in 1996, was relocated nearby at 250 Beecroft Road, and now serves as the office for the North York Archives.

North of Park Home, Yonge Street starts to open up again, and you see elements of the sleepy suburban commercial strip that the new downtown replaced from twenty years ago. Towers are still popping up towards Finch Avenue, drawn by the subway, but Yonge is about to let go of the pretense that it serves pedestrians before cars. Although echoes of the street's rural past remain, the gaps have been filled in with sprawl. The rest of this journey will be completed behind a steering wheel.


Next: Drivers' Paradise

Photo Gallery


New apartment buildings at 4000 Yonge Street, south of York Mills.


Yonge at Wilson, looking north towards downtown North York.


The interior of York Mills Centre, pulling people off the sidewalk and in to shop.


The south end of downtown North York, looking up to the new office developments. Note post-war style buildings which have not been redeveloped, yet.


Looking across at Mel Lastman Square. A boulevard and trees help pedestrians to cross safely, but the speed of the cars makes crossings a little hairy. Where are the people?


The people are likely to be found across the street in Empress Walk, a multi-level shopping mall connecting with the subway at North York Centre. It also offers a premium movie theatre.


Another view of Empress Walk.


The mezzanine level of North York Centre station. There are more people here than on the sidewalks above.

Further Reading

Accompanying Plaque

The plaque that accompanies the mural at North York Centre station reads as follows:



This rural view looks up Yonge Street, which climbed the North Hill out of Hogg's Hollow and went across gently sloping farmland toward the little town of Lansing in the distance.

Saw mills were common on the West Branch of the Don River in this area, and had been essential for cutting lumber. Most of the flat land in this area had been cleared by the 1850's.

Today this peaceful scene has been transformed into a modern cityscape of office buildings and Highway 401 which bridge it from side to side.

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The old North York place names across the top of this East-side mural are (or were) located East of a true compass drawn Northwest to Southeast through the old farming community of Lansing. Lansing is included on this side.

Commissioned by the City, these scenes of our heritage have been captured by North York artists Nicholas and Susana Graven and effected through a unique process invented by the Artessa Studio, also of North York. Each mural contains more than 5000 inlaid ceramic tiles and took over a year to make. Together they are the only works of their kind in North America.


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