A (Jane’s) Walk: Sheppard Avenue West

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This weekend was Jane’s Walk weekend. Jane’s walks are free walking tours led by locals, on the first weekend of May each year. They are meant to celebrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, the famed urbanist writer who lived in Toronto for 38 years. I took part in one on Saturday and lead my own on Sunday where a group of 15 joined me outside of Downsview subway station to explore the changes sweeping across Sheppard Avenue West.

The reason I choose to walk this stretch is because it is the first in the City to be subject to rules that encourage the urbanization of a suburban street. Since 1993, the Secondary Plan and the Official Plan have called for buildings to be built close to the street, continuous building façades, sidewalks that contain street furniture, street trees, and enhanced paving, parks, courtyards and walkways, and most importantly commercial uses on the ground floor.

The street is a living laboratory of how some of the core ideas of Jane Jacobs are being applied along suburban arterial streets through planning rules and zoning regulations. It is the first place the City has tried to build a main street from scratch. As a result, some of the things we looked at during our walk included walkability, the mix of uses, the diversity and age of buildings, and density.

What we saw a much denser street. The area has seen considerable mid-rise, mixed used growth. Developers have demolished over 50 of the street’s 133 bungalows to make way for about a dozen new mixed-use buildings since 1993. The population has grown by 23 percent while many inner suburban neighbourhoods in Toronto have seen a decline.

Yet, instead of new shops and stores, the real growth in employment has been office and services. Because there are so many spas, pharmacies, and medical offices, I’ve coined it the “health strip.” The retail spaces in the new buildings cannot compete with the thriving Sheppard Plaza at the corner of Sheppard and Bathurst. The developers know it as well, which is why many of the newest buildings have abandoned pure retail space at grade and are now building live/work units.

The success of a main street also really depends on the neighbourhood and how it connects to the street.  As a result, we did a lot of walking between Sheppard and the streets directly behind it. It was clear that the links between the two were at best poor and far between. The important retail nodes and the communities behind them were poorly connected hurting the Avenue’s overall walkability. The street itself is still a fast suburban arterial. We saw many people struggle to cross Sheppard, taking cover in “pedestrian bunkers,” including one man who was just about clipped by a car, which instead of slowing down laid on the horn. The built form along Sheppard may be changing but the street has not. It is still fast and dangerous.

A fast street, poor connections to the surrounding neighbourhood, and intense competition from the retail plaza make the Avenue very much a work in progress. Not quite a suburban arterial, not quite a main street, but instead a unique 21st century Toronto street.

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