St. Clair’s Long, Strange Journey

April 10, 2011

(In case you missed the post in the Torontoist earlier this week. With more pictures!)

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What journey doesn’t begin with a killer prologue? The Canterbury Tales. Caxton’s ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy’. Shakespeare’s Hank Cinq: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention…” The Coen Bros. Raising Arizona.

Here’s ours. Imagine it spoken by someone with a silky smooth BBC accent and wearing tights or Nicholas Cage as H.I. McDunnough (or any other role pre-Leaving Las Vegas.)

The St. Clair right of way streetcar is not Light Rail Transit (LRT) which is the technology at the heart of the Transit City plan. While the two can share many similarities, the most important being dedicated lanes that are physically separated from vehicular traffic that allow for unencumbered flow, LRT is faster with more capacity. Light Rail Transit comes touting transformative power on the neighbourhoods it serves especially the street level type which makes all the hoopla about burying more of the Eglinton LRT more than a little curious.

And before you utter the phrase “We don’t want another St. Clair on our hands” in a pejorative way in order to demean street level rail transit, you must first pass a test proving that you read Getting It Right. (Or if you’re not up to the 14 pages or so, try the quick summary over at Environmental Law and Litigation.) A report commissioned by the TTC last year assessing the problems that emerged with the construction of the St. Clair right of way. Yes, the city was not free of blame for the cost overruns and delays but they were hardly alone. Many of the most vital recommendations, if implemented on future projects, will go along way to alleviating the headaches residents, businesses and commuters experienced along St. Clair.

Just as importantly, Getting It Right questions the implied condemnation in the ‘No More St. Clairs’ chant — with its flipside, Yes To Subways — that somehow all the problems were due to it being street level transit. As if, had it all gone underground, everything would’ve been hunky dory. Subway supporters exhibit a curious view, it seems, as to how subways are built. Do they really believe that because it’s below ground, there’s going to be no discernible affect on the traffic above? How do these people think subways are built?

Such thoughts established, on to our expedition.

On a dreary Monday morning (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote”) we ventured up to do a loop of the St. Clair ROW streetcar. Heading east toward Yonge Street from Bathurst, what first caught my attention was the utter lack of congestion. Isn’t this the specter being dangled before us by those bent on burying our public transit? Streetcars getting in the way, snarling traffic? Certainly on this particular morning commute, both streetcars and private vehicles flowed seamlessly. From Bathurst to St. Clair station at Yonge Street, a brisk 10 minutes.

The time for the entire one-way trip on the St. Clair streetcar from its eastern point at Yonge Street to its western terminus at Gunn’s Loop, just west of Keele/Weston Street, on a non-rush hour Monday, was 29 minutes. It is a fascinating tour from the northern reaches of the downtown urban core to the outskirts of the western inner suburbs. A sequence missed if traveled underground; a lost connection between people and communities.

Much has been made, justifiably, of the havoc wreaked on businesses during the ROW construction. Some 200 apparently closed because of it. It is a situation not uncommon to any area of a city that undergoes substantial redevelopment (hello, Roncesvalles) and there are no easy answers. That’s not entirely true. The easiest answer would be to never change anything, maintain the status quo. But that doesn’t seem to be a healthy option to positive future growth and development.

Now, more than a year into the new St. Clair streetcar’s run, it looks to a guy riding along observing the scenery the decimation did not take hold. While there are certainly empty storefronts and For Lease signs in windows along the way, no more so than the same trip taken along Bloor Street, say. Like everywhere else that is seen as a going concern, there’s a growing presence of chain outlets like Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Hortons along St. Clair vying for the consumers’ dollars with the olde thyme European places. Trendy cafés and bistros are popping up beside more homespun eateries that themselves are expanding beyond the traditional Italian, Portuguese and Caribbean flavours. Within less than a 10 minute streetcar ride, one could find Brazilian, Peruvian and Colombian restaurants.

This kind of variety only promises to mushroom (funghi, hongo, seta, callampa, cogumelo) as the area sees further densification. Between and around the two subway stops on St. Clair along the Yonge-University line, condo developments have sprung up including an interesting one in the old Imperial Oil building just east of Avenue Road. Towers are even spreading west from this more traditional location, now out past Bathurst Street into what was considered purely low and medium rise territory. Yes, proximity to a subway has much to do with that but the fact that this is happening now would suggest that the St. Clair right of way has enhanced rather than diminished the desirability of the area.

Is it too much to suggest that St. Clair Avenue is undergoing a renaissance? My scant two hours spent traversing it tells me no, there is something of a rebirth going on there. Even on a rainy Monday morning, people were out, going about their business. Traffic moved — traffic moved, it is worth repeating – smoothly with very few aggressive flare ups and accompanying blaring of horns. And on the streetcar, getting from point A to point B was painless. No. Joyous? Maybe a little overkill. A very pleasant journey, shall we say.

The epilogue to this tale?

Before falling in line behind our mayor’s misguided, bull-headed, ill-advised march to rid our streets of everything but cars, trucks and buses, we all need to pay a visit to St. Clair Street. Sit our asses down on the streetcar and take in the view. Hop off, have a drink and a bite to eat. Watch some soccer or buy some shoes. Not only is such an outing now easier for transit users and car drivers alike, it is more enjoyable. The exact opposite of what Mayor Ford would have you believe.

darenly submitted by Cityslikr