As a long-time midtown resident, I could hardly believe how much I missed the courtyard outside of the Yonge Eglinton Centre during the past four years of renovations. This summer, things have been different. The northwest corner of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue has come back in a big way.
Since the long-awaited completion of the renovations, I see many people in the square eating their lunch, reading, or just taking a quick smoke or coffee break.
Amid the ongoing construction n the neighbourhood, the corner is now once again a small oasis away from the rest of the busy traffic. But after speaking to several locals, I discovered feelings about it are divided.
Two retired women who live in a nearby apartment buildings expressed disappointment with the outdoor square. One remarked it is “certainly not Parisian Boulevard,” noting the black stone benches make it look “like a funeral home.” Her friend similarly “wasn’t impressed”.
Some people have not noticed any improvement. When asked how she feels about the new seating area, a woman who works in a store in the mall said, “What new seating area?”
The renovations are apparently beginning to pay off for local businesses, but the wait wasn’t easy. Aroma café owner Michal Gill said her business dropped during construction “by at least 40%.”
Since then, the northwest corner got a facelift and traffic is “back to normal,” Gill said.
The café’s location is beautiful, with a great front view to Yonge Street. Gill said the new outside square actually draws people into her establishment. It is a “nice, friendly, mixed neighbourhood” for business and leisure, she said. “There’s something for everyone.”
But, because of the ongoing Metrolinx project, Gill fears this may be the “calm before the next storm.” Area residents will soon have to endure another few years of construction, she said.. She called it “anybody’s guess” how Metrolinx construction will affect businesses and the neighbourhood as a whole.
A woman who works in the office towers above the Yonge Eglinton Centre was having a break, enjoying a smoke. She said she comes to the square twice a day and the new waterfalls “make all the difference.” While it can be calming and relaxing, it is also a fun, social atmosphere.
She laughed as as she recalled Yonge and Eglinton back when it was known as “Yonge and Eligible.” Today she sees a very different vibe, which she prefers as it feels more neighbourly.
She said she is happy to see seniors feeling free and independent. For folks visiting one of the many doctors in the nearby office towers, the outdoor square gives a nice respite to bring a walker or oxygen tank down to the square outside. The only negative is the continued construction. The noise is a “nightmare.”
Residents still critical
Eglinton Park Residents’ Association member Nicole St. John said the group was very vocal about RioCan’s original plans to close in the square to accommodate more retail space.
Now the renovations have been completed, the EPRA says the outside square is “not conducive to public space,” It is now more a commercial space, St. John said.
The area is not even 100-percent safe, she said. For example, the umbrellas on the Aroma patio are good for some shade but are also easy to trip over the edges.
St. John said she has a group of friends she meets weekly at Aroma. But from early in the morning there is no shade, so it is often too hot to sit outside on the patio or nearby public area. At other times it is just “too windy,” she said.
EPRA board member Shari Lash said aesthetically the square “couldn’t be less welcoming.” In her opinion, the developer has given no thought as to the enjoyment of this space.”
The group’s vice-president Carla Lutchman was adamant that Yonge and Eglinton is very different from the rest of Ward 16 and that residents need to “fight to keep [our] own identity” and to maintain the character of our community.
Lutchman and Lash went on to say the materials used in the renovations are “very pointy, cold and sterile”. For example, the black stone that the benches are made from are like a “skillet” in the heat, getting so hot in the afternoon sun that it makes it difficult to actually sit there. Also, there is no back support, which also makes it difficult for some people to comfortably sit.
Further, one of the two benches adjacent to the waterfall is actually on the Aroma patio, so that people aren’t sure if they are welcome to sit there. If they do, there is little leg room between them and the people sitting next to them on the coffee shop patio. It is almost as if a lot of it was done intentionally to discourage people from sitting for too long. It feels like the “landmark of this neighbourhood is not welcoming” and shows “very little respect for people who live here,” Lash said. In fact, as far as they are concerned, “Yonge and Eligible is now Yonge and Inaccessible.”
Lash said the new square t is hurtful to the community, especially after waiting for completion for at least four years. she said the message is clear: you can walk through, spend money in the mall or coffee shop, but don’t stay.
They did, however, have a few positive thoughts on the renovations like the trees and water features outside of the parameters of Aroma, although some of the calmness inspired by these things are drowned out by ambient noise from across the street. More greenery could provide a barrier to help the problem even a little bit, they said.
Two local women who use wheelchairs and who come to the Yonge Eglinton Aroma regularly said they are, for the most part pleased with the Aroma coffee shop and surrounding courtyard. But they did agree that parts of the square are not very accessible. One said the logistics have been “very strangely built” and are “convoluted.” She is, however, glad it’s here as she “loves her coffee.”
The other said she was also generally pleased with the renovations, although it is unfortunate the nearby subway entrance is not accessible.
A man using a walker said he is grateful to have the spot outside the mall, but just around the corner, it’s a different story. “The sidewalks are a mess” there, he said. He would like to see the surrounding area fixed, he said. “They need to make it more accessible to everyone.”
RioCan, the property manager of the Yonge Eglinton Centre, could not be reached for comment.
Secret garden discovered
Several people also wondered what happened to the rooftop garden that was supposed to be part of the plans. I did some investigating and discovered there is a rooftop garden, although most people don’t seem to know about it.
Getting there is a bit convoluted, with no signage whatsoever indicating there is a rooftop garden. It is only accessible by using the elevator in the corner of the Winners store leading out to the outdoor square.
On a beautiful sunny day, only a few people were enjoying the rooftop garden, when one would think people would flock to it. That might be because it is not simple for people who work in the attached office building to get back to the work.
Two young women who work in the offices and were enjoying their lunch break on the rooftop said they “love it.” But as they have to go down to street level and then back upstairs to their office through another entrance, it takes about 10 minutes out of their lunch hours. The only reason they know the rooftop garden exists was because they “looked out the window and saw it.”