Opinion
3 min

In praise of the Church Street parklets

It would be a shame to get rid of the Village's street-side seating before it's even seen a full summer

Parklets along the east side of Church Street in August 2013. Credit: Adam Coish

The Church Wellesley Village BIA’s vacillation over the “parklet” project is further proof that the businesses and stakeholders in Toronto’s gaybourhood remain obsessed with maintaining the status quo. 

The BIA’s members recently put the brakes on the street-side patio initiative — a venture they announced just a few months back with much fanfare. On several occasions, BIA manager David Wootton confirmed to Xtra that the patios were especially for WorldPride in 2014. “Instead of waiting for the properties to change their look and feel, we need to dress around them,” he said about a year ago. A couple months later, Wootton told us, “This is an idea the BIA board is completely behind . . . we will probably take on a project manager to help with that.” 

What’s changed? 

The BIA says the price tag is too high and some businesses didn’t notice any financial gain after the city installed the patios in early August. But surely the BIA knew the cost when it announced the project last year. And it’s clear to anyone who’s walked through the Village that it will take more than fancy street-side furniture for Church Street businesses to increase sales. 

It’s a shame for establishments like Smith, Byzantium and Statlers, which managed to incorporate the parklets in a way that added new life to the street and, I would imagine, brought in some extra cash. Even though the patios went up late in the summer, management at all three spots evidently recognized the possibilities that came with the street-side seating. 

But they’re the exception on the strip, whose business owners — while endlessly talking about “beautification” — have perpetually been unable to use their imagination to come up with long-term initiatives that actually beautify the neighbourhood. They instead appear content to wring out every last drop of queer creativity, as they did recently when they covered Village poles with uniform fake tree bark, relegating posters to a couple overcrowded community boards. 

The BIA is joined in its torpor by Tourism Toronto and the City of Toronto — both have so far failed to deliver the cash or creativity needed to make a splash for WorldPride. The LGBT section of Tourism Toronto’s amateurish website continues to list businesses that have long closed. And while the city paid for the first year of the parklet project, that won’t matter much at WorldPride if the BIA kiboshes it. 

“Meh, whatever,” noted one Facebook commenter. “Let Montreal be the innovative city. It closes the entire length of Sainte-Catherine in the village from May to September and it’s a huge hit.”

He’s right. Montreal’s open-air Village project, Aires Libre, which sees a summer-long 1.2 kilometre street closure, has been a huge boon for business owners there. Denis Brossard, that city’s Village business organization president, told Xtra the vacancy rate for storefronts on the street dropped from 22 percent to eight percent in less than two years thanks to Aires Libre, which gets support from Tourism Montreal and the City of Montreal. “When the city shortened the length of the project this year, businesses, residents and the gay community all came together to voice their displeasure,” he said. 

If only we weren’t so complacent in Toronto. Folks — as our beloved mayor would say — the time is now. WorldPride is around the corner. The BIA and Village residents can’t wait for Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to do all the heavy lifting, as it appears she did with the parklet project. “This summer was a pilot project . . . Everything was done for you,” Wong-Tam told the BIA’s AGM. Wong-Tam also first pitched the mural project, which looks to be one beautification initiative that will actually last until WorldPride. 

The BIA should reconsider and look for ways to expand the project and make it work, teaming with those business owners prepared to think outside the box. Why not join with Pride Toronto and find a way to incorporate the parklets into WorldPride plans? Or what about further collaborating with the team at The 519, who have already championed the patio project? They know how to put on a fundraiser, which might be what’s needed to help offset the cost of the parklets. What about working with Toronto artists or promoters to find clever new ways to use the parklet spaces and bring in cash to pay for them? An open-air gallery tour, a street-long parklet tea dance, a patio sidewalk sale, a street-side busker fest? 

It would be a huge waste of money and effort if the project is squelched before it’s had a chance to see a full summer. 

Danny Glenwright is Xtra’s managing editor.