Quay to Success

Reporter, November 2013

Federico García Lorca, the early 20th-century Spanish poet, once called Barcelona’s La Rambla “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” Would he ever say the same about Queen’s Quay, the road that runs along Lake Ontario’s shore at the south end of Toronto?

“I don’t know about that,” says Kevin Currie, “but the waterfront is certainly the jewel of the city.” Currie, who opened his Queen’s Quay bicycle rental shop, Wheel Excitement, in 1993, and who founded the Waterfront Business Improvement Association (BIA) in 2004, won’t speculate on Lorca’s reaction, but he says that this much is certain: Queen’s Quay’s $110 million regeneration, aimed at widening the south sidewalk between Bay Street and Yo-Yo Ma Lane, west of Spadina Avenue, will only bolster the area’s appeal. Inspired by the grand boulevards of Europe, as well as cities like Chicago and New York, the promenade will be seven metres (23 feet) wide in places, replacing two lanes of traffic.

More than 240 trees will be planted; two-way cycle lanes will connect to the 56-kilometre-long (35-mile-long) Martin Goodman Trail; and a granite sidewalk, featuring a maple leaf mosaic, will be laid. And it will all be done in time for the Parapan American Games, in the summer of 2015.

For Carol Jolly, executive director of the Waterfront BIA, summer 2015 can’t come soon enough. Jolly’s mandate is to promote businesses in the area, which spans from Yonge Street to Bathurst Street, and from the water to Lake Shore Boulevard. The construction has not made her job easier. Still, thanks to a series of creative programs, the BIA has kept the waterfront booming. “Our programs have been innovative,” says Jolly, “and we’ve been lucky; they’ve all been very successful.”

A case in point is the Singing Ambassadors program. “It could have fallen flat on its face, because it’s not just hiring students to hand out brochures; it’s hiring singers to sing in four-part harmony,” says Jolly. “If any moving part doesn’t work, it falls apart.” The ambassadors were a sensation, delighting visitors with their roving, a cappella performances of summer classics. One singer even earned a spot in a SummerWorks Theatre Festival production while on the job. (The BIA lent him out. “You can’t stop these people from living their dreams,” says Jolly.)

Other successful BIA programs include the My Waterfront Photo Contest, which culminates in an exhibition of visitors’ photographs, and Gangways Open – part of the city-wide Doors Open event – during which the public explores docked boats. To boost the quiet winter months, the BIA launched Winterfest, featuring pre-Christmas cruises with Santa Claus, and Family Day weekend activities in February, featuring skating, crafts and pet performances at the PawsWay event centre.

The area’s biggest draw is the tall ships, part of the triennial Redpath Waterfront Festival. Getting that project off the ground was almost a full-time venture, says Jolly, adding that an event production company now handles it. “We’re a marketing machine, not producers,” she says.

Fundamentally, then, the BIA is focused on communication – often simply promoting the Waterfront name, itself just four years old. Until the ad agency (and BIA member) MacLaren McCann renamed the organization, it was the Queen’s Quay Harbourfront BIA, or QQHBIA – pronounced “Quibeeah.” “It was a mouthful,” says Jolly, who joined shortly after the rebranding.

It was a key time in the BIA’s history. By then, Currie says, “We’d grown, and we needed better ways for businesses to have input into local development.” Jolly was an ideal fit: after running First Night Toronto, Harbourfront Centre’s New Year’s Eve event, she launched Yonge-Dundas Square. She was a specialist, she says, “in startups and cleanups.”

Her local knowledge was an asset, too. The waterfront is unique: it’s among Toronto’s most popular tourist hubs – second only to the Eaton Centre – and it’s a densely populated residential neighbourhood. “There is no typical main street, with a butcher and a baker,” says Jolly. “We’re a vertical neighbourhood, which is so different.” The area’s face is changing, too, as young condodwellers start families – and stay put.

The neighbourhood is slowly evolving to meet the community’s needs, but Jolly says that regular engagement with city planners is still crucial. “We’re the voice of business, saying, ‘Don’t forget to put things in at ground level. We can’t have glass canyons,’” she says. “More and more the city is getting it.” Certainly the regeneration scheme seems to indicate that the city, which is funding the project along with the provincial and federal governments, is starting to get it.

Already, the buzz for 2015 is building. This summer, Amsterdam BrewHouse staked its territory, opening an 800-seat bar and restaurant in a converted warehouse on the water. The Radisson Admiral Hotel is developing plans for a licensed outdoor lobby to spill out on the promenade. And the continued growth of Porter Airlines is an ongoing boon, as passengers heading to and from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport can explore the neighbourhood. “Porter is an important part of the community,” says Jolly. “It’s bringing a lot of people into the area.” By 2015, Porter’s hub won’t merely be minutes from the buzz of the city; it will be right in the thick of it.

The promenade, which will begin near the airport, will radically transform the neighbourhood. “By putting in what is basically a linear park, we’re really going to change the way the waterfront is used,” says Jolly. The project is running on schedule, and plans for a June 2015 grand opening event are already under way. Jolly even has the name: Party on the Promenade.

The promenade will be about 1.5 kilometres (one mile) long; slightly longer, as it happens, than La Rambla. Replicating Barcelona’s historic stretch would be ambitious – Miró murals and centuries-old opera houses are in short supply in Canada – but that, of course, is not the point. The point, rather, is to create a thriving, pedestrian-centric promenade so welcoming – so vibrant, so colourful – that visitors and locals alike will stroll along and think to themselves: I wish this street would never end.

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