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Subway creates town of Sheppard-ville

Sheppard subway booms below, development booms above `White elephant’ gives birth to city’s newest urban centre

ROYSON JAMES
CITY COLUMNIST

The subway from nowhere to nowhere. The white elephant on rails. The no-frills line. Mel Lastman’s lunacy. The Sheppard Stump. The subway that ate the TTC. In other words, the subway line everybody loves to hate.

Maybe, until now.

When the near-$1 billion Sheppard subway opens Friday, it will be fulfilling more than its core business # transporting 15 million passengers a year in a 22-minute round trip between Yonge St. and Don Mills Rd.

Toronto’s first rapid transit line in 17 years has, or will in short course, deliver:

More than 18 million square feet of development along Yonge St. and another 17 million along Sheppard Ave. E., making the Yonge-Sheppard corridor one of the hottest development spots in the GTA.

More than 30,000 new residents in a stunning condo village that’s springing up in the backyards of a once stable residential community of Willowdale, Oriole, Henry Farms, and Don Mills.

The fulfillment of city planners’ vision of Toronto’s first real urban centre outside the downtown core.

Unquestionably the most artistic and pleasing subway stations, a masterful blend of art and function, created for only $750,000.

Commuter comfort along one of the TTC’s busiest bus routes, where 14 million passengers a year now slosh through snow-capped bus stops.

“Everything you see on Yonge St. is more or less due to the Sheppard subway,” says area Councillor David Shiner, recalling that a development cap was placed on all projects in the North York downtown area, subject to approval of the subway.

“This is the subway to the new town of Sheppard-ville. There will be enough people here to feed a subway. There’s no area in Toronto with this type of intensification. There’s no larger redevelopment area in Toronto, except potentially the waterfront.

“Before the subway, Sheppard was a transit sewer # poor sidewalks, few trees, no landscaping, just strip retail,” Shiner says.

Already, there are 6,000 condo units in 37 buildings along Yonge St. Another 8,984 units are either built or under construction in at least 24 towers; the numbers keep changing in a hyper-hot housing market.

One Yonge St. 11-hectare development site alone, caught under the development cap until 1995 but now under construction, will see eight high-rise towers housing 2,081 units; and another 160 townhouses and 413 stacked townhouses in what amounts to a little town in the Avondale neighbourhood, near the Sheppard-Yonge intersection.

And this doesn’t include the thousands of stacked townhouses, and town homes that serve as a transition from high rise village to stable single family neighbourhoods.

Former Metro councillor Joan King, who sits on the Toronto District Health Council and is concerned about the impact of the new community on health services in the area, says: “It’s almost like dropping the population of Lindsay on this community. I don’t know if they’ll be able to cope.”

There is much validity to the criticism that the subway has never been about transit; that the rail line wasn’t created to fill the TTC’s greatest needs.

When Bad Boy Mel Lastman, as mayor of then North York, said he would build a downtown to challenge Toronto, he was laughed out of town. But the Yonge-Sheppard Centre came in 1976, followed by the development around city hall # some garish, in the image of the mayor, and some of dubious urban quality #and skeptics started rethinking their conclusions.

When ratepayers balked, Mel mollified them by promising their homes would be protected from traffic intrusion and rampant intensification. He got them to agree on a downtown plan and it was passed before the Ontario Municipal Board in the mid-1980s.

But the plan hit a snag when traffic studies showed the area could not handle the influx of people and offices without a subway along Sheppard.

The OMB placed a cap on further development, pending approval of the subway and Mel’s dreams seemed doomed.

But from that moment, Lastman pulled every trick in the book to deliver the subway. He begged, he whined, he cajoled, he lectured, he sulked, he came up with bogus financial plans, he finally wore down his colleagues on Metro Council.

It took several council votes, a special tax levy and high drama before then premier Bob Rae, Metro chairman Alan Tonks and Lastman would gather to break ground in 1994 and signal the start of construction. It seemed Mel had won.

“As soon as the ground broke, the building permits started to flow,” Shiner said.

But when Mike Harris rode into Queen’s Park with a mandate to smash everything, the line was again threatened. Bob Rae had pushed for four rapid transit lines, Metro Council opted for two, and now Harris threatened to kill them both.

But Lastman survived again and the Sheppard subway continued, with less money, a no-frills budget, and the ill-will and jealousies of councillors who lost out.

Once designed as a subway from Yonge to the Scarborough city centre at McCowan Rd., a line that would draw in millions of riders all the way to Pickering, the Sheppard subway was shortened to a stump to save money. The anticipated ridership levels dropped, and now the TTC says Sheppard will actually lose about $8 million annually during the first few years of operation.

It’s not unusual for new lines to lose money at first, but this fact hasn’t stopped critics from slamming the Sheppard project. Some have suggested it be mothballed. “How can the TTC run a new subway if it can’t afford the service it has now?” some transit users asked at public meeting yesterday discussing another planned fare hike.

Sheppard is being called the line that will eat the TTC budget. And downtown riders who are angry about the prospects of cuts to their own routes, ask why should they lose service to provide for a subway from nowhere to nowhere.

That moniker is for people unaware of the building boom along Sheppard and Yonge.

The politicians and gawkers and transit buffs who will flock to Yonge and Sheppard for Friday’s official opening will see a suburban centre in transition.

The Yonge-Sheppard Centre on the northeast corner is what got the North York “downtown” started. The mix of retail, offices and condos recently completed a facelift that creates retail activity on Yonge, a big difference to the austere facade that greeted visitors in the 1970s.

But, ironically, the other quadrants on the corner are in a freeze, waiting for a thaw in the office market, even as cranes and construction crews buzz on other sites.

From Sheppard down to Highway 401, numerous highrise towers, some resting on a podium of townhouses, are popping up on Yonge, a counterpoint to what’s been happening further north.

Heading east along Sheppard, a number of small parcels are being converted into six-storey offices. Official plan restrictions limit their intrusion into the backyards of now-expensive Willowdale homes.

Most of the major redevelopment is centred around the subway stations. Critics have said the densities are not high enough for a subway line, but city planners say this is as far as they could push, without sparking a rebellion among North Yorkers.

“It’s as dense as it possibly could be — for North York,” says planner Marilyn Stuart. “Danforth Avenue is not developed to the max. It has two- or three-storey buildings along the entire route.”

In the southwest corner of Bayview and Sheppard, planners and politicians faced an unusual situation. Several homeowners banded together to plead that their homes be included in the redevelopment area — so they could sell and reap huge profits. They were excluded.

The stretch between Bayview and Leslie, including the midpoint subway station of Bessarian, has seen the most intense construction. There is the four point towers, with elaborate caps topped off by steeples, east of Bayview, that motorists have watched rise above Highway 401, a project that will add more than 1,600 units. Across the street, a church is getting into the redevelopment mood. And next to the new Bessarian station, a mini-school and the former post office building could soon be immersed in their own construction dust.

The Sheppard subway has played an absolutely huge role in the desirability of the area, says Mitch Cohen, head of the Daniels Group, builders of the point towers.

“Would this work without the subway? No. It would be just another condo site. The subway makes this a different zone. We were the first development along the line. We got in on the ground floor. Everyone who walked through the door, for them it was a leap of faith.”

The first condo owners move in next week. The subway will be ready to take them to work the following Monday.

The most curious juxtaposition along the route is the north side entrance to the Bessarian station, which sits right next to a gas station. This, after all, is still suburbia.

The largest redevelopment site along the subway route is owned by Canadian Tire, a massive 20-hectare vertical subdivision that will house some 20 condo towers, a new Canadian Tire Store, an office building and street-level retail stores.

Shiner reports he has managed to get some public benefits from the developer, including a 3.6 hectare park, plus sites for two schools, a community centre and a library, plus a new $10 million road linking this site and the IKEA store to Leslie St.

Fairview Mall is the terminus of the new subway, and again, the transit is dwarfed by the automobile. Instead of moving the mall’s stacked parking deck to the rear of the mall, the car is given prominence in the prime corner of Don Mills and Sheppard.

At least, this corner has a 366-car commuter lot built into the project. And it has a bus platform, with space for 18 bus bays that can move 100 buses per hour.

To get there, however, you traverse a stretch of homes, the historic Henry Farm neighbourhood, schools, churches and the Bloorview McMillan Centre for kids with disabilities. In fact, there will be little development between Leslie and Don Mills Rd., except for the massive additions to the mall and some intensification of apartment sites in the area.

Critics have said much higher densities are needed. And they say the TTC will just be moving commuters from buses into the subway, not generating enough new riders.

Transit comfort is a good and desirable thing, says area councilor Paul Sutherland.

“This brings people from my neck of the woods up to a new urban level. Some 15 million riders are about to go from coach up to first class ridership,” Sutherland says.

He predicted the line will be more successful than skeptics have been saying. “We’ve been waiting 17 years for this. They’ve done a good job. It’s actually quite beautiful.

“The reason people feel and speak so negatively about the Sheppard subway is because it was supposed to go out to Scarborough Town Centre. We have half a Sheppard line. Let’s finish it.”

One would have to look hard to find a vital piece of Toronto public infrastructure that’s endured such slings and arrows and public scorn, yet emerge as beautiful as the Sheppard subway. Literally.

The subway stations are a marked improvement on the current ones: large, high ceilings, airy, clear signage, fully accessible for wheelchairs. And they have public art that will engage the commuter.

On a tour of it last week, chief general manger Rick Ducharme was more than pleased with the line, which essentially came in on budget, looking better than most people thought it would.

“We built it, now let’s get on with life and finish it.”

He said that with a steady flow of capital dollars, the TTC could extend the Sheppard line out to Scarborough and do with same with the Spadina line, up to York University and into York Region.

“Just going across the Steeles Ave. border will be erasing a big barrier,” says Ducharme. “Let’s do it methodically. Two stations every two years.”

On some days, even the improbable seems possible.




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