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Hume: Beauty has its uses

By Christopher Hume
Urban Issues, Architecture

Like most Torontonians, the residents of Leslieville know what they don’t like. In their case, that includes Walmarts, malls and now, TTC service yards.

The city is already lousy with malls, of course, and for many, the very idea of Walmart represents an affront to urbanity.

But what about the light rail vehicle maintenance facility the Toronto Transit Commission wants to build on the infamous site at Eastern Ave. and Lake Shore Blvd. in the lower east side? At first glance, local objections seem justified. Who would choose to have this sort of operation down the street, or across the road?

In Toronto, and probably most cities, no one. The neighbours made that clear late last week when the TTC unveiled its plans at the Toronto Fire Academy on Eastern. The reaction was unanimous - LRTs aren’t welcome.

No surprise there; most of us would likely have had the same response. Still, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds in communities like Toronto where the city must be hidden from itself. One can’t also help but wonder whether gentrification is the same thing as urban renewal.

We all love to see old Victorian neighbourhoods cleaned up and 19th-century warehouses converted into fancy lofts, but the infrastructure has to go somewhere. And not everything can be buried underground.

On the other hand, if we must have a facility such as the TTC yard, perhaps the real debate should be about how to fit it into a mixed urban context and make a positive feature on the landscape. In other words, if the proposal were treated as an issue of design not use, results would be altogether different.

True, Leslievillians will have to endure the coming and going of LRTs, but ask the thousands of Torontonians who live within earshot of a streetcar line and sleep through it.

Besides, who says a maintenance yard has to be an eyesore? Though the TTC, left to its own devices, would undoubtedly revert to form and build something dull and utilitarian, that doesn’t have to be the case. Think of the subway yard at Davisville; more than 50 years old, which sits in the middle of largely residential neighbourhood. No one would call it beautiful, but it’s connected to the topography. It also adds an element of visual interest and, yes, achieves an unexpectedly picturesque quality in parts.

Then there are the Wychwood Art Barns; erected by the TTC in the early 1900s, they have been brought back to life as an innovative mixed-use complex.

More recently, the TTC hired a handful of world-renowned architects - including Norman Foster and Will Alsop - to design stations for the subway extension. These designers were chosen through an open international competition. Who knows what might happen if an LRT facility were opened up to such a process?

It need not be clad in limestone with marble floors, the faucets don’t have to be gold-plated; the purpose of the competition would be think outside the shed, to transform something mundane into a civic asset that works on many levels, not just the practical.

North Americans, let alone Torontonians, have forgotten how to think this way; for decades it has been easier simply to push these sorts of things into the hinterland. The successful cities will be those that figure out how to make the infrastructure part of the urban fabric. Think of the waterfront where water treatment equipment will be incorporated into new parks as ponds and fountains. Even in Toronto, beauty has its uses.




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