Walk With Joy

Downtown Toronto’s underground PATH network is arguably the city’s greatest land use triumph, something I was reminded of during the 7 Cities Winter Spaces Walking Tour organized by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and the Ontario Professional Planners Institute. This remarkable 30-kilometre network of 1,200 shops linking over 50 buildings in Toronto’s financial district has no international comparison, and stands as perhaps one of the best examples of what can be achieved when the public interest and private land development intersect.

The PATH owes its success to a subterranean history that reaches back almost 100 years. As early as 1917, the Timothy Eaton Company had five tunnels connecting their downtown retail agglomeration, and in 1929 CP Rail connected the Royal York Hotel to Union Station. Both of these early examples proved that the climate-controlled convenience of such pedestrian linkages is commercially lucrative. But the idea that Toronto should create a parallel pedestrian and retail universe to that which existed at ground level was not always viewed as a smart thing to do. Fear that such a public amenity would create a ghost town of the street level Bay Street corridor was a major concern of former mayor John Sewell and a few key senior planning officials in the City in the 1970s and 80s, during which the PATH witnessed its greatest expansion.

Fortunately the combination of financial and zoning incentives during this era enticed the development community to boldly venture forward. And today, as anyone who has experienced the daily salmon run of the PATH’s 200,000 commuters can attest, it would be hard to imagine the chaos on Bay Street were the PATH not to exist.

The financial district’s ever more vibrant bar scene defies the old adage that Bay Street rolls up its sidewalks at night. Increasingly, hipster restaurants such as the Queen West-inspired Gabardine and Drake150 (or even the once stuffy REDS) are doing brisk business to the late night and weekend crowds. And the proliferation of patios (once considered pariahs to civilized Toronto society) also defies the notion that the pedestrian ant farm below would sterilize the commercial opportunities above. Early skeptics of the PATH also feared that an underground retail environment limited to pedestrian traffic during weekday business hours was doomed to fail. Yet a recent City report allays that: at over four million square feet of retail it is already one of the largest malls in the world, with $1.5 billion in annual sales revenue that by 2031 is anticipated to account for over 5,000 jobs and close to $300 million in taxes.

But the PATH does have its problems. Various attempts to improve wayfinding have largely failed, perhaps because it was never really meant to succeed as each connected property owner has a bit of a vested interest in a little pedestrian confusion. There are also frustrating broken links to the system that defy logic. Visitors to major tourist attractions such as the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium have to go outside even though they are just steps to the PATH, and two of Toronto’s new five-star hotels, Shangri-La and Trump, are off the grid even though they too are immediately adjacent to the network. Thankfully, Toronto’s other five-star hotel, The Ritz, and its newest hotel, The Delta, have decided to connect.

The tour ended in the burgeoning South Core district where the power of the PATH is in full display, shifting Toronto’s commercial centre of gravity south of the railway tracks, even successfully penetrating the formidable Gardiner Expressway. It has amplified the convergence of transportation, entertainment, office, residential and recreational land uses in this district and has unleashed the most explosive forces of urbanism this city has ever experienced. No small triumph, and one suspects its future is not fully written.

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