We found ourselves at Daniel Libeskind’s new addition to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum the other day. We came prepared, of course, having followed the project from its birth as a napkin sketch, to its competition with two other finalists five years ago, to its reification and vilification (depending who you read) in the media, and its final aluminum-skinned overhang battles with the city of Toronto (if we encroach on our neighbour, it’s to be expected we pay for their loss of sky and sun, so why shouldn’t the city’s bean-counters treat “Respected business leader and editor” William Thorsell the same way?)
We’ll tell you why not.
Fact is, the ROM crystal’s a “gem” (albeit opaque, not transparent). It’s true, as some boastful drywall expert was explaining to his sons and anyone else in earshot as we passed, detailing issues with the gypsum wallboard abound. It’s true there are massive planes of wall that show streaks of dust (“WASH ME!” we saw written more than once) and it’s true that when you look where the sun don’t shine you may find some moments Libeskind (“By his works shall ye know him”) wouldn’t be proud of. If you go, peer into some of the voids hard by the existing building, for example. There you will see exposed drywall screws and lumps of unsanded, unpainted “mud.”
But the sequence of interior spaces, the remarkable surprises and mysteries, the nuances of refracted light, the sensitivity of the event-space where “new” meets “old” at the building’s edges: all are breathtaking.
This is a building that Toronto can be thankful for.
The ALLDERBLOB comes not to praise Libeskind, however. We come to bury the city of Toronto.
Get your act together, people.
Fact is, we have no use for Thorsell and his ilk. We do not bless the white-tie set. But with this museum, they have gotten something very right, and not just for them as can afford the $20 adult admission.
What this building really celebrates is the public realm. It celebrates it in the surprising vistas one glimpses from a distance or from between other buildings. It celebrates it most of all at street-level, where the new ROM entrance has been relocated, on Bloor Street. Here the ROM has given Toronto a great public space.
The city must reciprocate.
It’s on Bloor that the city has fallen down in its duties.
The day we visited the ROM, we arrived by subway and had to remind ourselves it’s not the “museum” stop we wanted but “St George,” where the new entrance is. We walked the short distance from the subway toward the gangly, jangling behemoth that is the new crystal, along Bloor Street.
Just as we arrived, a group of about two dozen cyclists, plus an escort of six bike cops, slowly pedaled past the museum and proceeded west.
None of them wore any clothing. Except for the cops that is. It was the World Naked Bike Ride, an event that this year saw a massive ride in London, England, and smaller rides in other cities around the globe.
You know, everyone loves a parade.
But this event reminded us, Bloor street is the spine of Toronto. it’s where everyone goes. It’s where the action is. It’s a crowded, shouder-to-shoulder parade of one thing after another, and it’s a place of celebration. It’s not, and should not be made into, a “traffic conduit” for motor vehicles.
Since the city of Toronto is conducting a “Bloor Street Visioning Study” as we speak, and since there are meetings scheduled for public input (see below) June 18 and 21st, we feel the need to remind people what the street could be like. It’s not rocket science.
And it sure isn’t Traffic Engineering.
Now, elsewhere we have written about how the lines painted on a street can affect the feeling of the street. Of course, the best example of this is on a street like Dundas East, or other streets in a city that have been made more bicycle friendly by the simple addition of a line of paint to indicate bikelanes.
But the road-striping affects much more than cyclists.
Danforth Avenue, in Toronto’s east end, is of uniform width for some 10 kilometers, from the Don Valley all the way to Warden Avenue and beyond. For most of its length, with the exception of the massive apartment buildings at Main Street far to the east, it has a uniform grain and appearance. By this we mean it has similar storefrontages, similar buiding heights, and similar traffic counts along its whole length.
What differs is the speed of motorized traffic, and the concordant dangers to cyclists and pedestrians.
Focus for a moment on the point where the Danforth crosses Pape Ave.
On both the east and west sides of Pape, Danforth allows curb parking during non-rush-hours. Bicyclists crossing the Don Valley make Danforth Avenue on of the busiest streets for cyclists in the city. Under the street runs the Bloor/Danforth subway line, carrying its portion of the more than one million passengers per day that Toronto’s subway serves.
But Danforth east of Pape may as well be twenty feet wider. And we don’t mean this as a good thing. East of Pape the traffic is thin and fast. It’s dangerous to be a pedestrian or a cyclist there. No one would want to go there to shop, to work, or to live if they had a choice. The stretch of Danforth east of Pape is known as the “miracle mile” by Toronto cabbies, so-named because it’s possible, at the right speed, to travel from Main to Greenwood without braking or hitting a single red light.
West of Pape, the Danforth is “thick” and slow. The fact is, Danforth Ave and Bloor Street could stand to be “thickened” like this along their entire length.
The concept of “thickened” streets, streets that have been deliberately “over-programmed” with activities more than those pseudo-scientist traffic engineers say they can support, derives from an observation of Danforth Avenue west of Pape, but there are examples of it all over the city.
What is a “thickened” street?
West of Pape the Danforth is painted with a central yellow median that periodically opens to allow for left turns. This wide median means there’s only room for one lane of through (motorized) traffic in each direction (except at rush hour, when parking on one side or the other is banned and allows two lanes of motorized traffic to move along the route at its maximum capacity), but leaves a wide channel for cyclists to travel past the parked cars, safely out of the “door zone. The median does more than allow for left turns. It Keeps Danforth Avenue “open” for emergency vehicle access. It provides a place of refuge for pedestrians to cross safely at midblock, and makes this stretch of the Danforth more like a “room” than a linear street–very much like a shopping mall. In addition, by reducing car traffic to just one lane, pedestrians don’t have to fear being struck by a second lane of moving cars when the lane they’re crossing is safe.
This means shops and businesses thrive, with a constant to-and-fro of walk-in visitors from one side of the street to another.
East of Pape, take a look at West of Pape and see for yourself what this restriping could do for you.
The effect on car traffic is to slow it to a steady uninterrupted crawl. No driver chooses this part of the Danforth if they’re in a hurry, but then is there any street in Toronto (except Eastern Avenue maybe) that is a sure bet for hurried motorists? Everyone knows if you want to get somewhere in a reliable, predictable amount of time, usually faster than by car, you better bicycle.
The effect on bicycle traffic is the creation of a virtual bikelane from Pape to the Don Valley. Is it as safe as a real bikelane? Possibly not. But it’s a damn fine compromise.
If the whole length of Bloor/Danforth were striped like the section between Pape and the Don Valley, if that were possible, the crowd calling for a “bicycle highway east to west across Toronto” might well be turning their sights elsewhere.
Because Bloor/Danforth, painted the way it is west of Pape, would work for cyclists just fine. It would work for merchants, giving them the parking spaces they crave. It would work for shoppers, allowing them a virtual car-free mall in which to saunter from store to store, back and forth across the public right-of-way as their consumerist whims beckon.
And most importantly, it would work for places like the ROM Crystal. It would allow the public realm a place to slow, to meander, to cruise, to gawk. It would encourage naked bicycle riding, bongo solos, flame juggling, and the unexpected.
Tooker Gomberg, who we remember as the kind of guy who understood the importance of this stuff, would be pleased to have this street dedicated as a memorial to him.
INFORMATION ON THE BLOOR STREET VISIONING PUBLIC MEETINGS FOLLOW:
Community Workshop Notice
Come help us shape a vision for Bloor Street!
Bloor Corridor Visioning Study
Monday, June 18, 2007
6:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.
George Ignatieff Theatre
15 Devonshire Place
Thursday, June 21, 2007
6:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.
252 Bloor Street West
The City of Toronto has launched an exciting study to develop a planning vision for the future development of Bloor Street West, between Avenue Road and Bathurst Street. We invite you to come to two evening sessions with City staff and its consultant team to listen to ideas and to provide input on design directions.
Day 1 (Monday, June 18)
Presentation: Great Streets, What We’ve Heard to Date
Draft Principles for a Vision of Bloor Street
On this first evening, an overview will be provided of input received to date, and the project planning principles – as developed by the Local Advisory Committee (LAC) – will be presented for discussion. The objective of this evening will be to set the direction for the consultant
team by providing them with ideas that will lead to design options. Following this evening, the consultant team will be working collaboratively with the LAC to create a series of draft design ideas (including built form proposals and public realm recommendations).
As a tool to inform the discussion, the consultant team will also present “Great Streets” – a presentation intended to inspire creative thinking about the possibilities for the Bloor Corridor.
Day 2 (Thursday, June 21)
Presentation: Preliminary Design Ideas
Breakout workshop sessions
On this second evening, the consultant team will present ideas generated in the previous days – and following the Monday night session – “hot off the press.” The objective will be to solicit input at a very early stage in the design process with respect to ideas that are liked, disliked, and those that can be improved! Workshops will be held to discuss the proposals in more detail, and to hear additional, specific ideas from the community.
This is one in a series of public forums and meetings scheduled over the next several months. For further background information, study progress and updates including future meeting notices, please check in often on our project website at: www.toronto.ca/planning/bloorcorridor.htm
If you would like further information about this study, please contact:
Barry Brooks, Senior Planner
Jennifer Keesmaat, Partner
City of Toronto
Office for Urbanism
Councillor Adam Vaughan’s office is also participating in the process and can be contacted at 416-392-4044.
Attendant Care Services can be made available with some advance notice.