The Grid on Roncesvalles: “This is the most perfect corner of Toronto we’ve got left.”

Yesterday, the Grid published an interesting story about “the Roncesvalles revival.” On the surface, the article cheers the arrival of new restaurants to the street, specifically the Ace and the Westerly, but it goes deeper. It raises questions about the role of community in establishing stable, successful main streets, and expresses optimism that Roncesvalles will be able to avoid the excesses of other trendy hot-spots like Ossington or Queen West.

The Ace (PHOTO: Grid TO)

The Westerly’s co-owner, legendary restaurateur Tom Earl, says he was not looking for the latest hot-spot in order to make a quick buck. “We want to be here for a long time, we want to be part of a neighbourhood—we really want to be involved. And that’s what we were looking for and why ultimately we decided Roncesvalles would be perfect.” Ace owners Maggie Ruhl and Gregg Boggs similarly cite the role of community in shaping the direction of their business. Meanwhile, other new restaurants like Barque and Pizzeria Defina also balance a certain trendiness with a community-friendly vibe, welcoming local families along with younger professional couples.

And it’s not just restaurants; let’s not forget Scout, Stasis Preserves, Green Light District Design, Roncy St. Gallery, Ecotique, Mother of All, Grateful Head, Fresh Collective and the many other new stores and services that are broadening Roncesvalles’ diversity of businesses, and preserving a healthy mix of offerings.

Why has Roncesvalles managed to get this tricky balance right, when so many other neighbourhoods have faced difficulties?

“Roncey,” writes author Paul Aguirre-Livingston, “has a stronger, smarter sense of community more closely associated with a cultural identity that runs deep and rich. […] It’s that very pride in community—a blend of preservation and self-perpetuating drive—that becomes a powerful motivator for business owners and their patrons.”

Ruhl specifically mentions the role of community associations, including the BIA, in taking an active role in supporting and guiding the development of the street. This guidance is not adversarial or driven by suspicion. Rather, the Roncesvalles community has been able to express itself in a productive way, welcoming change as well as continuity, such that new businesses are better able to fit in. It is unlikely that a big box nightclub would be able to establish itself, says Ruhl. “What happens [in Roncesvalles] is that the associations are so involved that it’s always going to be small, little businesses.”

Let’s hope Ruhl is correct. I imagine everyone would feel better if they knew what was coming to the old Rogers space at Howard Park. But so far, I think this community can take a great deal of pride in how the street is taking shape since the end of reconstruction.

This community is why Roncesvalles remains, in the words of Aguirre-Livingston, “the most perfect corner of Toronto we’ve got left.”

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A perfect day on Roncesvalles

Yesterday was a perfect day on Roncesvalles, and a great opportunity to capture the beauty of our new streetscape.

Ever since construction wrapped up in July, the new Roncesvalles has been widely praised. “The result is quite marvellous,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee, and the New York Times wrote: “the rejuvenated ‘Roncey’ now makes for one of the city’s most engaging strolls.”

Here are some examples of what they are writing about.

Passengers boarding a TTC streetcar on Roncesvalles Ave., Nov. 2011The new streetscape features several new trees, planted in healthy growing conditions. Instead of ugly concrete “tree coffins” that usually kill trees within 5-10 years, the trees are protected by attractive guards and grates. Soon, Roncesvalles will boast a lush green canopy that will cool our street, absorb greenhouse gases and pollutants, and provide natural beauty. The unsafe “two-step” sidewalk has finally been levelled, and unit pavers provide an attractive surface covering the underground soil trenches that give our trees access to uncompacted soil, air and water. The new tree guards are intended as multi-use street furniture that you can rest against or lock your bike to.

IMG_2025-sThe TTC stops are intended to be more than just places to wait for a streetcar. They have been conceived as “outdoor living rooms,” with benches, gardens, pedestrian lights, and room in some cases for displays or patios. An innovative, raised bike path allows cyclists to pass by the TTC stops without being caught in the streetcar tracks.

Multi-purpose TTC bumpouts on Roncesvalles Ave.Roncesvalles now has the most accessible streetcar stops in Toronto, allowing direct boarding from the sidewalk.  At 30 metres long, the stops have been optimized for Toronto’s new fleet of hi-tech LRV streetcars, which will begin entering service in 2014. These low-floor streetcars will be fully-accessible, air-conditioned, and will allow boarding from all four doors with the new Presto cards.

Two friends enjoy a walk up the tiled sidewalk on Roncesvalles Ave.The end result is a street that is full of vibrancy and life – not just a way to pass through, but a destination in itself. Roncesvalles is a pedestrian-friendly place where neighbours can meet friends, stop to chat, and yes, to shop.

Cross-posted with the Roncesvalles Village BIA website

Photos: John Bowker

Commemorating our man on the street

Singing ElmoSo many in our community have been mourning the passing of Anthony “Tony” Clemens, who made our street his home. His generosity of spirit, his amazing attitude, his kindness, his humour and his Elmo doll are etched in our hearts.

Tony’s comments on life on the street and life in general, with its humour, kindndess and bitter sweet observations were captured for nearly five years on his blog Homeless Man Speaks co-written by Philip Stern.

People gathered at Alternative Grounds yesterday for a memorial and to start raising funds for a commemoration. Ideas are just forming now. There is no committee; it’s just people who care coming together. The idea of installing a bench in his name on the street somewhere near his spot is gaining support.

Kevin Healey occasionally made small batches of Elmo buttons for Tony so he could have a little something to give to kids.  Some of these are being sold at Alternative Grounds to help raise money

Tony was always kind and genuinely concerned about the safety of kids and others in the community. He watched the street for us. As Maureen O’Danu @odanu says, Tony “gave streetpeople a voice that few have had. You wll be missed.”

The reception for Tony will be held today, Tuesday, October 25th, from 6-9 p.m.at the Turner & Porter Funeral Home, 436 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto (at Howard Park Ave.). A Funeral Mass will be held at St. Vincent de Paul Church, 263 Roncesvalles Ave. (at High Park Blvd), Toronto, on Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 11am.

There’s talk about Roncey in NYC these days

This is from today’s New York Times travel section:
“After a multiyear neighborhood reconstruction project that temporarily cut streetcar service and starved merchants, Roncesvalles Avenue — the area’s main artery — is thrumming again. Despite their big-city location, the street’s indie bookstores, quirky coffeehouses and smart boutiques feel more like small-town hangouts, with stroller-pushing locals popping in to chat up proprietors. Tree-lined and low-slung, with a blessed absence of the chain stores that have crept across Toronto, the rejuvenated “Roncey” now makes for one of the city’s most engaging strolls.”
(Thanks, John, for catching this.)

Globe and Mail on Roncesvalles renewal: “The result is quite marvellous.”

Spurred by a recent column in the Globe and Mail, John Bowker of the RV BIA shares his reflections.

On June 17, the Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee wrote a column about the Bloor Street reconstruction, and briefly mentioned Roncesvalles. He writes:

On Roncesvalles Avenue, too, a major renovation is coming to a happy end. As on Bloor, the street had to be torn up for major work – in Roncey’s case, the laying of new streetcar tracks. The merchants took advantage of the opportunity to spruce up the streetscape. Handsome, pale grey paving stone has been laid for the new, wider sidewalk, with planters, benches and raised transit stops that allow easier access to streetcars for strollers and wheelchairs. New street-level tree planters, replacing the old, raised “tree coffins,” hold 85 new trees, from oaks to maples to chestnuts.

There were delays here, too, and lots of complaints from irritated merchants and residents. The belated discovery that a gas main lay too close to the new tracks meant that the project could not be finished last fall as expected. A dispute with a contractor over manpower caused holdups, too. But the job is on budget and just two weeks from completion, city officials say, with crews laying the final paving stones, putting in bike rings and clearing debris. Councillor Gord Perks says the city held no fewer than 37 community meetings on the design of the street, dealing with everything from the colour of the pavers to the design of the tree grates.

The result is quite marvellous. Roncesvalles, always a lively street, with its pastry shops, delis, bike stores, public library and Revue cinema, was looking a little tired before the do-over. The renovation has given it a fresh, new face. For all the pain they cause, projects like these are just what an ambitious city should be doing, seizing the chance to transform mediocre streetscapes into something better.

It’s nice to see that the hard work of the past several years is showing great results! But as nice as Bloor Street looks, the Roncesvalles reconstruction was different in a few important ways: