Shaughnessy Boulevard is a quiet suburban area nestled within the North York community a few blocks away from Sheppard Avenue East. It’s where my family and I lived for nine years after moving from Hungary. After those nine years, we moved to a small town two hours north from the city, right after the Sheppard-Yonge subway line opened. Today, Shaughnessy remains largely the same as it did back when I lived there; quiet, diverse – with townhouses and apartment buildings breaking up the pattern of regular houses dotting the silent streets – and green, with many trees looming over the neighbourhood. Travel a bit further south however towards the Fairview Mall, and drastic changes begin to take place.
The “Stubway” has lingered in the east end of Toronto since 2002, and has quietly transformed the immediate area surrounding the stations on the subway line, including Sheppard and the Fairview Mall area, into the familiar inner city jungle. Construction is non-stop, high-rises spike out of the ground in every direction like stalagmites, and that exclusive sensation I felt back in the day was immediately lost as I returned to the neighborhood a few days ago.
Prior to the emergence of the Sheppard-Yonge subway extension, the area felt more exclusive, even around the Fairview Mall where most of the bustling activity occurred. There were no condos surrounding the shopping centre, and it still felt like you were part of a relatively unique area. There was the suburban hub where I lived, the Peanut Plaza which offered residents a small dosage of everything from groceries to clothing, and a few blocks south of it was the Fairview Mall for all your other needs.
“Subways are suitable where you have high-density populations, and conversely, wherever you have subways, you attract high density populations,” said Vice-Chair of the North York Community Council John Parker. “Sheppard would be a far more attractive roadway if it consisted of a corridor of mid-rise buildings, rather than nodes of high-rise buildings.”
The affluent Bayview Village community was once home to a variety of homes, and I travelled there often for dentist appointments as a kid. It had executive and raised ranch style bungalows, split-level houses, and garden design homes. Since the introduction of the Sheppard-Yonge line, it’s been blitzed by high-rises, completely clashing with the park-like vibe the area embraced in the past.
Nonetheless some people have certainly taken advantage of their existence. When moving into the Bayview area, Aida Ghassemzeadeh knew exactly where to look for a new home, and has seen the same pattern in other people’s search for a new household too.
“I think most people move into these high rises because they’re so close to the subways,” she said.
Long-time resident of Shaughnessy Blvd., Karifa Magassouba, has witnessed this gradual transformation around the Fairview Mall area as well.
“It seems like buildings upon buildings are being built constantly, to the point where if you go out on to your balcony hoping to get a view of the city, you’ll be looking into someone else’s place,” he said. “The mall is also more fashion oriented than it used to be, and has a very clean and modern look. There’s a noticeable difference in culture in the area.”
This was evident during my walk down the mall recently. It used to be a place families could go to together, with stores for children and adults alike. I remember the large Disney store on the second floor, an arcade, alongside a bunch of other toy stores. There were of course several clothing stores and other outlets geared towards adults as well. The Loblaws was a nice touch too, but even that’s been replaced by Sports Chek. A Toys Toys Toys and a Lego store exist in the mall today, but the family tone seems to have taken a back seat to the health and beauty, jewelry, and clothing apparel stores that now dominate the entire mall. I’m not suggesting that malls are the place to go for family outings, but it had a noticeable charm years ago that invited people of any age to spend time there if they wanted to. The mall is slick and stylish now no doubt, but it vaguely resembles its former self.
Councilor Parker believes this change in culture comes as a direct result of a subway line running through the community.
“The single biggest factor in determining the shape and growth of any city is the kind of transit system we lay down,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of figuring out how to move a lot of people a long distance as quickly as possible. That is a part of the task, but not the most important one. The most important part is recognizing that we’re building a city, and when we plan a transit system we’re also laying down the fundamental structure that will greatly influence everything around it.”
The effects of subways on their immediate surroundings are clearly visible, and have greatly changed certain aspects of the communities that house these stations. However, when you’re actually travelling along the Sheppard-Yonge line you realize it’s often quite barren. The eerie silence consumes stations and subway cars along the line for hours at times, making you feel like you’re in cave rather than a subway station. Even at peak hours when it’s at its busiest you will find a spot to sit during your travels, unlike the transit on the Bloor-Danforth line, where you’re on the verge of being squeezed out the door.
According to the TTC ridership archives from 2012, the King streetcar had an average daily ridership of 57,300. Parker said this number is greater than the daily ridership of the Sheppard subway line.
Adam O’Brian, who’s lived in Toronto for twenty years, said the line would serve a greater purpose if it ran through Yorkdale out towards the west-end of the city.
“The way it sits now, it’s kind of a wasted line,” he said. “Aside from rush hour, there are usually only two or three people on the platform with me.”
Despite the line’s inefficient ridership numbers, it’s still benefited many people in the North York area with a quick and alternative way to get to the downtown core and other parts of Toronto. Parker said the line helps knit the city together, and has found it useful on several occasions.
“As a former resident of North York I certainly welcomed the extension. It made it a lot more convenient to commute to school and to work than it was back in the day when we had to take a bus or a trolley car to the city limits,” he said. However he was quick to add that other efficient transit options exist that can still connect the city together.
“Subways aren’t the only way of doing this. They’re a particularly expensive way, and for the same investment of dollars we can achieve a lot more satisfying results if were to go light rail,” he said.
The planned subway extension of the Scarborough line is often criticized for being too expensive, especially for what the extension is offering. The five-stop Sheppard line came with a price tag of $875 million. The proposed Scarborough extension, which city council voted for over an LRT extension last Tuesday, will only have three stops and will cost the city $3.5 billion.
Though the Stubway line may seem like a wasted opportunity to some, it will shine in terms of money well spent next to the Scarborough extension, which the city is still struggling to find money for.
“It’s a terribly expensive business, and we have to consider the impact on the surrounding communities and the type of development that will follow the kind of transit we put in place,” Parker said.
Subways and high rises aren’t evil entities that need to be banished, but they don’t necessarily fit in certain places they occupy today. A combination of light-rail transit and subways could beautifully weave a city together. We’re past the point of no return in certain areas now where subways have been built, but as the city moves forward with the Scarborough extension and future transit projects, it should look at the example left behind by the Sheppard-Yonge line. It’s fast, flashy and convenient for many people, but it’s brought about a series of culture changes and high rises to the North York community that likely wouldn’t have emerged if it weren’t for the subway line, which isn’t even being used to its maximum potential.