Front of Kew Gardens set for refresh

The Queen Street end of Kew Gardens is set for a facelift in the next year.

The first of two planned public consultations took place on March 18, with about 75 interested parties crowding the gym at the Beaches Recreation Centre to offer their opinions on the possibilities for the small section of the north end of the park that fronts onto the south side of Queen Street East.

The section in question includes flower gardens, a few trees, bike racks and benches (which currently face away from the park), the war memorial and gathering space that is home to annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, and what is – in theory, at least – the main entrance to the park.

The idea was first suggested during the Queen Street Visioning Study held over the course of 2012. That process resulted in not only the Beach Urban Design Guidelines, but also in suggestions on ways to improve Queen Street, parks in the Beach, and the interface between Queen Street and the actual physical beach.

The Beach BIA offered up the funding it had in its reserves, the city’s economic development division matched that, and the parks department kicked in its own contribution.

Ward 32 councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, who ran the visioning study in response to increased development pressure on Queen Street, said that development, and the general seasonal popularity of the beach, has not translated to successful local business on Queen Street.

“The Beach BIA is very concerned about the state of Queen Street right now, the empty storefronts and whatnot. They need more foot traffic for their businesses, they need people to shop locally, and so they were looking at a way to draw all these people from the boardwalk up to Queen to shop and eat and play locally,” she said.

“There are people who visit the Beach who don’t ever come up to Queen – they don’t even know Queen exists.”

Adam Smith, a BIA board member and representative of the Fox Theatre, said the process was not initiated on a whim; rather, the BIA saw an opportunity to help solve some functional problems with the park, while at the same time improving Queen Street, which would in turn translate into a better overall environment for local business.

“We’re not looking to do anything radical just for the sake of doing it. The whole purpose behind it was to improve the retail environment on Queen,” he said.

“We have a huge battle against the malls and the big box stores, and this is one of the little ways we thought, ‘well, if we make it better for the community, maybe the community will shop more down here’.”

While some at the meeting – including a few members of a local Me To We club and a couple of boy scouts from the 80th Toronto troop – were eager to brainstorm on the possibilities for the redo, some had reservations about touching what is widely accepted to be the heart of the Beach neighbourhood.

Lisa Rapoport of Plant Architects, the firm chosen to design the project, said her firm has experience in many different park settings of all sizes. She said the aim is to solve functional issues with minimal interference to the elements that work well already.

“We think about how we can make the smallest gesture possible to solve problems,” she said.

Bob Murdoch attended the meeting mainly to ensure the war memorial doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. He said concerns about change to the park are understandable, as concern is a marker of how much the community cares for the park.

“Your anxiety about the park increases exponentially with your passion,” he said.

For Murdoch and others, the cenotaph and surrounding area are the primary concern. A group of concerned residents had been meeting previous to the Kew Gardens redesign process, working on improving the monument. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and they believe now is the ideal time to upgrade the monument, including adding recognition for veterans of conflicts that have happened between the Korean war and the present.

McMahon agreed the current setup is far from ideal, and is hoping the monument itself might be eligible for some federal funding.

“We’ve all been to the Remembrance Day ceremony where someone’s standing perpendicular in the flower bed with the fence against their back, and other people are standing in the TTC tracks trying to dodge the streetcars, so is there a way of making that into a more welcoming gathering space?” she asked. “We don’t know where it fits in, but we really want to do it.”

Aside from the Remembrance Day ceremony, any new plan for the front of the park must also consider all the other events that take place annually in Kew Gardens. They include the Beaches International Jazz Festival, the Beaches Arts and Crafts Show, Christmas in the Park, Christmas tree sales, the Beach Celtic Festival, Shakespeare in the Park and a number of other one-time-only events.

The main functional issues being considered include the cenotaph area, the berm and a virtual wall of benches and bike racks blocking entry to the park, the inaccessible flower gardens which are not easily visible from the street, a lack of night lighting and the need for an improved main entrance to the park. The plan is also to introduce elements which could later be repeated along Queen Street, including Ivan Forrest Gardens.

Plant Architects will come up with ideas to be presented to a working group of stakeholder organization representatives, and will then bring plan options to another public meeting, to be announced in the coming months. Construction would not start until late in 2014, and would likely be completed next year.

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