Neglected laneway ready for limelight

Sketchy, dim, junky, ugly, snowy, glum and baffling.

The way people describe it, the unmarked walkway connecting the Danforth to Coxwell subway station sounds like Cinderella’s B-list for the Seven Dwarfs.

But thanks to DECA, a Danforth community group, the narrow walkway is a strong contender for a makeover plan courtesy of the non-profit Laneway Project.

Formed by a trio of small design firms, the Laneway Project aims to give Toronto laneways a rethink – something DECA’s Gay Stephenson said has already begun for the Coxwell station lane.

“Suddenly you start looking at these spaces with new eyes,” said Stephenson, a DECA volunteer and local economic development coordinator for WoodGreen Community Services.

“I must have walked through that laneway thousands of times and never thought, ‘Why isn’t there a sign? Why aren’t there some flowers? Couldn’t we paint this?’”

As part of a class exercise, students from the University of Toronto gathered ideas on improving the laneway between Danforth Avenue and Coxwell Subway Station in November. PHOTO: Submitted
As part of a class exercise, students from the University of Toronto gathered ideas on improving the laneway between Danforth Avenue and Coxwell Subway Station in November.
PHOTO: Submitted

Michelle Senayah, a designer and Laneway Project co-founder, said the group will choose two pilot projects this year. Working with local groups like DECA, Senayah and her partners will design laneway renovation plans, and fundraising plans to see them through.

“All of us living in the city can see that it’s intensifying,” she said.

Senayah pointed out other cities where once-neglected laneways have become home to trees, climbing plants, and park benches, even shops, cafes, and housing.

In Melbourne, laneways that once looked much like Toronto’s are now a tourist draw, filled with rows of tiny shops and café roll-up fronts. Some of the wider lanes in Vancouver have new laneway houses, thanks to a city pilot.

Currently, Toronto laneways fall into a kind of ‘grey zone’ in city policy, Senayah said, but her group is working to clarify the rules.

“I believe that’s part of the reason they’re not really used much at the moment – it’s not actually clear what you can and can’t do, who does and who doesn’t have jurisdiction.”

Half the Coxwell laneway is owned by the TTC, which already plans to install new lighting and fencing there, while the other half belongs to the adjacent Green P parking lot.

But owners of the pub and restaurant that back onto the lane are also keen to see it improve.

Frances Woo, a graduate planning student at the University of Toronto, said she heard lots of safety concerns from passersby when she and her class gave the Coxwell lane a temporary makeover in November. People talked about the dim lighting, garbage, and uneven pavement. But business owners said theft and vandalism have been issues, too, she said, and that discouraged them from sprucing up their portion with new signs.

For one day, Woo and her classmates put up sandwich-board signs to highlight the lane, and hung a mirror in its blind corner. They decorated the chain-link fences with wrapped-ribbon art.

“We had a lot of ideas, but the actual implementation takes a long time,” said Woo.

“The changes aren’t permanent, but they can give everyone an image of what different spaces can look like.”

After seeing how a DECA design party held last spring has drawn so much attention to the Coxwell lane, Gay Stephenson agrees.

“Talk to your neighbours, or post on Facebook,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many people would love to contribute their time to making something beautiful happen in a laneway, and to celebrate the kind of spaces where we bump into our neighbours, and meet and chat.”

For more on the Laneway Project, visit Toronto residents can nominate a local laneway in need for this year’s pilot project until Feb. 7.

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