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Hit or Miss: The King Street Pilot Project’s New Installations

Installations, parklets and patios are coming to Toronto’s controversial King Street Pilot Project. Warmer weather should bring more pedestrian activity to the street, but can a dose of public art further animate the corridor? We explore.

By Mark Teo

Since its launch last December, Toronto’s King Street Pilot project has received mixed feedback. Azure hailed the project, which created a traffic-restricted corridor through the city’s financial district, as a victory – one that prioritized transit over private vehicles. The city did, too, reporting that ridership increased 16 per cent, while streetcar travel time decreased by as much as five minutes during the evening rush. But the project wasn’t without significant controversy.

The Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA), a coalition of 50 businesses, says that local restaurants are suffering, seeing a 21 per cent decline in reservations. A study by Ryerson University professor Murtaza Haide, released by the ORHMA, disputed the city’s findings, arguing that travel times have been nominally impacted by the pilot project. And a minor controversy erupted around Food is King, a city-financed discount program run in tandem with food-pickup app Ritual, which aimed to bring more businesses to King Street restaurants.

Many restaurants – and certain politicians – have complained about a King Street lacking in pedestrian activity. But that criticism wasn’t entirely fair: the project launched in the wintertime. With temperatures rising in Toronto, the city is banking on drawing bigger crowds with the Everyone is King project, which will add two parklets, 10 installations, up to 16 restaurant patios and four student projects to the street. And we’re beginning to see the results now.

Woggle Jungle. Photo: VPA Studio

Many of the installations veer in colourful directions. Woggle Jungle, for example, is a parklet made by VPA Studio, Make Studio and students from the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design that turns 400 pool noodles into a makeshift forest and seating area. The Present Moment, painted by Hello Kirsten, adds patterned Muskoka chairs to the intersection of King and Peter. Stephanie Boutari’s geometric grid, located outside of Susur Lee’s flagship restaurant at Portland Street, adds a geometric grid – which resembles a game of hopscotch – to the streetscape.

King Street just got a little louder, sure, but it’s also more interactive.

Ziggy by Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster

Other public spaces provide utility. Former Herzog & de Meuron architects Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster contributed Ziggy, a painted tubular steel frame that was built as urban furniture – but could just as easily be used as a bike locks. (In other words: useful, even if it isn’t the intended purpose.) IBI Group’s King Street Causeway, located outside the TIFF Bell Lightbox, adds modular, hexagonal clusters to the street – and while not as eye-grabbing as Woggle Jungle, they should be applauded for their efficiency. Arup’s contribution, The Spark, invites cyclists to power an illuminated sculpture by pedalling, a tidy reminder that cyclists are welcome here, too.

King \ St by BRENS North America and O2 Planning + Design

There’s a lot to like about King \ St, a modular green park – the first of its kind – developed by BRENS North America and O2 Planning + Design. At street level, grass is grown in recycled automotive textile waste. Colourful benches, complemented with murals by artist Andrea Manica, form rooms that, when viewed from above, spell out “King St.” Better yet, each cluster is armed with photovoltaic panels, which gather energy that allows passersby to charge their phone while relaxing. It’s reason to linger, especially if your phone battery is dying.

Face to Face / Tête-à-Tête by Plant Architect. Photo: Steven Evans

Plant Architect’s Face to Face / Tête-à-Tête is also an impressive addition to the streetscape, especially considering the parklet is only six feet wide. With two boomerang-shaped tables – one facing the street, one facing the sidewalk – and 13- and 16-foot benches that zigzag around a deck, there’s a certain intimacy here. That’s intentional: the firm says that it wanted to recreate a family-dinner atmosphere, only one where people-watching (and unexpected encounters) loom large.

King Street Pilot Project Installations: King Street Pilot Project Installations: Face to Face / Tête-à-Tête by Plant Architect. Photo: Steven Evans
Photo: Steven Evans

Viewed from above, the parklet, running between Victoria and Toronto streets, looks even bolder, with its name projected across its surface in bold orange text. The firm describes it as a dynamic projection, and it’s easy to see why – it shapeshifts depending on viewing angles and context.

Asphalt Poetry by Plant Architects and Ronna Bloom. Photo: Steven Evans.

Asphalt Poetry, Plant’s temporary installation at Brant Street, also makes an outsized impact. A collaboration with poet Ronna Bloom, the poem can be read equally from both the north and the south, and – ever cognizant of its surroundings – is legible to be read in pieces. Emblazoned in the telltale colours of the road (namely, asphalt grey and surface-marking yellow), the poem is an ode to urbanity, placed in the one of the pilot project’s newly created transit waiting areas. Like a body’s arteries, the poem suggests, cities rely on their roads for connectivity and survival.

Photo: Steven Evans

“I don’t know where I’m going and the city calls to my voices, my limbs, all my uncertain directions, saying: Lie down in the not knowing,” says the poem. “Lie down in me.” It implores us to embrace the unknown future of King Street – whether it’s animated by public art or by traffic.

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