I recently took a walk along Danforth Avenue that had me thinking of the factors that determine whether an urban retail strip is going to be an attractive and busy one or an unappealing and dead one.
David Sucher's Three Rules are a good base. He says that they are "the fundamental 'pattern generator' for creating 'city-ness'." I haven't decided yet if he's right, but he does acknowledge that the rules are "only a start".
In any case, I set out to try to understand why Danforth goes through a lousy patch just east of one of the city's best neighbourhoods before it rebounds as decent urban neighbourhood shopping area beyond Coxwell.
For readers not familiar with the area, Danforth from Broadview to Pape is a lively place with a diversity of pedestrians, nice stores, and restaurants. On weekend nights there are lineups outside a lot of these restaurants at the core between Chester and Carlaw, but the area is really a great place for families to walk at any time of day or night.
From Pape to Donlands, there are more dollar stores mixed in with the nicer places, but it is still a good place to be. But east of Donlands, until a few blocks past Greenwood, the strip falls off. There's not much to do there, and much of the life that you find on successful city streets is missing.
Walking through the area last weekend I was thinking about this and noticed that the physical structure is dramatically different from other parts of Danforth to the east or west. Everywhere else you will find a continuous strip of small independent stores that give neighbouring residents plenty of reason to walk around, that allow them to meet many of their daily and more special needs on foot, and are generally entertaining to be around. East of Donlands, things change completely. On the south side, instead of continuous stores, you will find, in sequence, a large rental car parking lot, a mosque, a bunker-like church, a public housing development set back from the street, an LCBO with a parking lot on the side, a beer store with a parking lot on the side, an abandoned gas station, and a abandoned movie theatre. The north side is a little better, but also lacking life in the area of a wide apartment tower (or senior's residence) that is set well back from the street.
Other parts of the Danforth have interuptions like these -- think of the Canada Post sorting office, or the former Shopper's Drug Mart -- but they are in isolation. Pedestrians can walk past because they don't have to go very far to get to a comfortable and stimulating walking environment. However, when several of these voids are strung together, the whole area becomes a no-go zone. Someone living at Jones, for instance, will always walk west if she wants to stroll on the avenue while doing her shopping.
When I first envisioned writing about this, my intention wasn't to suggest any changes, but rather to paint a simple portrait to be kept in mind when planning or evaluating other neighbourhoods. The simple observation is that people don't like walking alongside big boxes that don't concern them, and several big boxes in a row form a barrier.
But then I realized another factor that could be the cause -- I don't know the history -- of how the neighbourhood came to be this way. Perhaps there is not a successful shopping strip on this part of the Danforth because there weren't enough people around to support one. Unlike other parts of the Avenue, there are very few homes to the north or south of this area -- instead there are large institutional properties that block access. One block to the north is a large educational campus that includes a pre school, a grade school, a high school and a large athletic field. Two blocks to the south is the large Greenwood Yard of the TTC.
So, it is possible to imagine that the typical Danforth stores in this area were never successful with few homes around, and the land was bought up for bigger-box development in the 70s and 80s. (Dates are my guess by looking at some of the buildings.) Anyway, I don't know if anything should have been done differently. Just pointing it out as a case for those who think about urban planning.
Also, for anyone who walks along the Danforth but never goes past Donlands... it actually has some nice and interesting spots after Linsmore. Check it out.