If you’ve walked around the area surrounding the Yonge and St. Clair intersection (which presumably you have), you may have noticed a new(ish) logo that’s popped up. You may also have also noticed the new art, bike lanes, and initiatives that paint these midtown streets....something is blooming here. But you may not know exactly where they’ve all come from. At the heart of all of these projects is the Yonge + St. Clair Business Improvement Area. And at the head of it all is Mackenzie Keast, the executive director.
First, let me take you back to a time when Yonge and St. Clair looked much different than it does today: In the 1980s, Yonge and St. Clair was a retail hub full of mom-and-pop shops. There were two bustling movie theatres; the area was teeming with retail life. Eventually, though, the demographics became older and retail businesses left. The once busy neighbourhood became yet another quiet area outside of the central business district. But as the neighbourhood transitioned away from being a retail centre, the office towers that line the streets got more love. It was when a new property owner moved in and bought seven local towers that a plan to rehabilitate the area was brought up. “They were a big part of organizing the local community and saying, ‘hey, we can take a different path here, we can work together and make Yonge and St. Clair an amazing destination again’,” Mackenzie Keast said. And so the idea to reinvigorate the area was born. The Business Improvement Area was created in 2018, with Keast hired as the inaugural executive director.
“In a nutshell, a business improvement area is a defined geographical neighborhood in an urban area where the business owners and property owners have come together and decided they want to pay a little bit of extra cash every year and use those funds to help improve their neighbourhood,” Keast explains. Included in these improvements are planters with flowers, benches, and new events. “We try to create a brand identity for the neighbourhood.” This is what all business improvement areas aim to do: to put their neighbourhood on the map, and to showcase what the area has to offer. All business owners come together every month to strategize. The idea of a BIA was created in Toronto back in the ‘70s - an idea that has expanded to cities across Canada, the USA, and all over Europe.
So what does this mean for the people who live and work here? “The local residents play a critical role in helping us identify where we want to go as a commercial community,” Keast says. A thriving commercial community attracts more residents and businesses, creating a more vibrant area. People want clean, fun, and safe streets - and planning the community with the help of local businesses helps to achieve just that. This also helps to create an identity, allowing Yonge and St. Clair to become one of Toronto’s many diverse neighbourhoods.
One of the BIA’s big focuses was to invest in art. According to Keast, these new projects “beautify the neighborhood, give it a sense of life and character, attract people to the area, and give back to the artistic community.” And I think the new installations have done just that.Their first project was the “Tunnel of Glam,” a tunnel full of sequins and light just north of St. Clair during the holidays. Since this fan-favorite installation launched, they have partnered with DesignTO and independent artists to bring bigger pieces of art into the neighbourhood, including some murals and sculptures you may have noticed during lunch or your commute. These activations are reminiscent of a time before when the area was a hub for arts and culture.
Our neighbourhood is becoming a lively hub again.