Transformation at the End of the Line: Placemaking at Gunns Loop

Gunns Loop may not appear on the rollsigns of westbound 512 St. Clair streetcars in Toronto, but with its recent reconstruction, it now has a proper sense of place. It is the western terminus for the city’s northernmost streetcar route; however, since its completion in 1981, it has lacked a design worthy of a terminus in Toronto’s iconic streetcar network. It was a banal quarter circle of concrete and asphalt, with some grass and a chain-link fence around the edges. Some generic shelters and a few shabby utility poles with mundane street lights broke up its featureless sterility.

Fortunately, the recent streetcar right-of-way project on St. Clair Avenue West involved a complete overhaul of the public realm. This time around, design would not be neglected. Intuitively, Gunns Loop was one of the last parts of the transit project completed between 2005-2011. It was transformed into a public space with polished landscape and urban design. The new design has not only enhanced this transit facility, but also the community itself with a beautiful new public space. Stepping off the streetcar onto the sheltered and attractively paved platform is now a more interesting and formal experience which evokes the “higher-order” transit that light rail can be. The loop is now a public space with a sense of culture and welcoming refinement, and no longer just a banal piece of infrastructure. It now gives people a sense of place.

It is worth taking a closer look to better appreciate the design achievements at Gunns Loop. The attention to detail is impressive and above average, suggestive of Toronto’s growing maturity as a leading metropolitan city through progressive policies and exemplary city-building projects. There are still issues to address on St. Clair Avenue West like the dated and crumbling underpass between Keele Street and Old Weston Road, but progress is tangible. It should be acknowledged and celebrated.

The following photos were taken in the fall of 2011. Clicking on a photo will load a higher resolution version.

Even from a distance, the cluster of distinctive St. Clair Avenue West street lights used at Gunns Loop to light its streetcar and bus right-of-ways attracts attention and hints at its role as a streetcar terminus and transit node. Also visible in the background centre are two traditional Toronto street lights with elegant arms gently curved in an S shape and a curved support bracket. All of these street lights emit white light for more natural-looking streetscapes at night without the kind of spatial discolouration produced by orange sodium vapour lights.

Even the view east down this first laneway north of St. Clair (between Symes Road and Gunns Loop) has been made more interesting and distinct with the redesigned transit space. The elements that stand out in this context include the sleek platform shelter placed at an angle as well as the vehicular lighting. Maturing trees may make this scene more lush in future summers.

This walkway at Gunns Loop provides a connection west to Tarragona Boulevard, a residential street. It is attractively paved with light and dark slabs in a shape recalling stone, with the dark slabs also having a slight lustre. This paving material and design appears on all walkways and platforms at the loop, and provides visual continuity with other pedestrian areas associated with the streetcar line on St. Clair Avenue West such as streetcar stop platforms. Post and ring bicycle parking is available here, as well as in the central walkway.

This view is of the walkway in the previous photo, looking west to the houses and park along Tarragona Boulevard. The gables along the side facade of 1 Tarragona Boulevard provide some visual interest to what would have been a stark brick wall, enlivening views from Gunns Loop. Visible here on the left is the walkway lighting which consists of relatively thin metal tubes with slits at the top for the emission of light. These elements are sleek and contemporary, and fit into the landscape comfortably.

The landscaping is lush, with an arrangement and of trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses. The effect does not appear to be groundbreaking in landscape design, but attractive nonetheless with bands of contrasting colours and textures, as well as height provided by the trees. Many trees at Gunns Loop have spot lighting for accentuation at night, which furthers the polished look of the space. One hopes that with proper maintenance, they will be able to mature, and that diagonal views like this one southeast to the intersection of Gunns Road and St. Clair will be maintained as the shrubs and trees mature.

The streetcar platform is seen from the lawn near the northwest walkway with St. Clair Avenue West on left. This platform design is used for stops all along the 512 streetcar line, but it is nicely detailed and an appropriate choice even for more important points along the line like the terminus. The concrete base is textured, and the structural supports are tubes and triangular beams with wood inlays. The angular form is distinctive, and there is ample space for transit and community information. While it is attractive and useful in most weather conditions, the shelter does not appear to provide much protection from the elements in storms, and the seating feels like an afterthought. Transit City LRT lines should have wider platforms, more and better seating, and more substantial shelters. Two lighting standards facing each other provide a subtle sense of monumentality, as if guarding the platform.

Taking a closer look at the generous information panels in the shelter, one sees a thoughtful panel with local history covering industries such as those of the meatpacking district and the Campbell/Maple Leaf flour mill on Junction Road. This feature is common to most stops along the 512 streetcar line and provides a great introduction to the unique and interesting histories of the neighbourhoods served by the 512 streetcar. The centre panel seems to be for community announcements, while the third is a TTC transit system map.

A 512 St. Clair streetcar has arrived and disembarked riders are walking towards St. Clair Avenue West. A crossing is located in front of the streetcar for those headed for the bus platform or taking a more diagonal route towards the signalized intersection at Gunns Road. One would walk in the direction towards the camera to get to Tarragona Boulevard.

A 512 St. Clair streetcar awaits passengers at the platform. The shelter supports’ wood inlays are visible at the tips of the triangular beams holding up the shelter roof.

Stone blocks (or cobblestones colloquially), were an unexpected but welcome touch of traditional streetscape beauty. Here they’re ornamental, installed on both sides of the streetcar right-of-way. Up to the 1970s, the TTC used granite blocks rather than concrete or asphalt around streetcar tracks, which makes Toronto’s roadways appear less bland in historical photos than the mere concrete and asphalt used almost everywhere today. The ornamental use of stone blocks by curbs along roadways is common in Europe (and of course, entire streets paved with stone); here in Toronto we often see a row of red bricks. The effect is attractive, though the uneven lines of blocks and large gaps between them don’t lie: we don’t do this very often in Toronto anymore.

This photo was taken from just south of the streetcar platform, with a walkway leading to the platform visible in the foreground. In the background is a unique wooden fence that seems to be a noise barrier. It is impressive that the aesthetics of even such utilitarian elements were taken into consideration, and such attention to detail furthers the sense of place at Gunns Loop. I am curious how effective this barrier is for people who live near the loop; I live about half a kilometre away and can occasionally hear faint squeals in one room as the streetcars turn back onto St. Clair from the loop.

A comfortably wide central walkway connects the bus platform with the two walkways connecting to the streetcar platform and surrounding streets. Though cycling to bus and streetcar routes appears to be relatively rare in Toronto, it may be practical for some people and good to accommodate with the post and ring parking seen in the middle of the walkway.

Streetcar stops along St. Clair received colourful and varied public art mounted on top of the shelters. The approach was different at Gunns Loop, with poetry by Rishma Dunlop in the theme of reflections on urban life punched through a panel of what appears to be corten steel (meant to have that rusty appearance for the colour and durability). The panel is prominently located at the northwest corner of St. Clair Avenue West and Gunns Road, mounted on a small, curved concrete retaining wall. The retaining wall holds a gentle berm facing the bus platform.

Seen from the central walkway, passengers get on a 71 bus at the bus platform. Its 77 route sign is prematurely turned on; the bus begins route 77 after the driver returns to Runnymede subway station from the 71 route to Gunns Loop.

Looking across the central walkway from the walkway to the streetcar platform and Tarragona Boulevard, one sees more of the tube lighting, post and ring bicycle parking, and the streetscape along the opposite side of St. Clair. Big box stores such as Canadian Tire do not seem appropriate here with entrances far from the street and much of the site used for surface parking lots. The store is by design car-dependent, and that means more traffic on our streets. A less car-dependent street of dense, mixed-use buildings would make better use of the upgraded transit infrastructure and potentially provide a vibrant main street for this neighbourhood. That’s not to say that the existing stores are unwelcome; they could be reconfigured as part of denser mixed-use developments, using a store format which has emerged in downtowns throughout North America in the 2000s.

Unfortunately, in spite of the beautiful redesign of Gunns Loop, some have not treated it with care as seen in this fall 2011 photo. The lawn around the streetcar right-of-way was damaged by vehicles repeatedly driving over it along the edges of the streetcar right-of-way. This damage will have to be fixed, and maintenance people reminded to stick to the paved right-of-way or bus area, which is easier to drive through.

Finally, the view east along St. Clair Avenue West from the bus right-of-way at Gunns Loop shows the visual continuity of roadway lighting and shelters along the streetcar route, all vastly superior to the generic features used before. The retaining wall at the northwest corner of St. Clair and Gunns Road is a sculptural concrete form, softened by a similar combination of trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses as in other areas of Gunns Loop.

Conclusion

Through functional and beautiful design, Gunns Loop now has a strong sense of place appropriate for the western terminus of a line in Toronto’s iconic streetcar network. West of the terminus, the remaining 2.4 kilometres of St. Clair have dysfunctional transit service consisting of two separate routes (71 and 79B) with either infrequent or irregular service. It is not desirable for Gunns Loop to remain a terminus for long given the need for better service further west along St. Clair. However, the TTC may retain the loop for a long time even with a westward extension the 512 streetcar. If it will no longer be needed by the TTC, Gunns Loop seems easily reconfigurable for an attractive public square. As this neighbourhood regains a sense of place after the end of the meatpacking era in the 1990s and subsequent generic big-box redevelopment, the quality transit and attractive public spaces achieved in the St. Clair Avenue West streetcar right-of-way project will go a long way towards cementing a greater sense of place not just at Gunns Loop, but for this whole neighbourhood.

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