The pedestrian-only zone on Willcocks Street between Huron Street and St. George Street is set to be revitalized and potentially extended.
Known as the Willcocks Common, the car-free area that is demarcated by Sidney Smith Hall on one side and Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories on the other was first launched as a pilot project in 2009, when the city of Toronto’s Public Realm Section approached the university about making a section of the street a pedestrian zone as part of the city’s “walking strategy.” The change was made permanent in 2012.
Director of Campus & Facilities Planning Christine Burke told The Varsity, “It was a really successful pilot, and I think you can probably see everyone still loves the area, and it’s really become a more open space on campus. But it was temporary for so long, and so now it’s been so successful and well used by everyone. I think we’ve been really encouraged that it’s actually now time we can actually approve and invest in it permanently.”
According to Burke, the project has just wrapped up its “design concepts” and “gathering feedback from the community” phase and is now moving into “detailed design development and construction” phase, which includes budgeting.
Concept drawings show a wider pedestrian area with lots of green space as well as seating and lounging areas. This is a change from Willcocks’ current state: scattered seating areas with basketball nets and large planters bookending the street at Huron. An article on U of T News frames the future idyllically: “Imagine shooting hoops on a court between classes, sitting under an endless tree canopy during lunch, or catching an impromptu musical performance in the heart of U of T’s downtown Toronto campus.”
Student representatives from three groups — undergraduate, graduate, and student accessibility — were selected to form a working group to consult on the project. In addition, there were two open houses where the university reached out to the student community for feedback.
At first, over 100 respondents provided feedback on the concept design via a questionnaire. The second open house was held in October in Sidney Smith, where “there was a lot of interest, steady foot traffic, and students by far made up the majority of visitors,” Burke said.
The plan is not to have full closure all the way to Spadina Avenue, especially because Willcocks west of Huron is a public street. Burke said that it would likely be a mixture of one-way traffic and traffic cones and the project will likely be phased because funding will be easier to acquire for the already-existing pedestrian zone.
The budget is “something that if I could [reveal] I would, but these are just the discussions we’re starting to have right now,” Burke said.
DTAH, the firm who won the contract through a proposal and interview process, is a Toronto-based landscape consultancy. Their other projects are well-recognized Toronto urban spaces and include the Artscape Wychwood Barns, Evergreen Brick Works, and the Distillery District.
A timeline for the project is not yet available. “It’s too early to tell, you know there’s so much excitement, we do really hope it’ll happen in the next couple of years,” Burke said. “But in terms of a timeline, I just can’t tell you… We should know in the next few months if there’s a fundraising period that’s required, and we’ll be able to tell.”