By Laura Blenkinsop
It’s Sheldon Levy’s utopia.
Yonge Street from the Student Learning Centre to Gerrard Street is buzzing. Students lounge in cafes, drinking lattes between classes or shop for the latest gadgets in the series of high tech stores lining both sides of the street.
Three stories above, graduate students work with industry researchers and business investors, pushing the limits of digital media and inventing new products for the retailers below. There are no strip clubs or tattoo parlours in sight.
But for now it’s just a dream.
Ryerson may have climbed out of Sam’s shaddow, but it’s still the university beside the Zanzibar. When the Student Learning Centre opens, it’ll likely be neighbours with a porn theatre and a payday cash advance service.
“It was always, when I looked out our front door, I said ‘this isn’t an appropriate front door for Ryerson and for one of the most imporant cities in Canada’,” President Levy said.
Levy’s dream is to turn Yonge Street into a high-tech digital media corridor. But so far concrete plans are unimaginable and so much lies outside of Levy’s control.
In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada on March 5, Levy spoke about the idea of a new digital media graduate program in collaboration with the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo. The program would bring students and research together to work with industry professionals to develop tomorrow’s ideas.
“President Levy is exactly right,” said Toronto Mayor David Miller. “I think that the idea of taking a place that’s already a shopping destination, turning it into a destination for high-tech digital media in a centre is extraordinary and I think people will flock to it.”
Levy is using a provincial ministry of research and innovation report that says Canada’s digital media industry lies in Toronto, where 800 firms employ 18,000. He said the report recommended that universities and digital industry should work together for the better of Ontario’s economy.
“Ultimately you will create thousands of jobs from spinoffs from the kinds of ideas that get developed,” Miller said.
James Robinson, executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area, agrees. He said he’s concerned that Ontario’s economy relies too much on manufacturing, specifically the collapsing auto industry.
“We have to take advantage of digital media in particular as being where the future is at,” Robinson said.
He added that Google Canada and GroupM advertising are already located at Yonge and Dundas in the new Toronto Life Square.
For Levy, luring in high-tech companies could be the perfect solution to his Yonge Street problem – that Ryerson can’t afford to buy it up and clean it out.
But business owners are daring them to come in and pay the high property taxes they’ve been paying.
“Good luck with that one, have you seen the property taxes?” asked Andrew Burke, a manger at Tattoos on 365 Yonge St. “I don’t think that’s right that somebody can buy a building and then suddenly they can dictate the buildings that are near it,” he said.
His co-manager, Charlie Charsz, thinks it’s just a matter of time before Ryerson overtakes Yonge.
“Why do you want to kill small people like me, my friend? I make a living out of here,” Charsz said.
Heike Muellenbach, who works at Famous Retail Depot, a basement adult video store on Yonge Street, said the space above the store has been empty for many months. She said the owner, who she’s known for 15 years, has advertised the space in newspapers but can’t find a tenant.
“The big guys are trying to push the little out and those little guys were here for decades and that’s not fair,” said Mashhour Saleh, who’s worked at the adult video store for 15 years.
Despite the objections of shop owners, Miller said it’s time for change.
“Yonge Street’s always been sort of gritty and Yonge and Dundas is one of our front doors to the world,” he said. “I think the shops on Yonge Street should befit that kind of neighbourhood. Does that mean there might be one or two less gritty sort of Yonge Street stores? Yes. I think it’s time for that part of Yonge Street to have a resurgence. To be a real destination that people go to for extremely modern kinds of purchases.”
But he maintains that Evergreen, a youth centre, is an important part of the community and will always have a place on Yonge Street.
Robinson said the shift has already started and that some properties are changing hands.
Primaris Retail Reit, a property management company that owns Yorkdale Shopping Centre and office properties in the financial district, came in just over a year and a half ago and bought the Big SLice, Bubble Tea and the Made in China/Korean Grill House buildings.
But Robinson said he has no idea what Primaris’ intentions are and no one could pinpoint a company that has shown any interest in buying up Yonge Street.
Representatives from Primaris were not available for comment by press time.
“There’s a list of companies that have (shown interest) but it’s more on the working with our graduate students and researchers. I can’t honestly say that anyone wants to sell where they are and move onto Yonge Street,” Levy said.
He mentioned that Ryerson alumni-owned Marble Media was on the list but could not reveal the names of any other companies.
The idea of having Apple Inc. move onto Yonge Street has been thrown around, but no conversation has taken place between the tech company and any government or university official.
“I’m trying to create the picture in people’s minds, the energy that it could be done. But the way Toronto goes, and the way the province goes, sometimes it gets frustrating,” Levy said.
“I’ve done all I can do. I’ve done the Sam’s and Future Shop. We’re not doing anymore. If there’s something more it’ll have to be government and the private sector.”