york quay harbourfront toronto

Here's how Toronto transformed a boring parking lot into a busy destination

The Canada Square, Ontario Square, and Exhibition Common spaces are standouts in Toronto's Harbourfront area, but ten years ago, their footprints were home to little more than a surface parking lot that stood as a barrier between Queen's Quay and the waterfront.

Harbourfront Centre and Waterfront Toronto opened the trio of public spaces at York Quay in 2013, and a decade later, they stand as thriving additions to the city's bustling central waterfront.

york quay harbourfront toronto

Aerial view of Ontario Square. Photo via Waterfront Toronto.

But their creation didn't happen overnight. It was a lengthy process dating back to 2005, when Waterfront Toronto partnered with Harbourfront Centre to embark on a revitalization of the quay.

The first steps came in widening the promenade between the York and Simcoe Slips, followed by the removal of the surface parking lot and the buildout of the three public spaces now enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.

Construction included the creation of a 300-space multi-level underground parking garage that actually increased car capacity at Harbourfront, despite the loss of the surface lot. The garage, which opened in 2012 ahead of the new public spaces, came courtesy of a $25 million promise from the federal government.

In a recent blog post, Waterfront Toronto boasted of how the public spaces display the organization and its partners' commitment to "transform underused lands into vibrant public and cultural spaces for all Torontonians."

"Ten years after the revitalization, this place continues attracting people to the water's edge."

york quay harbourfront toronto

Transformation from parking lot to public space. Photo via Waterfront Toronto.

The transformation from parking lot to public plazas was overseen by New York-based landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, known locally for their work on Corktown Common and other prominent public spaces.

The replacement of surface parking with public space has vastly improved pedestrian access to the waterfront in the area of York and Queen's Quay, as well as vehicle access to the Harbourfront Centre via underground parking and the informal pick-up and drop-off location at the west edge of Ontario Square.

Even a decade after revitalization, the public spaces continue to evolve through a variety of permanent installations as well as rotating art exhibits, festivals, and programming that give visitors reasons to keep coming back.

Since March 15, Harbourfront Centre has hosted Public Sweat by Art Spin, an event blending art and sauna culture at Ontario Square where visitors can enjoy five different saunas designed by artists. Public Sweat will be at Ontario Square through April 23.

Lead photo by

Jack Landau

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