O’Keefe Lane gets a much needed makeover

Another Ryerson pathway is getting a new look.

A group of students, with help from the Social Venture Zone, wants to improve O’Keefe Lane, the school’s sketchy service alley just off Gerrard Street that’s currently lined with dilapidated fire escapes and dumpsters.

(Left to right) Sarah De Vries and Stephanie Steriotis in the newly painted part of O’Keefe Lane (Courtesy 3B Photography)

(Left to right) Sarah De Vries and Stephanie Steriotis in the newly painted part of O’Keefe Lane (Courtesy 3B Photography)

Back in 2012, the lane was set to be revamped as part of a community design development. The project, called Make a Place for People, was in partnership with ING Direct and 8-80 Cities, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to transforming city spaces. The project was delayed when ING Direct was purchased by Scotiabank.

Fast forward to last spring, when the executive director of Covenant House — a youth shelter whose office looks directly onto the lane — and the Yonge Dundas Business Improvement Association (BIA) approached Ryerson about the alley. They saw what others did: an uninviting space that had major potential.

Randy Boyagoda, director of Zone Learning, brought the idea to the Social Venture Zone and Monica Jako, director of strategic planning in the Faculty of Arts.

“They came together and said ‘You know, we really need to do something about this laneway, we really do,’” said Jako.

The Social Venture Zone agreed to take on the project.

Over the summer, third-year architecture student Stephanie Steriotis and a Covenant House resident, Sarah De Vries, agreed to develop a phased approach for rejuvenating the laneway. This included installing new lighting and emergency call stations. A  mural by local street artist Peru Dayer Jalea is already in progress.

“Another thing was that it was really smelly and dirty,” said Steriotis. “So together with the Downtown Yonge BIA, we organized the laneway clean-up. I think there was about 50 or 60 of us there and we came together as a community and cleaned it up … it’s more inviting now.”

Steriotis and De Vries went to Covenant House and asked some of the youth what they wanted the laneway to look like. Along with some practical suggestions — like cigarette butt disposal containers — some of the residents wanted greenery, and “some more life in the laneway, which is really, really nice to see,” says Steriotis.

Jen Fischer, a fourth-year environment and urban sustainability student, was spending a lot of time in one of Rye’s HomeGrown community gardens near the alley when she noticed the space was largely unused.

With some basic concerns addressed, the Zone recently launched the Reimagining O’Keefe Lane Design Competition, which invites Ryerson students and youth from Covenant House to submit design proposals for the lane. The winning design gets a $2,000 prize.

Steriotis has a few ideas.

“The Ryerson side, I think, has the coolest facade,” she says. “You don’t see that all the time … and there’s so many opportunities, because it’s like a slanted, raised wall. Benches along it would be cool, or a green feature.

“As much as the esthetics are super important, I think it would be really cool if students came up with a creative waste diversion strategy. What I was telling a friend of mine was to consider … if all of the waste bins in the laneway were in a collective space, then it opens up the laneway for a pedestrian route, a bike route, as well as keeping it accessible to the delivery trucks that come through there.”

Fischer would like to see more garden space, perhaps a pollination garden for educational use, which is not only practical, but symbolic.

“I’ve only been here for two years but I’ve never seen a project that has involved so many different people … and I think that also speaks to pollination, because I think it is an ecosystem, moving from one flower to the other,” she says.

Jako is particularly proud of the connections the project between students and Covenant House. De Vries, who Jako calls “a courageous and ambitious young woman,” now plans to study environmental and urban sustainability at Ryerson, encouraged by the mentorship of Fischer and Steriotis.

“Many people think if you have a sustainability approach, it’s about the environmental piece. And I think what this project shows is the breadth of sustainability that is environmental and social,” she says. “And it’s very much on the social side of things that creates a beautiful synergy that sometimes doesn’t exist here.”

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