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Gallery City turns empty real estate into opportunity

The strip of Eglinton Avenue between Eglinton West Station and Dufferin Street is in shambles. Take a drive and you'll find a chaotic menagerie of snaking wire trimmings and fist-sized chunks of discarded concrete from the Light Rail Transit construction. Storefronts sit vacant, while windows are festooned with faded signage coated in a glossy film of concrete dust and whatever grime the steady stream of traffic kicks up and spits back out. 
But business continues—barbershop chairs sit full and small restaurants serve up some of the finest jerk chicken in the city. Then, amongst the madness, there are these art installations—six in total—in empty shop fronts. Sculptures of maniacal, wide-eyed kids chucking snowballs at each other, a frozen ice fisherman and lofty detergent bottles floating against a sapphire sky attached to toy cars with surrealist overtones. 
They stick out like gold teeth in the grinning streetscape.
But they have purpose. 
Each installation is an artistic beacon under the collective banner of Gallery City, meant to draw pedestrians in and highlight the "for rent" spaces that punctuate the strip.
First and foremost, Gallery City is a collaboration between local artists, Hogtown Mascot, and the York-Eglinton Business Improvement Area (YEBIA). But it's also proof that it's the little moving parts that make a community and, when put in this context, these little things can have a big impact.
The idea is simple enough: convince business owners with vacant space to "lend" their shop fronts to local artists. 
"The artists get a venue to display their work, the building owner gets to show off that their space is for rent and the people in the neighbourhood have something nicer to look at then some empty storefront with god knows what inside," says John Kernaghan, co-owner of Hogtown Mascots. "There's a benefit for everybody."
The idea was brought up at YEBIA's general meeting in mid-October.
"When they introduced the Gallery City project in the fall there was some interest but many people didn't get it," says George Civello, co-owner of Hogtown. "Once they started seeing the windows go up [in December] they had two or three other business owners approach them."
The installations ran from December to the end of February and building owners were compensated for the cost of hydro during the time. YEBIA also made an agreement with the landlords that if one of the spaces found a tenant while an installation was in, they'd remove the installation promptly.
"For us, our biggest goal was to create new awareness to these space and allow entrepreneurs to look at space in a different way," says Nick Alampi, chair of the YEBIA. "It wasn't easy at first because a lot of the landlords want to do what they can (to rent) their space."
Alampi points out that one landlord ended up finding a tenant for his space, likely as a result of the attractive display hanging out in the window.
Gallery City cost next to nothing with the materials used by artists being donated by Home Depot, and Hogtown offering up its workshop as a place for the artists to work. The window displays also include a posting showing the space is for rent.
"Because of the LRT construction people who were transiting Eastbound on Eglinton were getting off at Northcliffe (Boulevard) and walking," he says. "As they were walking they were seeing these windows and stopping to take a look."
It was an unsuspected byproduct of the LRT construction, which is expected to take another four or five years.
"Mid-March the construction at Oakwood and Eglinton will be removed and we will have a grace period," says Alampi, who also owns Andrew's Formals, which sits right near Oakwood. "This is why we're happy to have programs like this and partners to help us create a positive attraction to our area."
Both Metrolinx and developer The HUB by Empire Communities partnered up for the project as well.
"Considering it started [as a] thought on a piece of paper, I think it's been a major success," he says.
Alampi is convinced the creative exercise could have ramifications for other areas of the city where businesses sit vacant.
"I think today you have a lot of landlords who are getting into a frustration mode right now where they have these properties and they're desperately trying to get tenants for them," he says. "I think Gallery City is going to lead to another landmark art event and I think you're going to have a lot of thriving artists that want to come on board." 
Bonnie Burns, one of the artists involved in the project, agrees. 
"As an artist, any chance you get to have exposure and get your stuff out there and seen is awesome," she says. "I was just keen on putting stuff up to beautify the city." 
Burns, who lives in the Roncesvalles, points out that there's no shortage of empty storefronts collecting dust throughout the city. "With the amount of stuff that's sitting empty all over the city, I'd rather look at art then what we had to clean up," she adds.
But the future of Gallery City is still up in the air.
Kernaghan sees it spreading to other BIAs and perhaps even being mandated by the city.
"The ideal thing would be to get a bylaw passed that would actually require a building owner who's going to have their space empty for a certain period of time to put an installation in," says Kernghan, adding that the city could keep a roster of artists that landlords could choose from.
Both he and Civello admit it's a stretch, but the concept of BIAs putting pressure on landlords holding vacant, decaying properties to help beautify the space isn't out of the realm of possibility. 
Alampi has plans for Gallery City as well, a far-reaching art event that populates the city and draws in artophiles to visit the city and neighbourhood. It's ambitious, but with four or five more years of discarded wire and hammering drills, Eglinton could use the boost, something to bring pedestrians to the bottlenecked neighbourhoods.
"We're hoping to reach the [big league] caliber of calendar events," says Alampi. "That's our ultimate goal, to be on par with the Cavalcade of Lights and Nuit Blanche."

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto StarThe Vancouver SunThe Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journal among other places. 
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