01/07/2015 05:13 EST | Updated 03/09/2015 05:59 EDT

From rodents to restaurants: can Yonge Street's laneway be improved?

How do you beautify one of the longest laneways in the downtown core?  

You start by analyzing the overflowing garbage in every one of the dozens of bins and dumpsters lining O’Keefe Lane, according to the Downtown Yonge BIA.

O'Keefe Lane runs almost the entire length of the Eaton’s Centre on the east side of Yonge Street.

"It’s pretty unsightly," says Mark Garner, Executive Director of the Downtown Yonge BIA.  

He has plans to transform O’Keefe Lane, which runs north from Shuter Street to Dundas, almost the full length of the Eaton’s Centre. But right now, he says it’s filled with overflowing bins. "You see bins on wheels rolling out into the laneway, often with food spilling over. Pasta, pizza and cardboard — no one breaks down their cardboard boxes!"

The city has scheduled resurfacing work on O’Keefe Laneway in two years time. For Garner, that’s an opportunity to revitalize the laneway and create new public space in the downtown core.

Garner has hired Wasteco, a large commercial waste company, to conduct a garbage audit. A crew will collect all the waste thrown out over the course of one day in O’Keefe Lane, deliver it to a central facility and analyze it —  "an inch and a pound at a time", says Garner — followed by a detailed report, about how to reduce the amount of waste.

Garner says he’s willing to look at everything. "When is waste generated?," he says. "With restaurants, those sous-chefs arrive early. Do we need pick-ups throughout the day? If you pick it up three or four times, you don’t need those monstrous bins."

He says some of the food now being tossed may still be edible. "Can the leftover rice be sent to social agencies," he wonders. "If one end of a carrot is damaged, can you chop it off and send the other half to a place where they can use less than perfect vegetables to make soup?"

But it’s not just rethinking food waste. Construction waste — everything from plywood to toilets — is often piled up in the laneway.

Garner says other options the BIA may be proposing to its members ran the gamut from paying for individual tags for every bag of garbage produced, as happens in Seattle, to asking the city to pass a bylaw banning the storage of garbage in public laneways.

Garner says it’s about looking at waste differently. But it could also spur a new way of looking at Toronto’s extensive network of laneways.

"Yonge Street’s not getting any wider," says Garner, "but the population of the city in the downtown core has tripled in the past five years. That means we have to start looking at laneways as though they were roads. They have to be serviced, they have to be well lit and safe."

Driving all of it, says Garner, is Yonge Street’s future economic health.

Toronto, says Garner, is competing with the rest of the world — both for visitors and to attract the world’s biggest brands. And commercial areas like downtown Yonge Street are crucially important in that global competition.

He lists Melbourne, Seattle, Miami and Chicago as cities that are rethinking their laneways and he says Toronto needs to keep pace.    

"No one wants to come to an event in Dundas Square and see the rats fighting over pizza crusts in O’Keefe Lane in the back of the Hard Rock Cafe."