Toronto PATH food court
Grant McIntyre

This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Investment ExecutiveSubscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

One of the most significant — but least visible — casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic in Canada lies beneath the country’s economic hub. The PATH, redundantly dubbed “Toronto’s Downtown Pedestrian Walkway,” is a subterranean network of shops, services and restaurants that links the main components of Toronto’s financial district and extends into other downtown areas.

This hypogean maze, often referred to as a city within a city, connects six subway stations, 75 buildings — including the major bank towers — and several hotels and tourist attractions. The 30-kilometre labyrinth is home to 1,200 retail businesses that, pre-Covid, employed 4,600 people and generated $1.7 billion in annual sales, according to the City of Toronto.

Shops and services range from the basic to the high-end. You could get your nails done, your shoes shined, your teeth fixed, your nether regions waxed and your wardrobe upgraded in the PATH, all without setting foot outside.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, a trip through any section of the PATH could have been considered an annoying necessity. Crowded and confusing if you were in an unfamiliar leg of the system, the PATH at lunchtime could exude all the ambiance of a suburban shopping mall on Boxing Day — without the free parking.

Now, the throng of 200,000 people who would pass through the PATH on a normal business day — commuters, office workers who rode the elevators every day at lunchtime to pack the food courts, and other visitors— has been reduced by 90%, thanks to Covid-19 measures and work-from-home policies. As a result, many PATH businesses have drawn their shutters — some for good. The network is now frequently described as a “ghost town.”

The abnormal silence of these now empty tunnels reminds us that the survival of this underground mall is essential to the city’s business culture. How many job interviews have taken place at these food court tables? How many deals have been discussed in the PATH’s coffee shops and bars?

Although the PATH as we know it didn’t begin to take shape until the 1970s, its origins date back to 1900, when the T. Eaton Co. built a tunnel connecting its main store with its bargain annex. In 1927, a tunnel was built to connect the new Union Station with the Royal York Hotel.

Today, the PATH’s shortcuts, intersections and cul-de-sacs still reveal connections to the past.

There are a couple of antique, glass-paned doors along one of the corridors beneath Commerce Court. Turn the polished brass door handle and you’ll enter a quiet, empty staircase, every square inch of it exuding 1930s design — right down to the polished brass drinking fountain.

The stairway — which feels like a secret passage or a time capsule — leads to the main floor of the old Commerce Court North, once the headquarters of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Built in 1930 and, until 1962, the tallest building in the British Commonwealth, the building has been maintained to preserve its pre-war, Romanesque mystique.

You can actually do a little banking at the ATM (a distinctly late 20th-century act) just inside the cathedral-like hall and then descend the stairs, feeling the 1930s vibe, until you re-enter the rush of postmodern pedestrian traffic.

Will that pedestrian traffic return to the PATH? Downtown Toronto’s office vacancy rate hit 7.2% by the end of last year, up from 2% before the pandemic. The Toronto Financial District Business Improvement Area hasn’t released the number of area retail businesses that have shut down permanently.

But Grant Humes, the group’s executive director, said in a statement this past October that a short-term goal is to ensure small retailers are supported. (Many of these businesses would qualify for the Ontario Small Business Support Grant and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy.)

“In the medium term,” Humes added, “our job is to give workers confidence to come back to the office.”

When that will happen is anyone’s guess, as some big banks are delaying their employees’ return until this summer at the earliest. In the meantime, the PATH is open daily, so why not put on a mask and pop in for a coffee the next time you’re downtown? You won’t have to stand in line.