The Eaton Centre is bounded by Yonge Street on the east, Queen Street West on the south, Dundas Street West on the north, and to the west by James Street and Trinity Square. Its interior passages also form part of Toronto's PATH underground pedestrian network, and the centre is served by two TTC stations: Dundas and Queen. The complex also contains three office buildings (at 20 Queen Street West, 250 Yonge Street and 1 Dundas Street West) and the Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management. Additionally, the Eaton Centre is linked to a 17-storey Marriott hotel, and to Canada's largest store, the flagship location of The Bay department store chain.
Timothy Eaton founded a dry goods store on Yonge Street in the 19th century, and that small shop went on to revolutionize retailing in Canada, ultimately becoming the largest department store chain in the country. By the 20th century, the Eaton's chain owned most of the land bounded by Yonge, Queen, Bay and Dundas streets, with the notable exceptions of Old City Hall and the Church of the Holy Trinity. The Eaton's land, once the site of Timothy Eaton's first store, was occupied by Eaton's large Main Store, the Eaton's Annex and a number of related mail order and factory buildings. As the chain's warehouse and support operations were increasingly shifting to cheaper suburban locales in the 1960s, Eaton's wanted to make better use of its valuable downtown landholdings. In particular, the chain wanted to build a massive new flagship store to replace the aging Main Store at Yonge and Queen and the Eaton's College Street store a few blocks to the north.
In the mid-1960s, Eaton's announced plans for a massive office and shopping complex that would occupy several city blocks. Initial plans for the centre called for the demolition of both Old City Hall (except for the clock tower and cenotaph) and the Church of the Holy Trinity, as well as the closing of a number of small city streets within the above-noted block (Albert Street, Louisa Street, Terauley Street, James Street, Albert Lane, Downey's Lane and Trinity Square). At one point, even the City Hall clock tower was slated for demolition. After a fierce local debate over the fate of the city hall and church buildings, Eaton's put its plans on hiatus in 1967.
The Eaton Centre plans were resuscitated in 1971, although these plans allowed for the preservation of Old City Hall. Controversy erupted anew, however, as the congregation of the Church of the Holy Trinity exhibited an increased willingness to fight the demolition plans for its church. Eventually, the Eaton Centre plans were revised to save both Old City Hall and the church, and then revised further when Holy Trinity's parishioners successfully fought to ensure that the new complex would not block all sunlight to the church.
These amendments to the plans resulted in three significant changes to the proposed centre from the initial 1960s concept. First, the new Eaton's store was shifted north to Dundas Street, as the new store would be too large to be accommodated in its traditional location on Queen Street (opposite its rival Simpson's) due to the preservation of City Hall. Fortuitously, this resulted in the mall being constructed with Eaton's and Simpson's acting as anchors at either end. The second significant change was the reduction in the size of the office component, so that the Eaton Centre project no longer represented an attempt to extend the City's financial district north of Queen Street, as the Eaton Family had originally contemplated in the 1960s. Finally, the bulk of the centre was shifted east to the Yonge Street frontage, and the complex was designed so that it no longer had any frontage along Bay Street. Old City Hall and the Church were thus saved, as was the Salvation Army headquarters building by virtue of its location between the two other preserved buildings (although the Salvation Army building was eventually demolished in the late 1990s to make way for an Eaton Centre expansion).
Eaton's partnered with the Cadillac Fairview development company and the Toronto-Dominion Bank in the construction of the Eaton Centre. The complex was designed by Eberhard Zeidler and Bregman + Hamann Architects as a multi-levelled, vaulted glass-ceiling galleria, modelled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy. At the time, the interior design of the Eaton Centre was considered quite revolutionary and influenced shopping centre architecture throughout North America.
The Eaton Centre represented one of North America's first downtown shopping malls. The first phase, including the nine-storey, 1,000,000 square foot (100,000 square metre) Eaton's store, opened in 1977. The temporary wall at the south end was mirrored over its full height, to give an impression of what the complete galleria would look like. The old Eaton's store at Yonge and Queen was then demolished and the south half of the complex opened in its place in 1979. The same year, the north end of the complex added a multiplex cinema, Cineplex, at the time the largest in the world with 18 screens.
Terauley Street, Louisa Street, Downey's Lane and Albert Lane were closed and disappeared from the city street grid to make way for the new complex. Albert Street and James Street were preserved only to the extent of their frontage around Old City Hall (although the city of Toronto required that pedestrians be able to cross through the mall where Albert Street once existed, at any time 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and pedestrians still enjoy this right today). Trinity Square lost its public access to Yonge Street, and became a pedestrian-only square with access via Bay Street.
Many urban planners and designers have long lamented the original exterior design of the Eaton Centre. The complex was oriented inwards, with very few street-related retail stores, windows or even mall entrances to animate the exterior. Much of the Yonge Street façade, facing what was once one of Toronto's primary shopping thoroughfares, was dominated by a parking garage. At the insistence of the Metro Toronto government, which had jurisdiction over major roads, the complex was set back from Yonge Street. The goal was to eventually add an additional lane to the street. As a result, the complex was set back a considerable distance from Yonge Street, thus further weakening the centre's streetscape presence.
The office component of the complex was constructed over the years, as follows:
One of the most prominent sights in the shopping mall is the group of fibreglass Canada Geese hanging from the ceiling. This sculpture, named Flight Stop, is the work of artist Michael Snow. It was also the subject of an important intellectual property court ruling. One year, the management of the centre decided to decorate the geese with red ribbons for Christmas, without consulting Snow. Snow objected arguing that the ribbons made his naturalistic work "ridiculous" and harmed his reputation as an artist. Snow sued and in Snow v. The Eaton Centre Ltd. the court ruled that even though the Centre owned the sculpture, the ribbons had infringed Snow's moral rights. The ribbons were ordered removed.
The mall contains a wide selection of 240 stores,, and restaurants. There are also 2 foodcourts and 2 subway stations that serve the mall, Queen and Dundas. There are also a wide variety of shops and restaurants surrounding the complex, including those of nearby Yonge-Dundas Square.
In recent years, the Eaton Centre's owners have redesigned the mall's Yonge Street façade, bringing it closer to the street and making it more closely resemble an urban shopping district, with stores opening directly onto the street, and presenting a variety of façades to create the perception of an urban streetscape.
Further redevelopments, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, added new retail space. The west side of the complex, opposite Albert Street, was expanded. The northeast corner (Yonge and Dundas intersection) was redesigned, with a number of former tenants, including a Toronto Police Service office, relocated or evicted to make way for H&M's Canadian flagship store.
One of the mall's two parking garages, the nine-storey Dundas Parkade on Dundas Street with its two spiral stack ramps, was demolished in 2003. In the place of the garage and of a vacant development site on the southeast corner of Dundas and Bay streets, a new wing of the Eaton Centre was opened in 2006, containing Canadian Tire and Best Buy, with Ryerson University's Faculty of Business and a new parking garage with 574 spaces on the upper levels. Unlike the former garage which had access off Dundas Street, the new garage has access on Bay Street. This work was done by Queen's Quay Architects International Inc. with Zeidler Partnership Architects.
There are now about 330 stores in the retail complex, which encompasses about 1,600,000 square feet (150,000 m²), making it possibly the largest downtown shopping centre in North America.
With the demise of the Eaton's chain, the department store space at the north end of the mall is now occupied by Sears Canada, which is the chain's largest store in the world at about , though they have blocked off the top two floors. Shortly after Sears' acquisition of Eaton's, the Timothy Eaton statue was moved from the Dundas Street entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum. The complex retains the Eaton Centre name, representing an ongoing tribute to Timothy Eaton and the small shop he once opened at this location.