Six in the Six: Half a dozen burning questions for Judy Matthews, who’s spending $25 million to remake the Gardiner

Six in the Six: Half a dozen burning questions for Judy Matthews, who’s spending $25 million to remake the Gardiner

(Image: Bob Gundu)

Earlier this week, Judy Matthews made an announcement Torontonians have been waiting decades to hear: she and her husband Wilmont Matthews are putting up $25 million to build a new urban oasis underneath one of our city’s most enduring eyesores, the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway west of Spadina Avenue. We chatted with Matthews (a lifelong urban architecture buff whose great grandfather, E.J. Lennox, designed Old City Hall and Casa Loma) about her vision for the expressway, city hall bureaucracy and why it’s important to be the change you want to see in the Gardiner.

Everyone’s got an opinion about the Gardiner, and most of them are pessimistic. Then you come along with $25 million in cash and a boatload of ideas. First things first: who are you?
First, I’d like to say that it’s not just me. It’s me and my husband Wil. In terms of my background, I’ve had a longstanding interest in the city and in urban projects. I first became interested way back in the sixties, with the “Stop Spadina” campaign. After having four children and getting them settled in school, I went back and did my MA at York University in urban planning. From there, I worked for the city and then at U of T. I’ve always believed strongly in being involved in the community and reaching out beyond my personal life and interest.

Not to be indelicate, but most people don’t have 25 million smackers lying around.
My husband is an investment banker, so yes, our money is mostly from there. Wil and I both feel strongly about reaching out beyond our personal interest and giving back to the city that has given us so much. It’s also the city where we brought up our children, so we feel a strong sense of personal responsibility.

A rendering of what the underside of the Gardiner will look like, if Judy and Wilmont Matthews get their way. (Image: Public Work) A rendering of what the underside of the Gardiner will look like, if Judy and Wilmont Matthews get their way. (Image: Public Work)

Paint us a picture of what you envision for one of Toronto’s more notorious eyesores.
We’re going to have cars on top and people below. It’s a long, linear pathway that will be 1.75 kilometres long, going from Spadina Avenue to Strachan Avenue. There will be a bridge over Fort York Boulevard and a grand staircase at the Strachan end that will double as seating for an urban theatre. There will be flexible year-round performance and programming spaces for all kinds of activities: chamber orchestras, dance competitions, experimental theatre, arts festivals, farmers’ markets. We’re hoping for a skating rink and hot chocolate in the winter. The possibilities are endless! We’re also hoping to hear from the community about what they would like to see. That’s going to be crucial for us: hearing from the 70,000 people who live in surrounding neighbourhoods.

Maybe it’s the decades of disappointment talking, but my knee jerk is that it sounds too good to be true.
The Gardiner for years has been a divisive kind of thing, and now we’re reclaiming it. It used to be anti-people; it was for cars. Now we’re turning that upside down. It does sound unbelievable after fifty years of hearing no, but I can say for sure that, now, it’s yes.

Wil and I are going to be there every step of the way. We’ve got huge support from the mayor and from Waterfront Toronto and the civic leaders in the community. We’re going to make sure that it gets done, and that it gets done by July 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday.

Your idea and your cash are about to go into the black hole known as city hall—the place where many beautiful ideas go to die. Any strategies for avoiding this fate?
As I said, we’re going to be there to ensure design control, so that it does become a reality and doesn’t get watered down. I think being private sector, it’s a little different. There’s a little edge to that. It’s not just all of the bureaucrats working on a city project; it’s somebody coming in from the outside.

You have said that your passion for urban development is about building more humane cities, a goal that seems particularly relevant in light of everything going on in the world right now. Can you explain how a public skating rink or a performance space would help achieve that?
If you create a vibrant, new kind of place where people can gather and connect, I think that can only help with all of our emotional, mental and psychological wellbeing. Downtown, there are so many people living in those vertical communities, and loneliness is a real problem. If we can provide a warm, welcoming place where they can come down, meet a friend and listen to some music, we would be thrilled. It will be common ground, a place that we all can share. In this fast-paced kind of city, it’s wonderful to be able to feel a sense of community and belonging.