There are reasons to keep the Gardiner, and they don’t all have to do with cars

There are reasons to keep the Gardiner, and they don’t all have to do with cars

“It’s ugly.” That’s how the chair of Waterfront Toronto, Mark Wilson, described the stretch of the Gardiner Expressway from Jarvis Street to the Don River at a news conference last Friday, where waterfront honchos announced their intentions to rip it down and replace it with an eight-lane road. I seriously beg to differ with Wilson’s assessment, and I’m not just being contrarian: whether you’re driving atop the Gardiner, or beneath it on Lake Shore Boulevard, the east end of the expressway is a truly enjoyable stretch of road. The usual suspects—Royson James, Christopher Hume—are lamenting that it’s not being completely torn down. So let me make the last-ditch argument that this chunk of the Gardiner is worth saving, for reasons that have little to do with cars.

I have never understood this city’s relationship to the Gardiner. In terms of transportation, we depend on it. In terms of urban form, it is often called a psychological barrier—but really we treat it like a malignant tumour. A visit to the urban therapist has never been considered a viable solution; the only acceptable outcome has been to cut it out—surgery with a backhoe. I believe the waterfront itself is the problem: make the shoreline beautiful, clear a few pathways down to it, and people will gladly walk beneath the Gardiner to get there. The rectangular archways of the stretch of the Gardiner now slated for demolition are arguably beautiful, and as Exhibit A I offer the photograph in Thursday’s Spacing Wire post. I also remember seeing a car commercial that was filmed down there, the product rushing magnificently past the concrete pillars.

This east-end stretch of the Gardiner—especially over the Don River, where the curves that connect to the DVP are vaulted way up high—is the one place where the highway could be transformed from a barrier into a gateway. It would require a lot of traffic signals along Lake Shore Blvd. to calm speeds, and the right mix of urban form. Sounds nuts, but it could work.

Consider the stretch of the Gardiner that runs through the downtown core: one of the lessons there is that residential, commercial and retail spaces are not incompatible with an elevated expressway. We just screwed up the design by making it inhospitable to pedestrians. The Gardiner’s east end would have been our chance to get it right. It was part of my hopes for the West Don Lands redevelopment. I had visions of sitting in a park and watching triple-decker transportation on the move: trains at grade, planes in the sky, and cars in between.

Oh well. Today Waterfront Toronto announced its own grand plan for that part of town. Their ambitions are different than mine, but it’s ambition that counts. Their intention is to bring the Gardiner down to street level at Jarvis. The remaining eastbound elevation would be torn down and replaced with an eight-lane “grand boulevard” akin to University Avenue. The project will open up the skyline completely and, Waterfront Toronto believes, increase the value of the adjacent lands. (I’m not so sure. Expressways have value. As Mitch Goldhar, the owner of SmartCentres, once told me, “Outside the downtown financial district, if you took any development, anywhere in Toronto, and relocated it beside to the 401, it would be worth more.” Wonder how Smart Centres feels about this announcement, given his plans to build a car-happy mall in Leslieville.)

Wilson noted that this stretch of the Gardiner is largely underutilized, so it is the most feasible to take down. (That’s true. I drive it regularly. It’s often empty.) They conducted some traffic modelling studies and learned that the change would add no more than two minutes to a cross-town trip. GO Transit is planning to significantly increase its eastern capacity into Toronto, which the group hopes will result in fewer cars on the reduced road space.

They plan to usher the proposal through city council in July, and then get cracking on the environmental assessment, which will take about four years—so we are still years away from extracting the cancer. The whole project will cost about $300 million, and no one knows where that will come from, but there’s lots of time to figure out the financing. There’s also lots of time for all involved to change their minds, especially if people from Pickering and Newmarket start to complain loudly about losing their smooth ride into downtown.

Gardiner proposal would add 2 minutes to trips [Globe and Mail]• A lesser dream, but a possible one [Toronto Star]• Feckless ambition: When half a dream will do [Toronto Star]