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Going Nowhere, Slowly?

Photo by citydweller from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
The Congress for the New Urbanism, North America’s leading organization dedicated to urban restoration and renewal, released a list of the ten elevated highways it would most like to see dismantled today. Our much-battered Gardiner was the only Canadian thoroughfare to make the cut, coming in at number nine. Titled “Freeways Without Futures,” the report zeroes in on the ten highways whose removal would provide the greatest benefit to the cities through which they run.
Each of the more than forty nominated highways was evaluated based on a wide-ranging set of criteria, designed to pick out those freeways which could be replaced most helpfully and easily with boulevards placed at grade level. According to the CNU, “successful highways-to-boulevards conversions reconnect neighborhoods, improve access to key resources such as waterfronts, and put underperforming land to use. Cities flourish when neighborhoods and streets are connected and when parks and shops—not highways—connect cities to their waterfronts.”

2008_09_22gardinervertical.jpgIn compiling its list, the CNU considered, first of all, an elevated freeway’s current state: how close it was to the end of its predicted lifespan and how soon it would require substantial maintenance work or restoration. This is significant in part for financial reasons, because the money such construction demands could instead go to the replacement boulevards, bringing the cost of redevelopment down somewhat. It is also politically crucial: if a highway is due for a major overhaul, it’s already appeared on our collective radar screen as a piece of infrastructure that is troubled and in need of attention; proposals to dismantle it will be taken much more seriously against such a backdrop.
The elevated highways were further assessed based on any benefits they provided—such as reduced driving time—as well as their negative impact on city life. In many cases, the freeways in question had depressed local property values and stunted the growth of the neighbourhoods through which they passed. Seven of the top ten highways—and obviously the Gardiner falls into this category—run along the water, and their presence has substantially hindered waterfront development. Community attitudes were also taken into account: the existence of local support for a potential teardown was considered vital to its prospects for success.
On May 30 of this year, Mayor Miller and Waterfront Toronto (formerly the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation) announced plans to dismantle a small portion of the Gardiner, running between Jarvis Street and the DVP, citing many of the same considerations that the CNU report does in explaining their support for the proposal. (A 2006 study had considered the possibility of taking a much longer stretch of the Gardiner down, from Spadina to the DVP.) Waterfront Toronto described the motivation for the partial demolition as follows:

The approach is consistent with Waterfront Toronto’s vision to reconnect the city to its waterfront, develop better north/south pedestrian connections and improve the quality of place in the new communities under development in East Bayfront and the West Don Lands. The approach balances public and waterfront benefits with financial viability.

The language was striking: it suggested that the city would be best served by redeveloping a far bigger portion of the Gardiner. That such a project was deemed cost prohibitive was taken by many to be a symptom of Toronto’s ailing political culture, a sign that the municipality was unable to locate the will or nerve to call for the badly-needed, but far more controversial, complete reconfiguration of the Gardiner. Reports such as the one released today rarely inspire political revolutions—at least not on their own. But for those who are deeply committed to a vision of a walkable, accessible, integrated waterfront in Toronto, and believe that taking the Gardiner down is necessary for attaining it, the CNU’s list will be a welcome boost. It may also provide some helpful political cover for those who would like to offer a more full-throated endorsement of that goal, but have not yet found themselves able to do so.
Bottom photo by Reza Vaziri from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


  • torontothegreat

    I’d love to live in Toronto the day they break the first concrete block away from the Gardiner.
    I’ve never understood why (although I can come up with many reasons on my own) they don’t replace the Gardiner with a light rail going from Scarborough to Union to the airport.
    It could be like the skytrain or Vancouver’s equivalent.

  • rek

    Getting rid of the Gardiner will make everyone realize there’s also a rail road ditch cutting off parts of the waterfront from the downtown. Why not bury all of it?

  • james a

    Assuming we actually had the money to pay for burying the gardiner and the rail corridor, I would SO prefer that that money go towards new subway development elsewhere.
    Personally, despite being a certified car-hatin’ cyclist, I’ve always loved the gardiner. There’s something so awesomely urban about the views it affords and the look of those crazy cement and green pillars snaking across downtown.
    If it were up to me, I’d extend it out to humber and get rid of the real barrier to the waterfront: lakeshore blvd.

  • torontothegreat

    >Assuming we actually had the money to pay for burying the gardiner and the rail corridor
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t it cost more to maintain the Gardiner then it would to just demolish it?

  • Vincent Clement

    CNU obviously did not see the rail corridor to the north, Lakeshore Boulevard or the tall buildings along Queens Quay.
    Tearing down the Gardiner is not going to connect the waterfront with downtown. No new corridors will be created.
    I agree with james a. Lakeshore Blvd is more of a barrier than the Gardiner.
    The City should have proceeded with the Front Street Extension. Then they should have dismantled the elevated portion on the sole reason of eliminating maintenance costs. Rework Lakeshore into a six lane road with a wide median with trees and walking and cycling trails.
    Does CNU really believe that an 8-lane road is a better alternative?

  • rek

    In Seoul there are elevated highways and elevated pedestrian paths that pass under them, and roads in turn under them, and somehow they don’t cut off anything. And I’m pretty sure some are wider than the Gardiner and Lake Shore.

  • PickleToes

    I know its expensive, but how about turning the Gardiner into an underground tunnel? That way you’ll have an unobstructed view of all the ugly condos blocking the waterfront.

  • kmaryan

    I don’t really see it as the Gardiner separating the city from the lake, it’s the massive amount of crappy property along side it. The Gardiner/lakeshore is something like 50m wide, but from Union station on South, there’s nothing but fences and parking lots. Not exactly appealing.
    Turn some of that space into park or something similar and the problem is solved and everyone wins.
    I’m with T. Rek on this. I’ve never been to Seoul, but I’ve been in plenty of other cities that have major highways cutting through the core, without causing a problem. It’s not the highway itself, it’s what you do with the property around it.

  • Svend

    I’d like to see the Gardiner taken down but at least it’s elevated and can be crossed on foot or bicycle.
    It’s much harder to cross the 401 while the Allen Expressway split a community and dumped cars into it at Eglinton. I can’t imagine where we’d be if it continued further south or if the Scarborough Expressway had proceeded.

  • Hwys2Blvds

    First off, to clear up any confusion, the CNU proposals do not call for burying the Gardiner, it calls for conversion to a surface-grade, boulevard style arterial.
    Next, as boulevard proposals go, they come in many shapes and sizes, check out the Embarcadero in San Fran for a particularly nice one. 8 lanes, 6 lanes, designed for use with transit, etc. Yes, CNU does believe that a landscapes, 8 lane boulevard would be better for the urban fabric than an elevated super-highway.
    And the final point is well taken, it isn’t necessarily that the highway is bad, so much as the way the land is used around it. But to separate those factors is naive. Urban freeways depress surrounding land values, both for aesthetic reasons and health reasons. Nearby real estate is often characteristically fitted with surface parking lots, just as mentioned south of Union Station in Toronto, and was the rule with the Park East in Milwaukee before that was destroyed. It’d be great if these monsters were surrounded by beautiful buildings, but who would want to pay beautiful building prices to use them? Besides ‘james a’ of course.