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Resurrecting the Gardiner, or Else

Over the years, plans for revitalizing the Gardiner Expressway have stalled. But can Toronto afford to wait any longer?

The Gardiner is crumbling, but what's to be done? Photo by {a href=""}Ottawa Bus Gallery{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

You can tell a city has vitality, if, by a certain point in time, discussions turn to what a worn-down piece of infrastructure could eventually be, as opposed to the eyesore and municipal tax burden it’s become. The Gardiner Expressway has certainly become that focal point for Toronto—though, in our case, we’re not talking about saving a part of the city’s history, as with the famed High Line park in New York City. There, concerned residents advocated for the transformation of an abandoned, decrepit piece of railway, after the 19th-century elevated line was slated for demolition by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration. It was a discussion of heritage, of preserving an endangered piece of the city’s character.

Here, when it comes to the Gardiner, not so much. Our discussions have been about doing something with the decaying expressway out of necessity, simply to stave off further decay. At least that’s the way we’re talking about it in 2012.

The discussion about transforming the Gardiner, of course, has been ongoing for more than two decades. After David Miller’s 2008 announcement that a planned extension of Front Street would not proceed, Waterfront Toronto announced plans to spend 10 million dollars on an environmental assessment of a new project: tearing down the Gardiner between Jarvis Street and the Don. “This is the least utilized part of the Gardiner,” Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell told Spacing magazine in 2008. “What we’re proposing today is doable. We can’t afford the billions it will cost to dismantle the whole thing. That will be a question for the next generation to answer.” The tear-down still hasn’t happened.

Unfortunately, a generation appears to span approximately four years, at least in Toronto. Last month, IBI Group—an independent development firm hired by the City—reported cracks, splits, spalls, patches, and other structural weak points in the Gardiner that hadn’t been noted earlier. These were found, according to the Star, in six separate areas of the eastern Gardiner, spots that the city said were free of surface deterioration. The report recommended immediate protective action to prevent falling chunks of concrete from injuring people: debris netting, reinforcement, and the closure of areas beneath the Gardiner to pedestrians.

Ultimately, IBI Group concluded that the Gardiner, in its current 60-year-old state, presents a “significant hazard to public safety.” The report says that even immediate precautionary action can’t guarantee that the Gardiner won’t continue to fall apart.

Is our only option to tear it down and start again?

In North America, replacing a major urban thoroughfare isn’t without precedent. But the process of transforming the Gardiner may be less like building New York City’s High Line, in fact, and more like the process of tearing down San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway. Heavily damaged in 1989 during the Loma Prieta earthquake, the freeway was at the heart of a local policy debate that, 20 years later, Torontonians might find remarkably familiar.

Led by Art Agnost, then the city’s mayor, city officials proposed removing the damaged freeway entirely and replacing it with a revived pedestrian plaza. Nearby businesses, meanwhile, opposed that plan fiercely. They feared it would hurt sales.

Though the proposal cost Agnost his job in San Francisco’s 1991 election, demolition began on the Embacadero late that winter. Today, walking the area’s palm-lined paths, you would hardly know that its landscape was once occupied by an aging, deteriorating freeway. Neither would you guess that the transformation of the area was once so strongly opposed.

What damaged the Embarcadero, of course, was nothing short of a 7.1 earthquake shaking its foundations loose. As infrastructure losses go, that’s a total write-off. But the difference between that and the Gardiner’s situation, arguably, is pretty negligible. A public-safety hazard is a public-safety hazard.

To some in the environmental and urban-planning communities, the Gardiner’s hazards are the ultimate indication that something should already have been done with it. Today its removal seems all but inevitable, with nearby development having eliminated any viable alternative. It’s a costly, frustrating predicament for Toronto. But to some, like Kevin Coulter, an environmental planner who works with several local firms, the long-term benefits of a reimagined Gardiner are worth it.

“I don’t think you can find a better candidate for a more meaningful act of city building in Toronto than the Gardiner,” Coulter told Torontoist. “Development is becoming increasingly contentious across the city and this is one space where everyone agrees the status quo is unacceptable.

“Redevelopment, when done right, has the potential to remove what’s always been seen as a psychological barrier to the waterfront.”

Can that grey, looming stretch of the waterfront between Dufferin and Jarvis be somehow restored, similar to what San Francisco saw with the Embarcadero? Questions of infrastructure remain the biggest obstacle to any sort of progress. Put simply, people generally want to move quickly through their cities, and a temporarily redirected Gardiner would get in the way of that. But, again, supporters of a reimagined Gardiner, like Coulter, think a progressive downtown needs fewer highways, anyway.

“Concerns about how this will affect getting in and out of downtown are legitimate,” he said, “but I think this speaks more to the need for greater integration in our transit and infrastructure planning than anything else. The fact is that while highways are essential for travel between cities, experience from across North America is showing they don’t belong in them.”

CORRECTION: November 14, 2012, 10:00 AM This post originally said that Mayor David Miller announced that a planned extension of the Gardiner “would not proceed.” The paraphrase of Miller was accurate, but the road was not: the former mayor was referring to an extension for Front Street. This post also incorrectly stated that Waterfront Toronto announced $10 million in funding for tearing down the Gardiner between Dufferin and Jarvis streets. In fact, the organization’s $10 million announcement concerned an environmental assessment of the possibility of tearing down a portion of the Gardiner between Jarvis Street and the Don Valley. The post has been altered to reflect all of this.


  • Anonymous

    Stick a fork in it.

    • James

      Burn it to the ground and salt the earth so it’ll never come back.

    • Anonymous

      put a bird on it

  • Anonymous

    The Embarcadero Freeway is a very different situation. In SF there are quite a few other highways whereas in Toronto there is only the Gardiner/Lakeshore and then up north the 401 and 407. I dont think that the SF solution would be able to handle the car flow unless it was 12 lanes wide which kind of defeats the purpose. I think they should start tunneling under Lakeshore to create a new Gardiner and then knock it down when complete. Lakeshore could then serve as a local aterial as it is now.

    • dingo

      Additionally, while the Embarcadero is a quite lovely pedestrian experience, it is extremely difficult to get across the top of the city with no highway access. The 1/101 end on municipal streets before rejoining with the 101 by the GG Bridge to head into Marin County. The gap in a major arterial to direct traffic flow into Marin makes the north of the city a total nightmare at rush hour and pretty unpleasant most other times of day…

    • Anonymous

      It will be interesting to see how many lanes can remain open and to where, once they start declaring whole sections in need of emergency closure and repairs. And how much that will end up costing.

      It will be much more feasible and cost-effective to build giant parking lots/garages in Etobicoke, and add rapid transit capacity from there.

      • Anonymous

        It’s been done – it’s called the “GO Train”

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Bury it!

  • Anonymous

    Demolish it, and then run a few extra GO trains each hour.

    • Colin Fairchild

      How do we get food and other things shipped in by truck, then? Do we use shuttlecraft, like on Star Trek? Or do we just do without?

      • Anonymous

        There are other routes into downtown for trucks other than the Gardiner… if there are enough extra GO Trains to take up the passenger traffic from the Gardiner and some from Lakeshore Blvd, then truck access will be no worse than now.

  • Kevo

    A couple other major differences between the High Line & Gardiner are the widths (Gardiner is much, much wider), the building materials (cast iron vs concrete), noise levels, and the aesthetic appeal (black cast iron vs concrete with rust).

    The Gardiner has been at capacity since the 1970s and every day I watch the highway become gridlocked between 3-8pm. Heck, I’ve even seen hours worth of gridlock come out of nowhere when someone cuts another person off. The Gardiner can’t provide anything of use to the city anymore – it clogs the couple of streets it empties out onto, blocks out the sun, looks horrendously ugly, creates noise, throws dirt into the air, and is congested.

    What needs to happen (after funding is brought in) is the electrification of the GO lines (Lakeshore E & W first) and the installation of electronic signalling so that regional trains can be run at similar time intervals as in Europe (2-5minutes). Tear down the Gardiner once decent progress is made and the removal of it will result in a) less pollution and b) less cars making worthless trips. For those of you who like reading, check out this series at Urban Toronto called “CityRail”:

    • Gul Jassad

      You want electrification of GO Transit? I do, too, but this has to be powered somewhat and I don’t think that wind can do the job; we need a nuclear plant or two to do this.

      • Anonymous

        GO has 57 locomotives, each with a max power of 3,000kW. If they were replaced with electric locos drawing the same power, and all were running at maximum power at the same time, they would consume about 171MW… or about 5% of Pickering’s output. It could also be covered by 30-40% increase in Ontario’s wind power capacity.

        So, we don’t need a “nuclear power plant or two”

  • skulchaboy

    why compare it to sf instead of boston’s big dig?

    • Anonymous

      The “big dig” is the best argument against putting the gardiner in a tunnel: a fiscal fiasco of brobdingnagian proportions replete with mafioso construction industry corruption.

      • Paul Kishimoto

        The Big Dig is just a thing, and the implied argument is pretty lazy.

        I won’t suggest Toronto’s construction industry is populated with angels incarnate, or that bad things don’t happen (for instance, the death of a worker for on the Spadina extension), but neither are we seeing (like in Montréal) mayors resigning for having taken more-or-less open bribes from construction firms. Things demonstrably differ from place to place, and the problems you mention wouldn’t necessarily attend such a project. Forewarned should also be forearmed.

  • Anonymous

    why should we spend all of our money to bury a freeway under the lake waterline? I’d rather see our money go to actually useful infrastructure projects that don’t entirely depend on fossil fuels, and that will still be useful in say 100 years. like transit lines and parks. “forget the damned motor car and build cities for friends and lovers”- some guy once.

  • Paul Lloyd Johnson

    We need the Toronto Viaduct, it’s a genius idea and would transform Toronto.