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What Shall We Do With The Gardiner?

Take it down? Fix it? Try to enhance the space around it? A look at the various alternatives Toronto is considering for the future of the Gardiner Expressway.

After a three-year hiatus, city council has ordered staff to resume work on looking at the long-term future of the Gardiner Express—specifically, the portion of it that runs east from Jarvis Street to the Don River. The gallery above gives a look at the various alternatives being considered, ranging from a restoration of the current roadway to its complete removal. Below, some history, and an analysis of what comes next.

The Gardiner’s History

From the Toronto Metropolitan Area Master Plan (1943): the thick dark lines show a proposed network of urban superhighways; the dark regions indicate existing or proposed industrial areas.

Toronto’s political history of the mid-20th century is all about highways, and the Gardiner Expressway is a central part of that story. Early designs for a full network of superhighways within the city focused as much on access to industrial lands as on the still-small core office area.

Construction of the Gardiner
Premier Davis cancels the Spadina Expressway
Crombie Commission recommends full removal of the Gardiner
Planning for removal of section east of the Don River
Removal of section east of the Don complete

March 2009
Environmental Assessment process starts for Jarvis-to-Don segment
September 2009
Design competition for various Gardiner options launched
Summer 2010
Design competition completed
Fall 2010
Municipal election; work on EA stopped

May 2013
Council approves resuming work on the Environmental Assessment


March 2014
Recommendation presented to council
Completion of EA process, including provincial approval
Design and preparation work
Construction begins

Once the Gardiner was built, with an elevated roadway that began to cut across the harbour, Torontonians got a better sense of what these urban highways might look like. Ever since, the very idea that we should have such roads has been championed by some and hated by others.

After the Gardiner was complete, many people turned their attention to the proposed Spadina Expressway, and the damage it would bring to the old central part of Toronto. A concerted opposition effort led to the decision to cancel the Spadina project in 1971, and focus more heavily on transit. In making that choice Queen’s Park saved Toronto from becoming a city buried under a web of ramps and flyovers.

The Current Problem

The Gardiner, and its eastern companion the Don Valley Parkway, are already in place, and give a taste of what might have been if the network was complete. But 50 years later, the Gardiner is in sorry shape. Patchwork repairs no longer will do, and a major rebuild of the structure is essential to keeping it safe for traffic into future decades.

Although at one point there were proposals to dismantle the entire Gardiner and replace it with a mixture of surface road and tunneled highway, this scheme is no longer on the table for the central and western sections of the expressway (from Jarvis westward). On May 7, 2013, Toronto council approved a $500 million reconstruction project [PDF] to rebuild the Gardiner starting in the west and working toward the core. This project will continue through to 2019 ending at Rees Street (east of Spadina).

East of downtown, the situation is quite different. Several years ago plans to rebuild the eastern portion of the expressway, work that was originally slated for 2013-17, were put on hold to allow for a robust examination of the road and its long-term future. City council called for an environmental assessment (EA) of possible alternatives for this section, including taking the roadway down. Public consultation began in March 2009, council approved the first stage of that EA (establishing its terms of reference) in August, and the Ministry of Environment signed off on the process on November 30.

Four broad options were included in the terms of reference for the Gardiner assessment:

  • Maintain the existing expressway.
  • Improve the existing expressway by making the space around it more inviting and actively used.
  • Replace the expressway with a new structure.
  • Remove the expressway and build a new road at grade.

The EA began with a design competition to examine possible treatments of both the expressway and the lands around it. Six firms were invited to produce plans of what might be done with the Jarvis-to-Don segment and their work finished in mid-2010.

Then there was an election.

With Rob Ford on the warpath against David Miller-era transportation plans, the prospect of actually dismantling a chunk of the Gardiner seemed less likely. City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto staff decided to shelve the EA—a decision that came back to haunt them a few month ago, when Toronto council regained the political will to act independently of the mayor, and instructed staff to restart the assessment process.

How We Actually Use the Gardiner

The updated plan for revamping the Gardiner, showing the timeline for different sections of work. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

On June 13, 2013, the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto jointly presented the 2010 design proposals at a large public forum, the kickoff for the revitalized EA. These proposals, together with a few suggestions from interested members of the public, were displayed in considerable detail on large panels. For context, examples were shown of elevated highways in other cities that have been through similar discussions. The issues and the presentations are summarized in the slide deck [PDF] and a full video of the event.

One important factor is that the eastern Gardiner is not functionally the same as its western half. Originally, this road would have carried traffic not just from the Don Valley Parkway, but also the Scarborough Expressway, one of the unbuilt parts of the abandoned highway network. The existing structure is considerably wider than needed for the demand that is actually placed on it. Moreover, the Jarvis-to-Don segment functions mainly as a link from the DVP to the downtown core, and is not complicated by many busy ramps to the local streets. The eastern Gardiner serves a lower demand than the western section, and much of the traffic on that eastern section is bound for the core, not further west.

The challenge is to find a road configuration for the Gardiner and Lake Shore that addresses traffic needs while improving the space around the expressway structure.

The Design Competition

The results of the design competition tend to be heavy on architectural work, showing how a neighbourhood would be constructed around the expressway as opposed to the physical form of the roadway itself. Since the competition was held in 2010, development plans for the area have evolved, and some of the schemes may conflict with the newer proposals for the surrounding areas. The designs should be viewed as starting points for debate, as a source of ideas, not as definitive statements.

The eastern Gardiner suffers from its northern neighbour, the railway corridor, which blocks the evolution of the ground-level space as a passageway. It’s important to bear this in mind, especially for options that call for maintaining the current structure but improving the area around it. For that to make sense people would have to spend a bit of time in the area as a destination, not simply pass through on their way elsewhere. The presence of more attractive areas nearby—namely Queens Quay and the waterfront—pull foot traffic away from, not toward, the Gardiner. This is a challenge for those who would exploit the space under the existing structure.

Some proposals include a transit corridor, but this runs into a number of problems. The Gardiner will not be rebuilt until the mid 2020s, after development on Queens Quay is well advanced and a higher capacity local transit line already serves that street. Anything at the Gardiner corridor faces competition from what will already exist. Moreover, a new highway will end at Jarvis, and a transit line will have to find its way westward through current structures.

There is much to digest in the design proposals, and some of these will not survive cost or functional reviews. Toronto will likely wind up with a hybrid scheme, and every proposal is worth looking at for the elements it can contribute.

The City of Toronto is conducting an online consultation about the future of the Gardiner. You can submit your thoughts until June 30.

  • Gardiner rehabilitation main site
  • Environmental assessment terms of reference [PDF]
  • Design competition [PDF]
  • City presentation to Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (April 2013) [PDF]
  • City presentation at public consultation [PDF]


  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    Some of these proposals seem to miss that one of the biggest problems with the Gardiner/Lake Shore isn’t a matter of maintenance, it’s a matter of scale. Shifting one next to the other or otherwise adding road width would only make it worse. Make the transportation space and the adjoining spaces liveable and useful for people who aren’t driving, or displace as much of it underground as possible.

  • Moaz Ahmadmoa

    Back in 2008 the Star talked about shifting the Eastern Gardiner onto an expanded railway berm, opening up Lakeshore Rd to the air. The only challenge I can see with this is that they would have to build new crossing and ramps over the Don River (for the Gardiner and DVP) and there would be a challenge at Jarvis as the expressway ends because of the design of the ramp. I don’t think they would want to recreate the ramp west of Carlaw & Lakeshore at Jarvis and Lakeshore.

    I think the most interesting thing that will reshape the discussion about the Gardiner is the new Simcoe off-ramp and the reconfiguration of York-Bay-Yonge off-ramp.

    I know that construction isn’t part of the Gardiner East discussion but it is very significant because it will change the way we look at the Gardiner.

    Cheers, Moaz

    • John Duncan

      The real challenge I see with that is getting the railway companies to let it happen, especially since they are federally regulated.

      Think of the pain and delays for something as simple as a pedestrian bridge down at Fort York and multiply that be several thousand.

      Of the ideas presented, I like the (unaffordable) tunnelling best (although that should start at the Humber, not Jarvis), followed by the ones that propose a shrunken Lakeshore with buildings under the Gardiner structure (which again should start at the Humber).

    • Tim van Putten

      Instead of expanding the berm, cut off the southern edge of it with a caisson wall, like how we do condo excavations, and either at the same time or decades later, use this structure to excavate a highspeed rail tunnel. Tunnel Boring Machines launched from Bay St across from the ACC will take the tunnel west under Union.

  • JDHalperin

    Excellent work here, Steve! Thanks.

  • Jacob

    Whatever we do, it’s going to be years of hell to do it. No matter what.

    • Rico_Featherbutt

      Why is that a problem? It’s simply the reality of the situation.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    I’m surprised by how few comments this article has.

  • Rico_Featherbutt

    Sorry, but much smaller urban centres in countries like Switzerland bury their routes. Also put some public transit on top. Or integrate the two, seeing that we’re looking for more downtown transit options. The City will only handle so many cars, and that’s the end of that. There was a poll on the design challenges for such a project, and burying it with a surface route of 4 lanes with transit and surface routes for cycling and pedestrians.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      Switzerland is also full of mountains, which makes burying less expensive than cutting, and drastic changes in elevation and curves make the road longer than it needs to be. South Korea, also mountainous, does the same thing.

      We should be glad nobody is proposing what Japan does: put the highway out on the water.

      • Rico_Featherbutt

        Go to Switzerland and you’ll find that lots of it have little mountains. I lived in one such place that had buried their local highway.

  • kEiThZ

    Bury and toll. It’s the only acceptable way the public will accept anything done to the Gardiner.
    Anything that smacks of reduction in road capacity will be rejected outright by voters. Keep the capacity. Make drivers pay for it instead.