Going Nowhere, Slowly?
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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.