Resurrecting the Gardiner, or Else
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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.