Headspace: The Fort York Pedestrian Cycle Bridge

This regular online series will feature interviews with fascinating and influential urban thinkers, with a focus on discussing how Toronto can become a more engaged, accessible, sustainable city.

The Fort York Pedestrian Cycle Bridge, previously approved by City Council and originally slated for completion by 2012, is meant to connect neighbourhoods north and south of Fort York. At its most recent meeting, the City’s Public Works committee unexpectedly decided against approving a construction contract for the project. A motion will be put before council this week which, if successful, will overturn the committee’s decision and allow the project to move forward as planned. Spacing asked Richard Douglas, an activist involved in saving the Fort York Pedestrian Cycle Bridge, to communicate exactly why the project remains such a wise investment.

Spacing: What are the main objections raised by opponents of the present design?

Douglas: Cost has been the key objection raised by opponents to the Fort York Bridge.  It is important to remember that the final design and budget for the proposed bridge is the result of an intense consultation process. The consultation was a three-year democratic process involving hundreds if not thousands of person hours from professionals, City staff and citizens to say nothing of the $1.3 million that has already invested to get us to this point. Further, the funds have already been earmarked for the project.

Spacing: What were the key reasons for the development of the bridge to begin with?

Douglas: First, Celebrating History:  It is the centre-piece of the Fort York War of 1812 celebration – one of Canada’s most historic sites.

Second, Connecting Communities: It is meant to be a key bicycle and pedestrian artery by which to connect local communities directly to the waterfront.

Finally, Community Safety and Access:  The bridge provides those wishing to travel by foot or bicycle north/south a safe route to do so. The traffic situation on both Bathurst and Strachan is known by all to be hazardous particularly for young families who want to enjoy Toronto’s green spaces and waterfront safely.  Traffic congestion will only continue to increase as new buildings are erected and more residents move into the area.

Spacing: What alternatives are being proposed?

Douglas: The returning of the Fort York Bridge project to Committee at Council effectively eliminates this project. The situation becomes even more time-sensitive when you consider that Metrolinx has provided a small window of opportunity to build this bridge.  Once that window closes, surrounding communities and the City of Toronto will have lost out on a tremendous opportunity.

Spacing: In your opinion, why are the alternative proposals inadequate compared to the present design?

Douglas: The current Fort York Bridge was designed with community building, environmental enhancement, tourism, access, and city beautification in mind.  The proposal takes a long-term view and not a short-term approach. A short-term view, we feel, in contrast, will simply lead to ghettoism.



Spacing: Metrolinx is set to commence major track alterations in the corridor. At this stage, is it problematic to be considering a redesign of the bridge?

Douglas: Yes. There is a very limited window of opportunity.  Metrolinx has already amended their schedule to accommodate the construction of this bridge. The cancellation of this project negatively affects local communities, developers and the City as a whole.

Spacing: The bridge is obviously a very unique and interesting design. Generally speaking, why is it important that we, as a city, insist on better architecture and design?

Douglas: Think of the great cities of the world – they all have recognizable landmarks.  Utilitarian design does not draw visitors nor does it invite community building. The combination of art, design and function demonstrates leadership, establishes tourism destinations and draws in tourism dollars.

Spacing: How do you respond to critics that say the bridge is unaffordable because it’s too “fancy?”

Douglas: We have to build a bridge to connect these communities to the waterfront.  The City and its residents engaged in a three-year planning and consultation process where numerous alternative designs were considered.  This was the best compromise of design and budget that all stakeholders agreed to.  Going back to the drawing table is both impractical and economically wasteful.

Spacing: How does the bridge fit within larger scheme of revitalizing the waterfront?

Douglas: The City is investing millions of dollars in revitalizing Toronto’s waterfront.  Why do so and then not connect the public to access those areas in a manner that reduces congestion on already dense roadways?

Spacing: With a national historic site, Fort York, at one end of the bridge, would the city be remiss not to create a landmark bridge in that location?

Douglas: Absolutely! If Fort York ends up in the middle of condo projects it will die. Shadow cast and isolation will not be a draw for visitors.

Photo by webguy63


  1. In an automatic response to my email to Councillor Del Grande he stated: “I now have too many e-mail messages to read each and every one. So my answer will be automatic. Bridge yes but not at any cost. But… does not carry the day. This kind of thinking has caused a great financial problem for the City. We spend more than we bring in and I have to find $774 million. Post Script- Sat May 14th I visited the area. This bridge will cost 22 + the opportunity to gain 25 million from proper usage of the site. So it will really cost 47 million at the end of the day. Sorry, that is very poor use of limited funds the City has. I also noted that there were a total of 2 people in City park and a few people in the dog park and on the other side of King there was one person. Does not strike me as demand usage, at least not for today. In addition there is concern about City land which if the bridge is built in a certain fashion will increase the value of City Lands by millions and this cannot be ignored. An overage of 4+ million and other planning considerations does not justify the just spending because it is a nice bridge. What I am more open to is how about a special levy on all those properties to pay for the overage?”

  2. Luca, thanks for this interview. I would challenge Richard Douglas on one point, the final one. I do understand that Fort York’s proponents have for many years expressed concerns about the condos going up in the area. But I would argue that the condo towers, and the people who live in them, will prove over time to be the Fort’s best allies. For years, the Fort was out of sight and out of mind. But with so many people living nearby, the Fort will gain a constituency that sees its grounds as a local public space, and that is unquestionably a positive. Strange though it may sound, it will be their local park, and I’m okay with that. Eyes on the street and all that. 

  3. Thanks John, I agree with you entirely. 
    Condominium residents will likely become the area’s most vocal supporters of public space. The foot and bicycle traffic they create will also justify the expense of the bridge. In my opinion, condominium construction needs to be encouraged so long as its balanced by investment in new and exciting public realm projects. I should have asked Mr. Douglas to clarify his final statement. I believe he’s concerned that if the bridge is cancelled then the ordinance lands will be turned over exclusively for condominium development. I think he fears losing land which could be used for good public space and that aforementioned balance disappearing. Just my inference. 

  4. It’s also worth pointing out that the bridge is part of the City’s three-way commitment (with the Province and Feds) of half a billion dollars each for the Waterfront. If the money is not spent here, most of it still has to be spent on the waterfront in some way – and, in all likelihood, a less effective way.

  5. First of all Mr. De Franco – your inference was mostly correct. However, while I doubt that Fort York will ever ‘disappear’ it is not a real open space for families to enjoy as it is a heritage site with limited room for family play. Secondly and if I read his words to you correctly, he indeed visited the north end of the bridge site (two vacant, muddy, semi-construction lots) at approximately 1300 hours on Saturday. He was in company with Councillor D. Ford and another gentleman and they managed to find one of the few times that day when it wasn’t pouring down rain. His assertion that the limited number of people there indicates a “demand for usage” is ridiculous. Aside from the poor weather conditions and the muddy, water logged parking lot as deterents did he really expect to see citizens standing at the roped off opening of the parking lots waiting for the bridge to be built? Will he use the same rationale that because on his (first / only?) visit the dog park and the Stanley park baseball diamond had so few people on them – they too should be rezoned and sold to the highest bidder? The idea that developers will pay for the bridge is also misleading. They will build “a bridge” but all costs associated will be taken off the perceived value of the land at time of sale. In addition to a bridge, who will cover the costs of the necessary infrastructure improvements (water / sewage / roads / public transportation) to support his building spree. This is about profit to the private sector and I do not begrudge that fact; however, it is up to citizens and our elected officials to create vision and to build a sustainable City that provides green space and connectivity for all residents.

  6. The bridge should allow access at the mid-point, between the tracks, which is the only logical access for the residents of next-door Liberty Village.

  7. “This bridge will cost…the opportunity to gain 25 million from proper usage of the site.”

    Yikes!! He really wants to sell it off to developers!

  8. To Laurie – the developer, Diamond Corp., for at least 2 if not all 4 of the new buildings to be built on Ordnance St. had in their original outline / plans that they would build just such a link for Liberty Village residents as well as the people in their new project(s). Hopefully they too will follow through in this debate.

  9. To Bruce – to paraphrase a military expression: if it moves – salute it / it if doesn’t – paint it / if it squeaks WD40 it. In this case if nobody is there when he ‘investigates’ – sell it! I did not hear this directly but the administration is being quoted as saying – from Strachan to Niagara St. along south side of Wellington build condos.

  10. The Metrolinx factor unfortunately seems at least to postpone this bridge in whatever form it ultimately takes. As for Liberty Village, the city is studying options for a cycle/pedestrian bridge over the tracks between the western ends of Douro and Western Battery or between Shaw and Pirandello or from King/Sudbury, so that would at least be an improvement over the current access situation. A dedicated link for Fort York could also be revised to connect with Ordnance St. Furthermore, there are supposed to be plans for Portland St to be extended south to Dan Leckie Way and when Bathurst/Fort York Blvd is made into a 4-way intersection that would be another option for access.

  11. Del Grande should ask the residents of Liberty Village if they are glad the City never bothered to build connections to neighboring areas as the condos went up, waiting only until now to begin doing so. It is currently impossible for a car to move along Liberty Street during rush hour, and there are few ways for people to escape the village by foot or by bike. As a result, the proposed LV pedestrian bridge actually became an election issue, championed by the right-wing council candidate for Ward 19.

    Condo resident and Sun reporter Rachel Sa wrote a good piece on the issue of isolated condo communities here: http://www.torontosun.com/2011/05/06/sa-fort-york-bridges-death-strands-residents

    If the City does not intend for people to live in the Fort York area, then fine, don’t spend so much money. But condos are going up left and right! Does Del Grande believe that planning happens backwards: build the condos, fill them with people, and only then should the City decide whether to build the supporting infrastructure, public spaces and connections? Except by that time, it will be too late: available space will have been sold off, which is clearly what Del Grande means by “proper usage.” This is how slums are built.

    The condo owners living down there need to get angry, and understand that the City intends to leave them isolated, surrounded by concrete, with few of the services, parks, amenities and connections needed to make a neighborhood livable. The condo owners need to ask why they are paying property taxes to a City that refuses to spend any of it in their neighbourhoods, but chooses instead to abandon them to live in what could become a slum without such investments.

  12. As someone who studied bridge design under one of the leading scholars in the field and has worked on several Toronto bridge modifications, I can’t bear to read any more about this “debate”.  Toronto has no vision and is boring the pants off the rest of the continent.  Enjoy your generally pleasant, somewhat affordable, reasonably high quality of living with no soul whatsoever.

    Menn, Maillart, Lindenthal, Ammann, Roebling, Lin, Calatrava, Steinman, Strauss and their ilk would be well advised to stay the hell out of the We-Only-Talk-Big Smoke.  State DOT functionaries who like any bridge as long as it is a box girder and painted green, however, should definitely consider moving north.

  13. As far as the property value issue goes, I would hope someone takes a good look at what might really be driving Cllr Shiner’s opposition to the bridge. There is a youth shelter on Ordnance St that he supports and which he lists on his political CV. Could it be he just doesn’t want the bridge to displace that or come near it?

  14. When I leave my home, Ive have often thought how convenient it would be to have a bridge that would be a more direct route when I travel north from where I live.  Currently I have to walk around Fort York to get to King St, either via Strachan or via Bathurst.  But I am lazy and most of the time in a rush. The proposed bridge is a waste of money and beside where would it land….by the slaughterhouse…no thanks. 

  15. Annnnd this bridge would only benefit a small community of which I live in. 

  16. Wouldn’t it make more sense to improve Strachan street and provide an attractive north/south avenue that is bike and pedestrian friendly and links Liberty Village, Exhibition (both for the attraction space as well as the public transit hub), Fort York, and Trinity Bellwoods/Queen West? I haven’t been following the consultation process, but to me that seems way more useful than a pedestrian bridge 200m away that doesn’t seem to do much other than link Fort York to a couple of condo neighbourhoods.

  17. Reply to comment by Jo:

    The bridge is meant to benefit the rapidly growing communities both along King West and Fleet Street/Lakeshore Blvd by literally “bridging” the rail corridor. The corridor is an obstacle in linking the city to the waterfront. The bridge’s termini will be two separate parks — the vibrant and much used Stanley Park, north of the rail lands, and Garrison Common, which is an important public green space within the Fort York lands. If you’re not a fan of the nearby slaughterhouse, then I would ask you to consider the transformative potential of the bridge. It will create new, dedicated pedestrian and cycling links that will make the community more attractive to residential property developers. Amenities like the bridge are catalysts for positive change. Simultaneously, don’t forget that the bridge’s design is meant to reflect and compliment Fort York’s significance as a national historic site. 

  18. Jay – Strachan is going to be affected by the replacement of the rail level crossing with a grade separation. Accordingly there is perhaps a timing issue with respect to the Fort York celebrations?

  19. This bridge is not cost effective. It is hard to justify $22 million for a fancy curved pedestrian bridge when it is so close to Strachan Avenue. The level crossing there is planned to be replaced by a road bridge soon, so it is hard to believe that Strachan is a barrier for pedestrians. Cancel the bridge, Fort York can be revitalized without it.

  20. The bridge is part of a pedestrian and bicycle network than links the west section of downtown, the fort and the waterfront. There’s no room on either Bathurst or Strachan for such a network, even after completion of a level crossing. It’s also beside the point to advocate for outright cancellation of the bridge. Even the bridge’s opponents aren’t disputing the necessity of a connection. The issue is cheapening of the design. A cheaper alternative is a missed opportunity to beautify our city. 

  21. @Andrew, it would be helpful to the discussion if you could share some insight with us:

    1. What engineering expertise allows you to determine that the $22 million figure is excessive?

    2. If the answer to (1) is the same as mine (none), is it then your view that $22 million is too much to spend on self-propelled movement of persons under any circumstance?

    3. What traffic engineering expertise do you have which allows you to assert that the pedestrian access between the rebuilt Strachan bridge is sufficient to carry large volumes of people to and from events at Fort York?

    thanks in advance

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