LORINC: Beware what you wish for in Gardiner debate


Hands up everyone who loves Lakeshore Boulevard east of the Don, where the Gardiner stub once stood, a monument to an earlier generation’s failed plans.

More than a decade after Jack Layton, then a local politician, convinced council to spend $39 million to demolish the orphaned offspring of the Scarborough Expressway, Lakeshore remains a soulless suburban arterial, adrift in the alien world of an otherwise urban downtown. Like any big old road you’d find in the 905, it is forbiddingly wide, perfunctorily landscaped and discouraging to street life.

Yes, the Martin Goodman trail runs along the south side, as it did before the demolition. But there’s zero evidence of urbanization along that stretch. It’s a bowling alley of large footprint parcels with low-slung big boxes set waaaay back.

Even if the city persuades landowners to intensify and create pedestrian-oriented development, those buildings will gaze out onto eight lanes of high-speed traffic. I’d go so far as to predict it will take generations before it becomes a place you’d want to linger.

Lakeshore East, in other words, stands as a cautionary tale for residents and planners who want the city to resume the environmental assessment on the Gardiner’s future, with an eye to removing some or all of the road Fred built.

I have no objection to the city re-starting the EA. But I remain deeply skeptical about whether even a flush and highly motivated council would succeed at replacing the Gardiner with the sort of edifying, urban-minded vision outlined in this here on Spacing before the holidays by renowned planner Ken Greenberg.

It seems to me that the debate about the Gardiner’s future, or lack thereof, pivots on two key issues: (i) Will whatever succeeds it actually represent a meaningful improvement to the public realm along the waterfront? (ii) Could re-igniting the tug-of-war over this highway negatively impact arguably more important city-building debates, namely future transit financing and development?

First, a bit of history: Some local urbanists have been dreaming about removing the Gardiner for a long time, invoking various schemes, including tunnels in the lake. The latest institutionalized push traces to Robert Fung’s 1999 waterfront revitalization strategy, which addressed itself to the possibility that the city would win the 2008 summer Olympics and thus needed to a more presentable waterfront.

Fung’s vision, taken up by planning consultants and city officials, involved partially burying the Gardiner from the CNE eastwards. But the cure, in that case, was much worse than the disease, as early technical work-ups revealed that the tunnel entrance/exits would consume huge amounts of space. What’s more, the multi-billion-dollar plan (no reliable estimates were ever developed) depended on the construction of the Front Street Extension – a prohibitively expensive mini-highway running through Liberty Village and on towards Bathurst.

The city, of course, lost the bid to Beijing, thus removing an important deadline. In the aftermath, architects Calvin Brooks and John van Nostrand pitched an imaginative alternative – shifting Lakeshore out from beneath the Gardiner and allowing new uses (small warehouses, covered public spaces, etc.) to develop under the highway. Their argument: that the real impediment to an improved public realm is the Lakeshore, not the elevated highway. By urbanizing the former and making innovative aesthetic improvements to the Gardiner’s supporting structures, you create a more forgiving pedestrian experience south of the tracks.

After the 2003 election, David Miller also began advocating a third solution: a partial demolition from Jarvis to the Don. Miller and others noted that dismantling the Gardiner west of Jarvis would cost billions yet make little difference aesthetically, as the highway abutted by the back-sides of a row of condo towers.

What’s more, they noted, the section between Jarvis and the Don is the least used portion – most people heading into the core peel off the Don Valley Parkway at Richmond, or exit the Gardiner at Spadina or York – and expendable if the road capacity can be replaced with an at-grade boulevard.

In 2008, when Waterfront Toronto and Toronto council voted to support an EA on removing the eastern portion, possibly with an eye to transforming Lakeshore into an eight-lane road. The estimated project cost: $300 million, a number that almost certainly underestimates the actual expense (e.g., associated changes in the off-ramps further west to accommodate heavily traffic volumes).

Throughout this whole melodrama, however, electoral politics and development have continued to close off possibilities, and there’s little reason to believe that this dynamic will change, even in the face of a $700 million repair bill.

By failing to control development on strategic land south of the highway, the city essentially doomed the Brooks/Van Nostrand plan, the most urban-minded of all the solutions presented to date. And as we now know, Waterfront Toronto hit the pause button on the EA in anticipation of the last election.

Comparing what exists today to the political and physical landscape circa 1999, it’s very important to make one obvious but often over-looked observation: the highway has done nothing to constrain investment. Much of “South Town” has risen in the past decade and a half. Both residential and office developers have had no trouble selling or leasing space that literally overlooks the highway. So the old assertion – that removing the Gardiner is a necessary pre-condition to unlocking development in the area – has been proven wrong.

While the condo market has slowed due to changes in federal mortgage rules, there’s little reason to conclude that the land use economics east of Jarvis are any different than what has prevailed between Yonge and Bathurst/Fort York Boulevard since the city launched the redevelopment of the railway lands in the late 1980s.

Next, from an urban design perspective, advocates of a Gardiner removal must seriously address the precedent of Lakeshore Blvd. East, and the possibility that what replaces the Gardiner may well never become a viable urban boulevard, such as University Avenue.

It will be forever squished up against the railway embankment, meaning it is fated to be a one-sided affair, with all the implications for street life. Moreover, engineering standards that the city cannot change will determine lane widths and other technical design elements. Lastly, given council’s political and regulatory constraints, I don’t see how the city green lights a plan to build a narrower replacement road. Arguably, that’s what we should do. What council is capable of doing is another matter entirely, given the Gardiner’s intimate relationship to the commuting habits of suburban drivers and downtown reverse commuters.

Which brings me to the final question, which is the cost of removing the Gardiner viz maintaining it. The city spends billions repairing municipal infrastructure – that’s what it does on an ongoing and mostly uncontroversial basis. The Gardiner repair is expensive, but plans to remove and replace it will be as well. And that funding will be politically divisive, pitting suburbs against the downtown.

From where I sit, council in the next few years desperately needs to hammer out a consensus for investing billions on much needed transit enhancements in both the downtown and the suburbs. This will be a highly contentious debate about the future of the city’s transportation network and infrastructure. Against that backdrop, the proposal to demolish the Gardiner – an essentially local improvement with some region-wide implications — becomes a highly distracting flashpoint that may drain council’s ability to press ahead with controversial financing solutions.

At this stage, the Gardiner teardown seems like a solution in search of a problem. South Town, amazingly, is absorbing this nasty old road. That’s not a cause for despair; rather, it says something intriguing about Toronto’s success as a city.



  1. The EA in its previous form was/is useless. Going back to 2009 (https://spacing.ca/toronto/2009/06/01/gardiner-expressway-environmental-assessment-briefing/), my criticisms remain the same.  Instead of the wishy washy terms, I suggested the following……

    1. Determine if the loss of capacity limits future growth of the city.

    2. Determine if, in fact, that the Gardiner has been an impediment to non residential development. As it it has clearly not been west of the area in question.

    3. Provide a 3D model of the area, in its proposed built form, to a ascertain if the Gardiner is really a visual impediment or will it remain the highest structure between itself and the lake.

    4. Offer an honest cost/benefit analysis as to determine if this is self supporting.

    5. Investigate the effects on pedestrians crossing a large “grand avenue” WRT to timing.

    6. Offer proof that Toronto is creating enough jobs to support the hypothesis of modal transportation shifts. With out job growth, transportation will be increasingly geared towards morning outflows/evening inflows to areas unserved by public transit.

  2. I think Lakeshore Ave East is great. It’s not a shopping strip, and was never intended to be. In fact, the city has actively tried to keep it as industrial.

  3. I agree that the new speedy Lakeshore East is a failure as an urban street, but the takedown did succeed in ending the viaduct’s significant ongoing maintenance costs while avoiding the traffic chaos which detractors claimed would ensue.

    A key difference between the 2 routes is that the initial takedown traverses designated employment lands which allow for industry & big box, while the Gardiner east of Jarvis is mixed-use poised for urban redevelopment.

    Agreed that building a suburban limited access road/ barrier would be a disaster, but there is also a chance for an urban road especially considering the involvement of Waterfront Toronto and the support it gains through public engagement. 
    At minimum I’d like to expedite the stalled EA to get a cost-benefit analysis of the options before deciding.

  4. Second to last paragraph – – “an essentially local improvement with region-wide implications”…

    That is the key. 

    My question to those who want to demolish the Gardiner: How do you move the same number of cars into and out of downtown Toronto the day after the Gardiner is knocked over, and two years after, and five years after, and ten years after, and so on.

  5. As Roger suggests, I’m not sure that Lake Shore east of the DVP is directly comparable.  A better example might be around Lake Shore and Bathurst, which is perhaps the one place where the Lake Shore emerges from the shadow of the Gardiner and where redevelopment is far enough along to review its effects. Also, because the Gardiner is out of the way here, you can judge whether it really is the Gardiner that is the barrier to pedestrian travel to the lake, or whether it’s crossing the Lake Shore.  (Yes, it’s got an unusual configuration on the west side, but on the other hand, the east side is narrower — only (!!) six lanes.  If the Gardiner comes out, the replacement Lake Shore would most likely be wider than that at intersections, if only to add a left turn lane and a median island.)

  6. How about building an LRT line coming west from Scarborough that would serve the Lakeshore area and also serve as a kind of DRL (but would come all the way crosstown via a tunnel from Victoria Park Avenue to Lakeshore East)?

  7. @ProGardiner
    “My question to those who want to demolish the Gardiner: How do you move the same number of cars into and out of downtown Toronto the day after the Gardiner is knocked over, and two years after, and five years after, and ten years after, and so on.”

    Not to be a jerk, but you’re asking the wrong question. What we need to be concerned about is moving the same/a greater number of people and goods into and out of downtown (or to where they need to go) in a reasonable amount of time for an affordable amount of money.

    Maintaining an expensive, elevated, rush-hour capacity freeway might be part of the answer to that question, or it might not be. But taking it akin to building a municipal feed trough network so more people can enter the city on horseback.

  8. Yes, we do need to be careful about what we wish for – but that agreed with, there are some major themes that need full discussion and change is needed.

    For instance, the previous commenter assumes that everyone in a car gets to drive on expensive real estate for free and at public expense though an unmotorized citizen can’t go for a walk or a bike ride on glassphalt for the great view or the safer bike ride from Jameson to the core.

    And so we have to be careful about whatever definitions might occur on any EA process because there can be wilfull blindness with EAs too eg. the Front St. Extension EA which got renewed despite it being staledated, and we thus never were able to contemplate any transit options to the FSE, just a road.

    How much of the perceived barrier to the lake is the road or the traffic on it? I think it is the car traffic that is the major barrier – thinning it out with tolls and a better transit fix would be helpful.

    EAs must recognize that the Gardiner/Lakeshore is a major pollution source and just because the Public Health aspects of that pollution has been buried, ignored and silenced in a carrupt city/province doesn’t mean that the pollution problem doesn’t exist. And so there should also be a set of costs attached to the cleanup of adjacent land of the fallen-out lead in the many years of lead being added to gas; MMT is the latest heavy metal that may be of public health concern.

    Given the many years of foot-dragging and avoidance of such issues as the congestion, peak oil and climate change, the faster fix of a Front St. transitway largely on the surface is the best to be hoped for. Regardless of tolls, repairs or takedown, there’s a need for more transit, and GO won’t be able to do it all.

    The growth of GO in this corridor though shows that if people are given a good transit option, they’ll use it, and pay for what is it c 85% of the cost of it, which is a major equity issue that Mr. Lorinc should have touched upon. As it is now, the Island Ferry makes money for the City, and as we slash and cut and goose kids rec programs etc. etc. throughout the City, surely having this glaring inequity of a costly free ride to motorists should warrant a mention in an allegedly “progressive” place.

  9. You don’t. That’s partly the point of getting rid of it.

  10. How do you move the same number of cars..
    A question that has preoccupied most transportation planners for over a century.
    To summarize John D, a better question is how to move people & goods. Hamish notes the demand for (subsidized) road space (and parking) is determined by price/ user fees. 

    This explains why costly new infrastructure isn’t the only solution.  
    Instead of freeways, Toronto began to loosen zoning that limited housing in 1973, allowing downtown pop. to jump from 100,000 to 180,000, building the tax base while attracting more companies who want to be close to workers. 
    The condos provide a walk-in workforce to the expanding number of downtown corporations. The motivator (stick) is congestion & high parking fees.  Many also use roads & transit outbound taking advantage of any counter ‘rush-hour’ excess capacity.


  11. @Progardiner?

    “My question to those who want to demolish the Gardiner: How do you move the same number of cars into and out of downtown Toronto the day after the Gardiner is knocked over, and two years after, and five years after, and ten years after, and so on”

    One answer is that you build other infrastructure to handle the slack. New York did this in the early 70s when the West Side Highway, an elevated highway on the West side of Manhattan, fell apart (literally). San Francisco did it in the 90s when an earthquake destroyed the Embarcadero Freeway, an elevated highway that passed through the city. Ken Greenberg’s article on this site explains better than I could here: https://spacing.ca/toronto/2012/12/13/greenberg-crumbling-gardiner-offers-toronto-an-opportunity/

    I’m not suggesting that we wait until the Gardiner collapses, but the lesson is clear: traffic will adjust, if the city invests in other means of transportation.

  12. Admittedly I know very little about urban planning, just want to say I really like Lorinc’s mention of the idea of building under the Gardiner on top of the portion of Lakeshore that sits underneath the elevated expressway. It sounds like a great use of the space– esp as a way to integrate the land between the Gardiner and the lake with the rest of the city– and the city could make a pretty penny selling tracts of that land.

  13. Completely agree with John on this one. Lots of good point made:

    Gardiner is NOT the major barrier to WF. The biggest one is Lakeshore (which will likely get worse if Gardiner is taken down); the second is the railway, which is not going anywhere; the third are the on/off ramps of Gardiner, which admittedly will disappear with Gardiner gone.

    Gardnier has not prevented the huge residential development in that area. If residential use can handle it, I don’t believe it is going to be a problem for commercial or industrial use at all.

    Politically and practically, tearing it down is intractable in Toronto. We are basically going to say to suburban commuters, hold on, wait for us to tear this thing down, and 15 years later, you may be able to ride LRT or subway into downtown. Also to CityPlace residents, right you are driving Mississauga, um, even Subway won’t help you 15 years from now, try Lakeshore. Not gonna fly. 

    As much as I like the freeway-free downtown ideal, standing at where we are right now, I don’t see a way for Toronto to get there without big damage to downtown core itself. With Gardnier, it will become much less attractive to commercial development for at least a generation.

    So I think the responsible thing to do, is to repair it, maintain it, and be honest about the cost, toll it to fund the cost of its maintenance and public transit alternatives as well.

  14. This is a great article and a realistic perspective as to what Lake Shore will look like with the Gardiner gone. Fact of the matter is, this corridor’s focus is going to be on transportation, with or without the highway. I confidently predict that if the Gardiner goes, Lake Shore will look much like it does east of the DVP – a traditional parkway.

    That said, I find Lake Shore both east and west of downtown to be a truly missed opportunity for transit in Toronto. On both sides of downtown there are some gorgeous waterfront parks, yet there is almost no transit service to them. You either have to take a crawling streetcar across to them, and/or transfer from the subway to a north/south bus route.

    More to the point, the arterial nature of Lake Shore east of downtown would make a great opportunity for a BRT relief line. Not only could it take some pressure off the Danforth subway, but streetcar routes as well. And of course, it could provide adequate transit service to the eastern waterfront.

  15. If the Gardiner is so important to the GTA, let the province pay for the upkeep – otherwise tear it down. I pay enough in property taxes already – I’m being taxed to death – and now this. We are chopping services all over the place. We can’t afford this high-maintenance roadway. Tear it down and deal with it – the whining comments are unbelievable. We can’t go on spending money like this.

  16. If that mostly unloved Front Street Extension had went through it might have taken some of the pressure off of the Western problem of this Gardiner Debate.

    But then again, I live in a Mayor Pantalone dream world.

  17. Nitpicking, but it’s “Lake Shore Boulevard,” not Lakeshore and I think you mean South Core, not South Town.

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