LORINC: Can there be a Kumbaya moment for the Gardiner?

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In the wake of the intense session at the public works committee, the Gardiner East battle was joined by North York councillor James Pasternak, who is said to be shopping around a toll proposal, and then city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who on Friday set planning tongues a wagging by publicly breaking with Mayor John Tory and backing the remove option.

It’s not clear whether either of these will influence undecided councillors.

Pasternak’s move looks to me like a half-baked ploy meant to assuage right-of-centre suburban councillors who are feeling squirmy about the high cost of the hybrid. Perhaps Pasternak reckons he can firm up the pro-hybrid faction with some kind of motion asking for a study on tolling options/revenues, etc., etc. But I’m guessing his supporters would go to ground at the first sign of trouble – e.g., directed robocall campaigns, talk radio call-in sessions, etc.

As for Keesmaat, my feeling is that she’s preaching to the choir, and everyone at 100 Queen West. understands that fact of council life. Initially, it seemed vaguely scandalous that such a senior official would break with the chief magistrate. But her views on planning issues are nothing if not well known. In any event, she would have been asked the question when the Gardiner debate starts in council. Unless her boss John Livey decides to bench her for the duration, Keesmaat would have expressed her professional opinion. She just did it a few weeks early.

The question I have is whether council is prepared to consider some kind of middle ground – an art-of-compromise deal that splits the difference by assuaging the suburban right’s concerns about traffic and cost, and the downtown left’s critique of highway building.

Interestingly, public works chair Jaye Robinson told me a few days after the committee session that she wants to see a third option emerge. “I’m hoping there’s some kind of middle ground. That would be exciting to find.” And, as she added at the time, “We have three full weeks, so there’s lots of time.”

Robinson’s view is significant. She was one of the first councillors to break with former mayor Rob Ford when his brother Doug sought to commandeer the waterfront revitalization file. Robinson’s critique flowed from her concerns about the fate of the lower Don revitalization, and the way the Fords’ scheme ran roughshod over years of intensive public consultation.

Her council status is also significant. Then, as now, she was a member of the executive committee, and thus constrained in her capacity to break with the mayor on a major issue while maintaining her status in his inner circle.

There’s little question in my mind that Robinson is uncomfortable with the hybrid option. During private briefings before the committee meeting with the mayor and senior staff, she said she needed to understand the impact of the hybrid on the Lower Don Revitalization, which is expected to cost almost $1 billion. “That was the first question out of my mouth.”

As for the proposed configuration of the hybrid, she told me she’s “not crazy about” the fact that it now swings down to the Keating, an alignment that did not figure in developer First Gulf’s original conception, circulated last fall during the election campaign. Lastly, Robinson said she was surprised by the fact that the hybrid route would pass through land slated for private development – a detail Robinson claims she didn’t discover until developer Alfredo Romano and his lawyer deputed at the committee meeting.

Okay, so what does middle ground look like?

Robinson’s information requests, which are appended to the motion that has been forwarded without recommendation to council, offer a few clues: she wants to know more about additional lane capacity and measures such as pedestrian overpasses for the portion of the boulevard that cut through the Keating precinct before meeting up with a tamed Lakeshore Blvd. near Cherry Street.

At first glance, such moves are hardly ideal and point to the prospect of a large, over-engineered arterial road. But it seems to me that if we take the long view, it’s better for the city to build a wide surface road that’s set back from the water and can be narrowed later on, as opposed to an extremely pricey elevated highway that permanently compromises the viability of the water’s edge.

Shelley Carroll, in fact, offered up a thought-provoking way of reconceptualizing the planning implications of a broad boulevard in a note to constituents sent out after the committee meeting:

“The Committee is made up of staunch Tory supporters—most of us are—but they heard a strong case for the ‘Boulevard’ option (also known as the ‘Removal’ option) and a weak case for the expensive ‘Elevated’ option. I call the ‘Removal’ option the ‘Boulevard’ option because it is important to note that under this option we are talking about a completely redesigned, high capacity boulevard that offers the City a new downtown business park…. [italics added]”

I’ve certainly never heard anyone at or around Waterfront Toronto describe the northern portion of the Keating precinct – i.e., the part that hugs the rail corridor and would be bisected by the boulevard — as a “business park.” Quite the contrary. WT’s vision is one of mixed use residential development, streetscapes and public spaces.

The question implicit in Carroll’s description is this: what would happen if that area was developed in a more workaday way, with light industry, unremarkable commercial buildings, back-office uses, and maybe even a few smaller box stores? Is there anything wrong with that kind of development?

Absolutely not. Cities aren’t just made up of condos and Class A office buildings, even though it often seems like we only care about those forms in this day and age. We need zones like Eastern Avenue or Adelaide Street West or Dupont Avenue — lunch bucket urban spaces that aren’t designed to be lively pedestrian/retail zones populated by the slim-legged denizens of Photoshop Nation.

Indeed, if we re-think the mandate of that cramped corner of the Keating precinct, and resist the temptation to shoe-horn pedestrian-friendly building forms into every nook and cranny of the waterfront, then we can begin to think differently about what — and what not — to expect of this new surface road. Perhaps, for the time being, a big ol’ noisy bit of road is okay, as long as it sits on the ground. Not great, but better than the alternative on the table.

Over time, the city will figure out how to grow into this challenged landscape. Eventually, desultory low-rise buildings may yield to better buildings, which will beget streetscape improvements and perhaps even lane reductions. But the trade off, from where I sit, seems to be more than worth the price: an unobstructed Keating, continuous residential/recreational development along the waterfront, where it belongs, and lower capital costs that allow the city to spend on other things.

Kumbaya redux? Who knows? But in a tough, city-building contest in which so much is at stake, I’d say that a broadly supported compromise is preferable to a narrow and divisive victory.

photo by Brendan Lynch

12 comments

  1. So the councilor basically wants to build a stroad rather than a boulevard. Because the big box complexes at Leslie & Lakeshore and St. Clair & Weston (and why don’t we add Mississauga City Centre) have been great additions to the urban cityscape.

    Sarcasm.

    Cheers, Moaz

  2. How about the “Boulevard” option with tolls targeted to building mass transit in that corridor, shrinking the boulevard over time? Capacity would increase, and travel times would decrease, again over time. That would forward looking, to the day when fewer people drive.

  3. Nice piece on the possibility of compromise here. It is useful to look at the Waterfront Toronto Keating Channel precinct plan to get an idea of how the build out of this area is conceptualized: http://www.waterfrontoronto.ca/explore_projects2/lower_don_lands/keating_channel_neighbourhood. Consistent with what Shelley Carroll’s newsletter said, the eastern part of the Keating Channel precinct is seen as supporting mainly commercial and retail development (see pp 44 and 45) The development parcels in this area are city owned and in addition to returning sale and tax revenues to the city, they will act as a gateway and bridge to the Port Lands and to First Gulf Unilever site – strengthening the development potential by strengthening the connection to the city. Interestingly, the Keating Precinct Plan, although developed with a Gardiner up scenario, is set up to be easily adapted to a reconfiguration of space in a Gardiner remove scenario. Although it did not contemplate the kind of damage the Hybrid would inflict by introducing even more road and ramp infrastructure, including along the north edge of the Keating Channel. In sale revenues alone, the Gardiner remove option would return over $100million more than the hybrid/maintain option. In terms of support for future waterfront revitalization, remove wins hands down.

  4. I believe that there is THIRD option that is far superior to the two being considered—namely to shift the alignment northwards so the new Gardiner hugs the existing the railway corridor. These rail lines already present a formidable barrier to the city and will be there for the foreseeable future so adding a roadway parallel to those rail lines would have very minimal impact.

    This northern alignment has numerous benefits:
    1. Less Cost: less structure would be required so the cost to build and maintain it would be less costly (like the Remove Option)

    2. Better City Building: land on both sides of the Keating Channel could be developed with wonderful waterfront housing along the canal. (like the Remove Option) The new waterfront neighbourhood would have the highway “behind it”, rather than an 8 lane roadway running through it’s centre, filled with idling cars anxious to get back on the highway again.

    3. Supportable: the continuity of the road network would be maintained, like the so-called Hybrid Option, so would likely be supported by the mayor and the suburban councillors

    It’s a win-win-win solution and I don’t understand why it is no longer on the table.

    I believe this option was considered earlier (as the original “hybrid option”) but was dismissed by traffic engineers because of the tighter radius onto the DVP; however that could surely be solved by proper design, slower speeds, etc. In fact the turn would be very much the same as the radius that currently exists at the 400 – 401 interchange so this connection would seem to be very feasible. Needless to say, the 400-401 curve is at the intersection of two major highways and has been in use for decades.

    So…..a third option. Hopefully it will gain traction and a groundswell of public support.

  5. “…publicly breaking with Mayor John Tory…”

    Mrs. Keesmaat works for Toronto City Council, not the mayor or any other specific member of Council. She did not “break” with Mr. Tory because she was never his employee to begin with.

    She was, in fact, doing her job. Part of which is to give professional advice for city planning.

  6. I agree that the original “hybrid” was dismissed too quickly. One reason was the wastewater treatment plan that is being constructed just east of Cherry St. This +/-50m wide structure can easily be spanned by the new alignment Gardiner. The current Gardiner has much shorter spans, but nowadays, 60m span is not difficult at all.

    The other major comment was the turning radius. This, however, assumed that the Gardiner to DVP ramp had to go under the Lakeshore Rail bridge. It is went above, the radius could be smoother and there would be plenty of clearance to the trains before this ramp came down south of Eastern Ave.

    Instead of dismissing this hybrid option, they should have put a bit of engineering thought into it, and then the issues could have been solved.

  7. It’s almost amusing how despite the Official Plan statements about transit vs. cars, and the Places to Grow Act 3.2.2 and 3.2.3, somehow we just never get around to even contemplating transit instead of car facility. Why aren’t we thinking of a transitway, as there’s clearly a problem with cars and the congestion, and that would presume that there’s a demand for mobility in large enough numbers to merit transit? This piecemealing of the Gardiner issue is allowing another large sum to be eaten up without investment in transit, just as the Gardiner west was a status car mega-investment with no thought of climate change, peak oil, and this greenhouse century and economic efficiencies. Sigh.

    I used to use friend Pat’s term of “Caronto”; now am thinking that we’re more aptly “Moronto”.

  8. Just wondering if the current time counts etc include the future church st. extension under the rail (which if I understood it would connect to lakeshore).

    This would provide two more lanes north – which potentially could reduce the amount of delay….just wondered if it’s been factored in or not…

    Also would there be any options for making Richmond exit/entraces two lanes onto DVP…

  9. The proposed Boulevard is already the compromise option.

    It involves removing the elevated portion of the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street (while spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the portion to the west up), constructing an improved surface-level Lake Shore Boulevard east of Jarvis Street, and connecting the new Boulevard to the DVP via fly-over ramps. It adequately addresses the concerns of drivers for through movement, opens up lots of land for development, and costs half-a-billion dollars less than the current “Hybrid” option (which is actually a proposal to rebuild most of the existing structure in its current location at a ridiculous price).

  10. @ Alex Speigel – Your “third option” is ostensibly the original hybrid option, which was removed from consideration because of a variety of technical limitations. Namely the turning radius is way too tight to be practical.

    http://stevemunro.ca/2015/05/11/gardiner-east-conundrum/

    Rejected because:
    – The transition between the Gardiner and DVP would have required a very sharp curve that could not be driven at expressway speeds. This would form a bottleneck to road traffic and would be a safety hazard because of the sudden transitions between high speed expressway driving and a much slower curve.
    – The proposed alignment conflicts with a Toronto Water facility east of Cherry Street and a sediment control basin for the Don River.

  11. JFS:

    As Mr Speigel wrote: “In fact the turn would be very much the same as the radius that currently exists at the 400 – 401 interchange so this connection would seem to be very feasible. Needless to say, the 400-401 curve is at the intersection of two major highways and has been in use for decades.”

    The turn is not the problem. Just because one traffic planner says so doesn’t make it so.

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