Replacing the Gardiner with the Waterfront Viaduct

The Waterfront Viaduct
by Ian Malczewski

Two weeks have passed since the city released the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation’s report on the Gardiner Expressway. Now that the dust has settled, let’s go over what we learned: the TWRC recommends dismantling part of the Gardiner Expressway and widening the Lakeshore Boulevard below to a 10-lane “great street.” Oh, and the price tag is estimated at $758 million. Other than the price, though, none of this is really news to those who have watched the glacial “progress” on a decision about the Gardiner.

Comments on the Spacing Votes blog indicate that most people are not exactly overwhelmed by the TWRC’s report. Some believe that widening the Lakeshore doesn’t fix the problem but moves it to ground level, claiming they would “rather walk under a bridge than cross a 10-lane street.” Eye weekly editor Edward Keenan wrote on his election blog that the Gardiner is more of a “psychological barrier,” and he’s “never understood the drive to dismantle” it.

West 8, the team responsible for redesigning the Central Waterfront, proposed eliminating the expressway, but that proposal is not a guarantee. Recently a member of the design team told me he is actually a fan of Gardiner Expressway, and, like many others, considers the real barrier to the Waterfront to be the rail lands south of Front Street. So why do all plans ignore this more significant barrier?
As part of his final project for Seneca College’s program in Civil Engineering & Technologies, Jose Gutierrez created the Toronto Waterfront Viaduct (TWV). With the help of website designer Scott Dickson, urban planner James Alcock, and Sam Cass, former Commissioner for Roads and Traffic Engineering for Metro Toronto, he has created perhaps the most ambitious plan ever tabled to reconnect the city to the lake.

At first glance the TWV looks impossible: it consists of a 6 km cable-stayed bridge erected over the train tracks, a hanging garden called the skyPATH, and, yes, the dismantling of the Gardiner Expressway. Unlike the TWRC’s suggested plan, however, the highway does not sit on the Lakeshore, but on the cable-stayed bridge hovering over the rail yards. The idea behind the Gardiner, after all, is still a sound one: keep fast-moving traffic away from people on the ground.

“I thought about utilizing the existing Lakeshore rail corridor, and merging the Expressway and the rail tracks into one major transportation corridor,” Gutierrez says. “The cable-stayed idea came from the need to provide as few obstacles as possible for train movement and street level traffic (either pedestrian, bicycles, transit or car traffic).”

The ambition of the plan is exceeded only by the research that went into it. The viaduct does not stand alone as a piece of infrastructure, but rather as part of the greater community. Referencing the TWRC’s other plans, Gutierrez says, “You still have barriers. I want to create connections.”

Fort York, for example, would no longer be obscured by the elevated highway, but would be given “a new perimeter worthy of one of the most important historical sites in Canada.” The elevated railway embankment, which runs east of Yonge, would also undergo a facelift, becoming the East Lakeshore Mall. This would be an important resource for the ever-increasing density of downtown, specifically the developing East Bayfront community.

The Viaduct itself would carry at least 8 lanes of traffic (two more than the Gardiner currently holds), and could also include space for pedestrians, cyclists, and a right-of-way rapid LRT, the route of which is based upon the TTC’s never-realized “Network 2011” plan.

The skyPATH, an idea added by Dickson, would move pedestrian and cyclist traffic to a tunnel hanging beneath the viaduct that would be useable all year round. The skyPATH could contain a “unique mix of recreation, extraordinary gardens and sculptural installations by leading Canadian artisans,” but would also connect communities like CityPlace to other parts of the downtown core, appreciating the value of nearby residences, and therefore “mitigating potential NIMBY opposition.”

Gutierrez says the six kilometre viaduct could be completed for 1.65 billion (US), including ramps and connections. Adding LRT would likely increase the cost by another two or three-hundred million, and the skyPATH could add another half billion dollars, too. The final price tag would certainly be well above the cost suggested in the TWRC report, but would have the added benefits of pedestrian, cyclist, and LRT lanes, as well as the crucial community connections.

And while the TWRC offers no financing options, Gutierrez offers several. Funding could come from a diversion of a 2 cent federal gas tax to Toronto for 5 years (Gutierrez admits this would require “a swift attitude change towards road construction from our politicians”), or private investment opportunities, from the East Lakeshore Mall to habitable spaces in the bridge’s pylons. It would also be possible (although he is quick to point out he does not favour this option) to place tolls on the viaduct.

So what does Gutierrez think of the TWRC’s report? Not very much. “Even though the TWRC’s report was kept from the public since 2004, the contents of it [were already] reported by the media. The TWRC is using a non-empirical computer model to make traffic estimations with data obtained ten years ago, and not with what the reality will be ten, or even five years from now.”

“Outbound morning traffic [downtown residents commuting to the suburbs] will continue to grow rapidly as more and more high-rise condominiums are being built in the central area.” This in itself is not a problem, he says, except for “the little, if any, consideration the City of Toronto is doing to accommodate this traffic. Imagine if we add the proposed residential developments in the Portlands!”

To prove his point, Gutierrez conducted several studies of his own. Using the same sample route detailed by the TWRC (from the Humber River to the intersection of King and Bay via the Gardiner), he calculated that west-bound traffic from downtown took 2 minutes longer than reported in the TWRC’s study and east-bound traffic into downtown took an extra 3 minutes.

His conclusion: “[R]educing the six Gardiner expressway lanes [and] eight Lakeshore Boulevard lanes to a new ten-lane avenue is nothing but retrograde.” He also notes that the Front Street Extension cannot possibly absorb all the excess cars, adding enormous pressure on King, Queen, and Dundas. In other words, for all the noise made about the TWRC report, the solution does not seem to address some of the most important issues associated with dismantling the Gardiner.

Other than a brief write-up in the National Post and the article in Eye Weekly, there has been little media coverage of the Toronto Waterfront Viaduct concept. The TWRC itself has not responded to the proposal, but Gutierrez admits shock upon seeing developments similar to the East Lakeshore Mall and “a nice cable-stayed viaduct over the rail corridor” in the latest TWRC report.

Still, Gutierrez is not deterred: “On one hand, the private sector has a hard time committing financial resources to prepare a complete proposal if they don’t see a clear endorsement from City Hall, and on the other hand City Hall hasn’t generated a too favourable interest yet.”

Nevertheless, he has received positive feedback from both mayoral candidate Jane Pitfield and Councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence). In the meantime, Gutierrez understands he has to be patient. “People are increasingly getting more committed to the TWV idea, but, because is so ambitious, it might take some time to really take-off.”

graphics by Upside-Down Design

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It has been a long time since a project of this size and impact has been considered in Toronto — the city has become accustomed to half-finished jobs (see the Shepphard subway line) and stagnation on major decisions (see the Gardiner). Perhaps the Toronto Waterfront Viaduct will remain an impressive but unacknowledged plan because of its high price and ambitious scope. But several candidates vying for your vote in the upcoming municipal election think it is a plan that merits more attention. Stay tuned to Spacing Votes for their opinions on the Toronto Waterfront Viaduct and that TWRC report.

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