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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

What to do with the Gardiner Expressway?

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The Star had an interesting piece in the Sunday paper about what to do with the Gardiner Expressway and how other cities have embraced their elevated highways. The photos used are images I have inserted for reference. Read the article in full to see some of the ideas proposed for the Gardiner, but here’s the teaser excerpt:

The city’s Waterfront Secretariat is now reviewing the recommendations and cost estimates of recent waterfront task forces on the fate of the Gardiner. The options: Do nothing; bury sections of it; improve it. The plan is to synthesize the findings, report back to the city in a year and follow up with a public consultation.

What is clear is that the city doesn’t have the money nor the appetite for a Boston-style Big Dig that will bury the expressway, create a decade or so of traffic turmoil and cost more than $1.5 billion. (It’s for good reason the Big Dig is also called the Highway to Hell.

Toronto wouldn’t be the first to embrace its elevated highway — cities from London to Shanghai have instead opted to revel in the creative possibilities above and below their downtown expressways. And in that, there may be some valuable lessons for Hogtown.

• In Shanghai, a dizzying maze of highways is illuminated at night in vibrant neon colors. “It’s Shanghai so it’s a bit over the top, but what’s important is that they are consciously trying to make a place that people would enjoy walking through, beneath and beside. And they do — it attracts wide public use,” says Toronto architect Calvin Brook. “That’s a great, original way to rethink the possibilities of what an expressway’s role can be in a city.”

Shanghai highway photo by Jacob Montrasio

• Also diverting, though more traditionally, is Quebec City’s painted columns under its elevated Autoroute 440, which looks similar to the Gardiner, in the neighbourhood of St. Roch. These murals include beguiling trompe d’oeil illusions of an Egyptian temple, a surrealist fantasy and the entrance to a Gothic cathedral.

Still, not everyone is keen on this kind of trickery. “It starts to trivialize a piece of public infrastructure,” says architect John van Nostrand. “It undermines it.”

Autoroute 440 photo by Joel Mann

• In Louisville, Ky., the not-for-profit Waterfront Development Corporation created an 34-hectare park, great swaths of it under the elevated Interstate 64, out of what was once a sand and gravel pit, scrap yard and mess of rail lines. “It was a terrible area,” says corporation president David Karem. “Not only because of the elevated expressway but the city was cut off from the (Ohio) River.”

They never considered burying the highway, he says. “It wasn’t just the extraordinary expense. The park has been open for 10 years. If we had built a tunnel, it would not have been anything in anybody’s lifetime. Nobody would have been able to enjoy it.”

Now there is a Great Lawn, home to concerts, picnics, touch football, kite-flying and the like. Nearby are plazas, a water park and Karem adds, the $100 million development has been a catalyst, drawing new residents to the riverside area.

Louisville I-64 photo by Derek Cook

• In New York, redevelopment of the High Line, a 22-block-long elevated rail line that runs through Hell’s Kitchen and West Chelsea, is now underway. It will become a green promenade with views of the skyline and the Hudson River and, this being Manhattan, luxury housing alongside.

High Line photo by Charles Star

• Also in New York, a market was built under the Queensborough bridge at 59th Street. At the turn of the 20th Century it had been a farmer’s market, but fell into disrepair and became a department of transport storage depot and paint shop. It was revitalized in 2000, when the Bridgemarket was built — posh food emporium, restaurant and design store.

Bridgemarket photo by Mark Chang

• In Portland, Ore., skateboarders claimed an abandoned space that was a drug users’ and squatters’ haven under the Burnside Bridge. Without city approval, the young boarders built a park themselves, starting with concrete they found in their garages at home. Now it’s one of the best skate parks in the world and skateboard icon Tony Hawk names it among his top five.

photo by Stephie van de Graeff

• In London, the Westway under the A40 (running from London to Oxford) is a model of what could be done with the Gardiner — with jewelery shops, soccer fields, stables, tennis courts, a refugee centre and markets tucked tidily under the elevated highway. About 80 per cent are community services, 20 percent commercial.

photo by Charles Fred

Such examples won’t silence those who remain deadset against the Gardiner, seeing in its destruction a newfound opening to the lake.

But what Shanghai, London and others have done is inspiring a growing number of critics who say it’s time to make peace with the highway and make the best of it.

The Gardiner, after all, isn’t going away anytime soon. So how can we live it? Not only that, how to make it, dare we say, beautiful.

top photo by Sam Javanrouh



  1. There have been some pretty good underground events beneath the Gardiner in the last couple of months. I like the idea of artful illumination, as well as the unpermitted reclaiming of the space.

    Perhaps a fitting hybrid would be the unpermitted illumination of the space, like the “Guerrilla Lighting” event done in London:

  2. I like all the ideas except the first two (the Toronto idea and the Shanghai reality). The last thing Toronto needs is another mid century behemoth covered in LED lights.

  3. With the talk of the Gardiner being the barrier to the Waterfront etc., isn’t it the cars on these carterials that are the real barrier?
    So to really deal with the true barrier, shouldn’t we have a plan to boost transit instead of say, a road project like the Front St. Extension, which the TWRC has as a prerequisite to any “dealing” with the G/L, even though the FSE hasn’t had ANY consideration of transit options to it (the WWLRT is also Metro-based planning that has as a pre-condition the exclusion of putting any transit on Front St. as the Moving towards 2011 plan suggested as one eg.)
    Even if we invested the likely now $60million the FSE has to moving all the GO traintracks for the road to tunnel under them into new GO trainsets, the two new trains would do more for congestion relief than the quarter-billion roadworks, if anyone wants to save maybe $170 million.
    We need more TTC-based transit though as GO is a brittle system and needs back-up – and I’m still keen on a Front St. transitway that if we actually did explore the maybe 10 transit options to the FSE, and tallied all the many millions in waterfront transport that are contemplated (I figure maybe $750 million) we might be able to spend half that on very good transit and save the other half.
    (The WWLRT isn’t good transit because it’s too curvy and not direct to the core destinations, so it’ll not be so attractive to Etobicarians, and there’s another c. $150 million to re-do the Union Station entry that isn’t necessarily figgered in. Total:$500M maybe for just a 2% modal shift as in the 1996ish EA – GO’s a better deal folks)
    If we had better transit right beside the Gardiner we could start charging tolls, as we’d have brought a better option into being.
    The TWRC and Miller etc. are unwilling to charge the cars and are happy to spend a few hundred extra millions to keep the freeways free for gifting the out-of-town stinking mobile furnaces that heat our city and planet.
    Smogtown is carrupt, (though these mobile furnaces do have their uses occasionally eh?)
    Sorry to be so obsessed about the future of the City and our Waterfront and maybe a few hundred million in savings, and I am truly tired of it all…

  4. Covering it in LEDs will solve ALL the problems!

    (Looks like someone saw the CN Tower recently and got jealous…)

  5. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease, Hamish, Stop it stop it stop it.

    Regular readers of the Wire will have seen your diatribes before. We know your song and dance. I never comment here, I just like to read, but I’ve seen your comments and they have driven me to the point of hair-pulling.

    Your position is admirable, but every post about the gardiner does not need your re-stating of your waterfront LRT/FSE beef. You write like a child or in a stream of conciousness that makes your comments unbearble and unreadable. You, single-handedly, bring down the quality of comments on this blog. And this is coming from a person who agrees with most of your points!

    Either start making much more articulate answers — ones that include full sentences and no god damn puns that cause me to stop and re-read just to find out that they are stpid, Ned Flander-sesque puns — or I’m going to start a petition to have your comments banned on this site.

  6. I don’t know, artfully lit up the Gardiner might be neat, and look more beautiful than it is. It is a piece of our concrete heritage, and if we must live with it, make it look….cool, or something….rather than just ignore it.

    It does have the feeling of an artery, when seen from afar, when traffic is steady and moving along, as if it’s pumping the city full of blood. Though I’d rather it be gone, and all those people on it given real public transit options instead, but aesthetically, it’s kind of neat sometimes.

  7. Post as you see fit, Hamish. Don’t pay any heed to the censor-types.

    Just one minor point – aren’t the residents of Etobicoke correctly referred to as Etobicokeheads?

    On the Gardiner – why is the city obliged to enable motorists to zoom through, under or over the heart of town anyway? My preference would be to knock it down before it falls down and restore and re-connect the normal surface street grid.

  8. Hamish does make one interesting point; that the Gardiner is just a vessel for moving traffic and does not exist for any other purpose. If we can find a way to move people through (and there are better ways) Toronto better, the structure might become defunct.

  9. I’ve said it on spacingwire before, but I’ll repeat: the waterfront along the harbour is lost, but the waterfront outside the islands is not. Developers and the automobile own everthing from Front right down to the scum on the harbour. Forget about it.

    The answer is to put up bike/foot bridges across the Eastern and Western Gaps, close the airport, and continue the boardwalk and bike path from Sunnyside across the islands east through Cherry Beach to the Beaches. We’d be the envy of port cities at the cost of two bridges and a bit of pavement and lumber.

  10. Does it strike anyone else as rather ironic that soccer pitches under the Gardiner are being suggested at the same time as mature trees are being razed a short distance away at Cherry Beach to make room for…soccer pitches?

    And while I think that under the Gardiner would be a better place for them than Cherry Beach, I think the best site for soccer pitches (and cricket pitches, tennis courts, putting greens and skate parks) would be on the roofs of single storey industrial and/or commercial buildings.

    Oh, and Ruff: Hamish’s comments are an appropriate use of this forum. Your unwarranted personal attacks that have nothing to do with the topic are not. Talk about bringing down the quality of the blog…jeez. Here’s a novel thought: If you don’t like his posts, then don’t read them.

  11. I think it’d be quite impressive if the lighting on the Gardiner was co-ordinated with the lighting on the CN tower. It’d be nice to watch colors ripple along the Gardiner and then up the CN tower.

  12. Hamish, I’m a big TTC- and GO- expansion fan myself but remember that there is a bigger picture out there. If you made life difficult for the “out-of-town stinking mobile furnaces that heat our city and planet”, they just might stay out of town, and I’d rather not see Mississauga suck any more commercial offices from Toronto. (If you’ve ever worked in the executive offices of any company you would realize how much is decided by the personal geography of the execs.) The city’s record on new downtown office construction is already the worst of the big North American cities, and it’s simply too late to tell people not to move to the western suburbs (they are already there), so you have to tread carefully to solve the problems of the Gardiner without making things too hard for the suburban workers that make up much of the workforce. Let’s work on improving the streetscape and spaces underneath the Gardiner while improving service along the GO lines (electrify, less headway, connection to Pearson) so that everyone wins.

  13. Love your “bridges” concept, Aidan! I’ve sometimes thought myself how nice it would be to be able to bike to the islands and skip the ferry hassle. Guess they’d have to be drawbridges to allow boats passage. But still wouldn’t write off the “inner” waterfront.

  14. mobius, we’d need a draw/lift bridge at the Eastern Gap, because of commercial shipping at that end; and need a high bridge over the Western Gap to let the sailboats through. Our fair city isn’t in a spending mood, so there is another option.

    The other option is ferries at one/both sides, as well as Centre. We already own the ferries: several open decked, and two closed decked. This would be a great idea on the short term (once the airport is closed!). Mind you, those on Ward’s will raise a hue and cry if their community is touched: they have to go downtown via Cherry Street, or they have more tourists on PUBLIC LAND. Sorry, envy is ugly.

    I envy you your optimism: “still wouldn’t write off the ‘inner’ waterfront”. However, I don’t see any cause to join in it. The Harbour Castle already disrupts foot/pedal traffic along Queen’s Quay, despite the optimism of last year’s “Quay to the City”. Those xeroxed condos aren’t going anywhere, nor all the cars in them.

    Why put more foot/pedal resources in an area that already has a strong street-life? The local business community doesn’t need subsidy as much as other areas in the city; and people who live there travel north to downtown, not East-West. The main reason I rarely go to Harbourfront is the unreliability of transit, and the poor North-South walking routes… well, weekend 905 tourons don’t help.

    Apart from Centre Island, Ward’s and marinas, the islands are seriously underused. Ever been out Hanlon’s way on a weekday? We should be getting people out there, so everyone doesn’t try to go the Beaches at the same time.

  15. I obviously ruffled some feathers – but truly, we have not yet thought of putting a quarter-billion into good transit instead of a Metro road project, and are well on our way to spend another $300 to 500M on less-wise megaworks, and it’s uphill – any posts about the FSE on the spacing wire yet, or does it follow what the Star does?
    And to the uSkyscraper concern about treading with care and with regards to the bigger picture, may I suggest that 3 of 4 people coming into the core use GO, the GO folks don’t really want this FSE it seems but politricks interfere, GO is a better investment, and it also needs a back-up as it’s a brittle system, and a Front St. transitway to me is logical for both this purpose and bringing in both Parkdalians and those beyond faster.
    Transport ghg emissions lead our emissions rise too.

  16. Part of my thinking re: my lahsing out at Hamish is that the FSE WILL NEVER MAKE IT PAST CITY COUNCIL. Everyone knows this. Only Adam Vaughan is working on defeating it so that he gets it out of his hair sooner rather than later (and to show he’s an independent and not a walk-the-line Millerite). No one else wants the FSE besides Pantelone (Miller goes along with it to support his deputy — a lousy excuse, indeed).

    But your argument against FSE is so light. You do not discuss the true needs of the area where the FSE will go. Fort York area will see a huge influx soon and Liberty Village needs a road that should go in the place of FSE. A *local* road that has amenities at a streetcar line. There needs to be a feeder road, whether you like it or not, that directs traffic in other directions outwardly from that hood (and gives it the space needed for LRT). The area is growing weekly. This is what’s needed and most everyone that has examined the options in that area agrees this is needed, including Vaughan and Perks (please don’t forget your beloved bike needs a road too). I live in Liberty and bike everywhere in this city, but even a eco-head like me sees the reality of the situation.
    If you really want to bitch about something Hamish, go for the straightening of Dufferin at Queen West at the CN bridge. Nearly $200-million to save a few minutes for both the bus and streetcar. That’s as much as the St Clair ROW! It makes sense on a theoretical level to straighten it out, but no sense monetarily. You are swinging at the lowest hanging fruit Hamish, while a *real* boondoggle is happening just a kilometre north. Construction is starting, property is bought and bulldozed.

    Your fear-mongering over the FSE is a sign that you don’t want to look beyond the reality of the situation and shows you’re as much of an ideologue as your nemesis Ootes (BTW, how many votes did you receive running against him in 2006 — 183? More than enough to help Ootes squeak by with 20 more votes than the runner-up Alexopolous. Does that keep you up at night?).

    FSE will never happen (can you imagine the car-loving councillors liek Del Grande and Ootes and Minnan Wong voting to support this?). The votes to defer it, back in February, I think) was a vote on procedure and not a vote on FSE (I write this just to protect my argument).

  17. Melissa: while I’m happy to hear you stand up for those trees at Cherry beach, the land they sit in is terribly polluted and they are going to die soon-ish. The land needs remedial help or it should be capped. If its capped, adding soccer pitches to the waterfront is a good idea.

    I don’t think anyone is looking for soccer pitches under the Gardiner, its just in the photo. The article states turning the space into commercial usage is much better and useful.

  18. Your concept merits a seperate article/thread in it’s own right, Aidan. It is extremely feasible. And it would help to raise the Islands’ prominence to something akin to what Central Park and Stanley Park are for their cities. What a refreshing spin or jog that would be along the outer waterfront on a summer day with all the sailboats in view!

    You would think Island residents might also be happy with the option as it would lessen their dependence on the ferries.

  19. Mobius, it does need it’s own article/thread! How is that done? It is so clearly what the waterfront needs, it’s amazing to me I have never heard it from someone else!

    The airport end will take years: death of Porter and Port Authority. The Ward’s end could be done quickly. Use Ward’s present dock, and what about the facility for the defunct Rochester ferry at 1 Unwin? In fact, it would be good PR for the city in its fight against Porter and the Port Authority that they are in the way of this path.

  20. ” it does need it’s own article/thread! How is that done?”

    hello, editors??

    This plan would indeed give some momentum towards closing the airport.

  21. Aidan> The other day waiting for the ferry to the island I said to the people I was with that I sort of wished there was a bridge — like the nice white one that goes over the Humber at the lake — that people could walk or bike over to get to the island. I’ve thoughts this before, esp on busy days, or when big events like Wakestock is happening and there are big crowds.

    But I think it would take away at least half of what makes the island so special: the separation from “regular life”, literal and metaphorical. Not having a fixed link to the mainland lends the experience of going there a magical feeling. As a city park, the Toronto Islands punches way above its weight because it’s an island — when you are there, you feel far from home, worries, whatever…something that doesn’t happen in the other nice parks in the city. The ferry ride is an important part of that.

    So as much as I think it would be so terribly convenient, I hope it never happens because it would change what I think is the most important thing about the island.

  22. Shawn, I see your point, but I am going to disagree. I do not accuse you of being selfish, but I think not to build it for your reason would be selfish. I don’t feel the island experience would be terribly changed by bridge/ferry links at East and West (no freaking cars!). It’s still far enough out of the way that it will never crowd up like the Beaches.

    Think of it this way, aren’t the islands a big enough place to share what you love about them with 150% as many people? Right now, on a regular weekend, it is only the central part that gets crowded. The best way to avoid crowding it with 905 tourons is not to make it easy to park at the Cherry or the Bathurst end, rather than let it remain hard to access for 416 citizens.

  23. first vote for politicians with vision!Next hire architects and engineers to put those visions into realistic plans.Set the budget for those great ideas.Then vote in buffons scrap the vision blow the money somewhere else.Light up a dube then light up the gardiner and enjoy as you float down the gardiner.
    But realisticly, just tear down the gardner, use the land properly that you gain( with green space please!).Then dig out the railway lands and put in a new east west subway and roadway tandem that really works!problem solved!
    Now go back to watching fake led lights on the CN tower

  24. aidan> I’m happy sharing and have nothing against 905ers. I’d argue that, especially on weekends, other parts of the island are crowded. Today, wed, there were a few hundred people on the beach even.

    Some things in life should be a bit of a challenge…though the ferry isn’t much of one…but you just don’t happen on the island, it’s a decision. If there was a bridge, it might just become another park, in our minds.

  25. For this you’d deny a larger portion of the public a safe and scenic way to cross the city and enjoy the lake? I won’t accept elitist thinking. It’s a PUBLIC park. A city, it parks, all its PUBLIC spaces (arguably some of its private ones) should well serve the largest number possible.

    What the heck, I must be some kind of social-democrat.

  26. aidan> I’m not sure where you’re reading that I denied any portion of the public (I believe you brought up anti-905 elitism). And are you saying the boats are unsafe?

    I think you’re thinking of some other island, in some other country.

  27. Be serious. Fewer people use the park now than would, and it comes off as if you don’t want to share.

    I own up to the sin of elitism against the 905, but I come by it informed: grew up there, still work there, lived there one long adult year.

  28. The eastern gap bridge wouldn’t need to be as big or fancy as the Humber Bay Bridge. And it could be a design “opportunity”. Anybody see that bridge in England that rolls up into a wheel shape? There’s also the Millenium Bridge in England (the UK seems a bit bridge-mad lately). And it would definitely be restricted to non-motor traffic (except for electric wheelchairs and such).

    The ferries are special, no doubt. But plenty of people would likely still use them rather than biking or hiking way over east. And at 6 bucks a pop it does get a bit expensive to use regularly.

  29. Geez, get busy, don’t spend all day at a computer, miss a comment, or a slag.
    Looking at the longer term, bigger picture, and how to integrate Liberty Village into the core, I have been thinking about it over the last five years, and why do we have to spend c. $120 million on a local Front St. when Liberty St. now links between Dufferin and Strachan, and it’s not really too much further by car to jog down Strachan to Fleet/Fort York Blvd up to Bathurst St.
    And a transitway would go directly into the core while having a stop right in Liberty Village very near the GO stop to enhance connectivity with a regional transit system to relieve Union a bit AND give another link to the TTC system at under-used Spadina.
    If Ruff (whomever that acronym/name is) wishes to get a bit more personal, I don’t have any financial interest in the outcome, ie. I don’t own anything nearby and presumably some folks might think that a person who’s out of the area might be thanked for caring a bit more, though when I started I was on Bathurst and had a major concern about how the cars flooding from the Gardiner to Bathurst would foul up streetcar services and the core.
    Did Ruff oppose the Dufferin St. Jog or just blah-blahg about it? Opposing big “done-deal” road projects takes a personal toll btw – you might try it sometime eh?
    And why not go after James Green for his 500 votes as well as myself? It was a disappointment, but the lack of a single all-candidates meeting to discuss issues was a bigger disappointment – I merely wanted to discuss issues like the FSE, but no forum!

  30. anyone have details as to why the lights along the gardiner have been turned off recently through the new condo corridor? complaints from dwellers? new energy conservation efforts?

  31. I do not think the Gardiner expressway is the barrier to the waterfront. It is the wall of condos.

    Secondly, Lakeshore Blvd is 8 lanes wide at points! As a cyclist and pedestrian, I hate crossing Lakeshore to get to the waterfront. But the Gardiner doesn’t get in the way! So let’s make it less of an eyesore and make Lakeshore Blvd a more user-friendly place.

    The first thing I would like to see implemented, if possible, is a few pedestrian bridges or tunnels on key North-South streets so that pedestrians do not need to interact with the cars and trucks and their pollution and noise.