After a long debate both in the media and among city councillors on June 11, 2015 City Council voted for a hybrid option to continue to pour money into the Eastern end of Gardiner Expressway. Over time this option will cost the city an estimated $921 million dollars while the option to dismantle the eastern end would have cost an estimated $461 million dollars.
Dismantling the eastern end has precedent in 2001, a section of the expressway between the Don River and Leslie Street was demolished for $34 million dollars, at the time cheaper than maintaining the crumbling structure. It seems our current council does not have the common sense they had in 2001. Indeed the cheaper plan debated this time around was supported by Toronto’s Chief City Planner. The vote about the future of the Gardiner was a chance for Mayor John Tory to step up and show political will for the long term good of the city. Voting instead for the more expensive option can only mean that Mayor Tory and City Council put the good of motorists before the cost to taxpayers.
When the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway was constructed between 1955 and 1964 cars and road construction were considered the most important form of urban transportation. During this time cities began to fall apart as people chose the suburbs over urban environments. Highways through city centres facilitated travel for this suburban lifestyle. Following the trend to built major expressways through downtown cores, like those in New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles the Gardiner was championed as a way to move traffic more quickly across the city. Expressways were the dream for every urban planner and city engineer.
At the time Toronto’s harbour was a working port with little interest to those who lived in the city or the suburbs. Toronto like other urban ports looked away from the industry of the working port. The city used the Gardiner as a wall to look away from the ugliness of the harbour while focusing instead on building the city and suburbs north of the expressway.
In the 1970s attitudes towards harbours and waterfronts began to change following environmental efforts to clean up lakes, oceans and harbours. By the 1980s and 1990s urban centres all across North America began to realize that their waterfronts and harbours could become parks and prime real estate property as people began to celebrate reclaimed harbours and waterfronts.
At the same time the urban flight of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to a renewed urbanism. People began moving back to the cities celebrating everything the city had to offer. Across North America urban centres began dismantling their elevated expressways reclaiming the land for urban development. In New York they dismantled the West Side Elevated Highway, a Gardiner equivalent and in Boston over a ten year period in the Big Dig they buried their expressway freeing up valuable land for parks and recreation.
As Toronto grew during the 1980s and 1990s the wall that was the Gardiner divided the city into two separate sections. Following the development of Harbourfront, Toronto’s harbour became as residential and recreational destination. Indeed in the last 20 years more condos have risen along the lakeshore than in any other area. However moving between what lies north of the Gardiner and the new development and reclaimed harbour that lies south means having to traverse the no man’s land that exists under the expressway.
As anyone knows who has walked under the expressway the area under the Gardiner has no sunlight or attraction for those seeking to travel between the city that lies north and the reclaimed and revitalized Harbourfront that lies south.
Over the years we have debated what to do about the Gardiner. The question will not go away. As the expressway decays and falls apart, because it was never intended to survive so long, it makes no sense to pour more money into infrastructure that divides rather than joins together the city. We need someone with the political will to come forward who will look beyond the votes of their four year term to the good of the city over the long term. It is time to reclaim the city from those who privilege an unsustainable car and transportation culture that is outdated and irrelevant. We need to think about the type of city we want for ourselves for the future.