How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gardiner


In the east end of Toronto, stone pillars holding a vanished elevated highway stand like a modern day stonehenge. Ironically, the core of the expressway they connected to may yet stand the test of time.

Since the late 1980s, Toronto City Council has spent a lot of time and energy debating whether or not to demolish and/or bury a now fifty-year-old elevated expressway running across the south of its downtown core. Depending on who you ask, this massive venture is city building at its finest, or a great folly. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between, and after twenty years or more of talk, talk, talk, the time may have come to move on.

The Gardiner Expressway is possibly one of the most symbolic pieces of infrastructure in the City. Named after Metropolitan Toronto’s first chairman, Frederick Gardiner, this elevated road represented advanced modern planning in the late 1950s. With the city growing by leaps and bounds and the automobile rapidly overtaking public transit as the preferred means of getting around town, this elevated roadway connecting the eastern end of the Queen Elizabeth Way (Ontario’s first modern divided highway) with Toronto’s downtown core was so important, it almost bulldozed historic Fort York. Other than that old relic of the War of 1812, nothing else was deemed worthy of standing in the Gardiner’s way. It ploughed through and disrupted the old street grid, rendered popular Sunnyside Amusement Park a pedestrian-hostile ghost, and helped turned the lands south of Toronto’s downtown core into a confusing mass of off-ramps and covered roadways.

By the 1980s, the Gardiner Expressway came to symbolize the worst of 1950s planning — a cautionary tale of what could have happened elsewhere in Toronto’s Downtown if the Spadina Expressway hadn’t been stopped. And for certain politicians, it became a symbol of something worse: a barrier. The lands around Toronto’s Waterfront were de-industrializing. The railways were pulling out and a great number of properties were coming open for redevelopment. Sensing an opportunity to (optimistically) reconnect with a lakeshore the City had turned its back on, not to mention an opportunity to (cynically) make loads and loads of money redeveloping said land, various measures were taken to try and make the walk between Toronto’s downtown core and its lakefront as pedestrian friendly as possible, including streetcars, and glassed-in walkways. And with the Gardiner in the way, the task was a mammoth one.

Emboldened by the success Portland, Oregon had in demolishing its downtown expressway (replacing it with an LRT line), civic visionaries looked to the work that had been started in Boston: the (now infamous) Big Dig, and suggested that perhaps the Gardiner elevated expressway could be put underground, freeing up surface space for new buildings, parks, wider sidewalks — anything that could make the trek to the lakefront more pleasant. Yes, they knew that it was yet another mammoth task, with a bill in the hundreds of millions, at least. But a “world-class” civic vision did not materialize through timidity.

The idea caught the imagination of enough voters to make successive successful mayoralty candidates promise to at least consider the option. Toronto City Council successfully tore down a useless stub at the east end of the Gardiner (where some support pillars have been preserved as a monument). Most recently defeated mayoralty candidate Jane Pitfield earned yet another punchline to the joke of her campaign by suggesting that the Gardiner shouldn’t be buried, since the best views of the lake were front the Gardiner (and, I admit, I did some of the chuckling, perhaps unfairly, but there were plenty of other reasons to favour Miller over her last year).

But where the stub was an easy decision (it was an unfinished expressway stopped when City Council realized the foolhardiness of bulldozing homes in the affluent Beaches neighbourhood to finish it), the core of the expressway has proven to be another matter entirely. I sympathize with those who want to see the Gardiner Expressway demolished, and I agree that taking it down won’t be a carpocalypse. Comparisons to the grossly overbudget Boston Big Dig are also deceptive (applying the Big Dig’s standards to Toronto would be equivalent to burying Highway 401 from one end of the city to the other, not taking down the Gardiner through Toronto’s downtown core).

A few years ago, City of Toronto planners came up with a workable plan. Noting that only 16% of drivers on the Gardiner were using the expressway to bypass the downtown core, they suggested that the traffic along the elevated section could be distributed more evenly by installing more exits to diffuse congestion through a wider section of the downtown (which was the origin or destination of 84% of Gardiner users).

A major off-ramp materialized in the form of the Front Street Extension and the Gardiner was to be placed underground from Strachan Avenue to Spadina. From Spadina, traffic would travel along two wide complementary one-way avenues, modelled after University Avenue, with expansive sidewalks to give plenty of room for pedestrians to roam. The traffic engineers had done their homework; this combined with increased service on the parallel commuter rail network could have easily handled the load, but it was still a venture that could have cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

And, as we know, the City of Toronto is basically broke.

As the proposal continued in its deep freeze, it became an easy target for various nervous Nellies — suburban drivers who couldn’t fathom how arterial roads could handle the loads of an expressway (despite this theory being borne out on Highway 400 just this past weekend), and by others who felt (not unreasonably) that perhaps the money could be better spent elsewhere (like on subway extensions, or new streetcars, or simply beautifying the approach to the lake).

As the deep freeze continues, and the detractors’ positions become more entrenched, it may be time to give up on this particular civic vision — not because it’s impossible or flawed, but because the political will doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Taking down the Gardiner hasn’t captured the imagination of most Torontonians and, while the idea remains workable, its benefits may not be enough to justify the costs.

The Gardiner is a brutal monolithic structure — a two-level road system (Lakeshore Boulevard runs beneath it) containing enough concrete as to not be out of place in Stalinist Russia. If left to its own devices, the trek beneath the Gardiner Expressway becomes an uncomfortable walk. I’m not sure I would call it ugly, however. I’ve said before that there is a strange, industrial beauty about it, and it is not the barrier that people think it is.

Imagine for a moment that we could bury the Gardiner, spread out its traffic, and replace the thing with two wide arterial roads along the southern edge of Toronto’s downtown core. You’ve eliminated the looming, sun-blocking elevated structure, yes, but have you eliminated the barrier? You still have to cross two wide, heavily trafficked arterial roads, and I personally don’t find University Avenue — the road that the new avenues have been compared to — to be a particularly pleasant place to walk, either. And over and above this, nobody seems to have remembered the lengthy and dank tunnel that exists beneath the railroad tracks running over Yonge, Bay and York streets, to name but three.

The fact that the Gardiner is still up, after twenty years of talking, is testament to our own failure to be sufficiently persuasive in our vision in bringing the Gardiner down, and it may be time to reassess what is possible. Perhaps our efforts should be channelled elsewhere, like ensuring the TTC is properly funded, perhaps. If we want to reclaim our waterfront for pedestrians and bicycles, perhaps we should consider foot and bike bridges across the Eastern and Western Gaps and make use of the Islands? Perhaps, if we can’t bury the Gardiner, perhaps we can beautify it (Spacing’s Wire offers some examples from other cities).

Perhaps in a few years or a couple of decades, we can revisit this. Perhaps, after building a TTC network appropriate for our city, perhaps after solving the city’s fiscal problems, we can consider a more ambitious plan — possibly one involving our railway lands as well. But until then, our ability to build our TTC network, and solve our city’s fiscal problems should not be compromised while we chase this rainbow.


Of course, if we’re keeping the Gardiner Expressway, we need to drop the project that was commissioned as part of the expressway’s demolition. While the Front Street Extension from Bathurst to Dufferin offers some enhancement for local traffic in Liberty Village, current proposals render this project as little more than a massive, pedestrian-hostile off-ramp for the expressway. It makes sense if the Gardiner was due to come down, but since the Gardiner isn’t coming down, then there is no need for it. Maintaining the Front Street Extension in its current form while maintaining the Gardiner strikes me as an unfortunate bait and switch, and the $350 million the extension will cost can definitely be better spent elsewhere.

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