Accidental Activist

Ups and Downs: The Fate of the Gardiner

If we can allow ourselves to be a little optimistic, perhaps we can consider: what will the removal of the Gardiner Expressway mean?

By Ben Bull
Published June 05, 2008

So David Miller wants to tear down the Gardiner. Again.

Here in Toronto, we've been down this road before. Back in 2006 Mayor Miller indicated he was more-or-less in favour of tearing down the Expressway. Then he rescinded his position, hiding a recently released expressway removal Feasibility Report under his desk for a few months and telling the media, "this has been way down on (my) priority list."

Ah well, we thought, maybe next year...until now.

"Removing the eastern section of the Gardiner is an affordable step that will allow us to develop the East Bayfront, Lower Don Lands and West Don Lands properly," said Miller last week, adding that the removal of the Jarvis to DVP section – the rest will stay intact – would "enhance the public realm along Lake Shore and improve access to the waterfront."

If the Mayor gets the go-ahead from the Waterfront Trust and council – as many pundits say he will - there will still be several years of environmental assessments and committee meetings to overcome. But in the meantime, if we can allow ourselves to be a little optimistic, perhaps we can consider: what will the removal of the Expressway mean?

I have a spectacular view of the Gardiner Expressway from the back of my house. In fact, I'm looking at it as I write this. But beyond the obvious eyesore effects, what other impacts would the elimination of this overhead roadway mean for Toronto and its surrounding neighbourhoods?

Five come to mind:

1. Increased traffic flow on alternative routes

Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone believes that traffic impacts related to the removal of the eastern section would be, 'minimal'. That's nice, but to what extent will Toronto's alternative routes - 401, Lakeshore East, Adelaide and Richmond come to mind – become congested?

Adelaide and Richmond are currently in the midst of a number of revitalization projects. Additional traffic flows in this area of the east end will not help.

Another question is, just how busy will the new four-lanes-each-way University Avenue-type highway overlaying Lakeshore Boulevard be?

I don't say these problems can't be overcome. As Mayor Miller noted when referring to the removal of the less traveled DVP to Leslie section several years ago, "We have already seen what can be done."

But for the most part our municipalities are usually in the business of building new roads, not removing old ones. The extent to which they will be able to properly plan for the removal of this heavily traveled roadway section is a huge unknown.

2. Improved access to the waterfront

Improved waterfront access is, of course, one of the main driving factors for the removal of the Expressway. Toronto's waterfront is in the midst of a renaissance - especially the eastern QueensQuay section, and the elimination of this overhead impediment would certainly move this along.

But just how significant an impediment is the Expressway? Living a five minute walk from the waterfront as I do, I can personally attest that the expressway is not the only obstacle to my access.

For one thing, there are the train tracks leading to and from Union Station. Several dirty, smelly tunnels run across the access points at Parliament, Sherbourne, Jarvis and Yonge. How are we going to get people to go through these?

Perhaps the renovations along the Bay street tunnel have given us some clues - the creation of a snazzy indoor walkway with good lighting and embedded artwork provides a remarkably pleasant stroll for all the Union commuters, ACC goers and waterfront folks walking in that direction.

There is also this business of the 'University Avenue-type' boulevard, which will run along the train tracks, directly above the Lakeshore. University Avenue may be a nice roadway to some, but personally I do not enjoy standing in the middle of it waiting to cross.

Finally, there is the transit and streetwall aspect of access to the lake. As we all know, people won't walk to something if there isn't an interesting and pleasant approach. Currently there is no streetwall or plethora of attractions between Front Street and the lake.

Due to the proliferation of condos and the general lack of street level sightlines to the shore it is not really possible to see the waterfront until you get as far as Lakeshore. So why would I walk?

Unfortunately, transit isn't much of an option either. Those brave enough to venture to the shore by TTC must line up for the short-list of buses that weave their way to Lakeshore via an elongated route, or duck into the musty dripping tunnel at Union station to catch the creepy underground streetcar that emerges at Bay and trundles as far as Bathhurst.

As for driving, this is an unappealing option for many. Whether negotiating the tricky grid-locked ramps off what will be left of the Gardiner, or plodding through the downtown lanes, driving to the waterfront is a slow and - if you're lucky enough to find a parking spot – expensive endeavor.

There is no doubt that the removal of the Gardiner has the potential to improve the accessibility of the waterfront, but in order to be the people magnet is clearly wants to be, the waterfront must address the other access impediments that are keeping folks away.

3. Increased property values

No doubt all these downtown condos with balconies overlooking the Expressway will reap the benefits of the Gardiner's demise. So long as the surrounding streets soaking up the run-off are remediated appropriately, there's no reason why some of the more northerly neighbourhoods - up as far as King and Queen perhaps – shouldn't benefit too, especially if some of the other waterfront access issues are addressed.

The removal of the Expressway will also make the vacant swaths of land between Cherry and the DVP more attractive to property developers. New neighbourhoods are expected to pop up.

But, if we look a little further to the east - to Leslie - where the Expressway was dismantled a few years ago, one wonders just how much roadside revitialization will occur. While the residents of LeslieVille along the Lakeshore are enjoying a better view and a little bit more susnshine these days, the removal of their overhead headache has not exactly sparked the neighbourhood into life.

In fact, much of the land that set empty for years, subsequent to the road's demise, is only now being set aside - for big box development.

The plus side to the expected increase in property values is, of course - more property taxes. I often think that municipalities should be in the business of only two things: 1) Helping to house the homeless, and 2) Increasing property values. After all, isn't increasing property values the ultimate indicator of how successful a city has become?

Property values are intrinsically linked to the city and neighbourhood, attributes that citizens desire. Watch any home show and you'll note the most common criteria for and against a prospective home purchase:

If the dismantling of the Gardiner increases neighbourhood property values then this is as sure an indicator as any, of its success.

4. Reduced traffic and environmental improvements

Early traffic projections have indicated that the removal of the Jarvis to DVP portion of the Expressway will reduce traffic flows into town. Evidently some folks will use alternative routes, others will take transit, others will stay at home.

What, then, of the affects on transit? One would certainly hope that part of any traffic study associated with the removal of the Expressway would include improved GO, VIA and TTC access.

As for other environmental impacts, I recall a discussion not so long ago, where federal politicians debated the passing of a 'Clean Air Charter', as part of the Clean Air Act.

"Every citizen is entitled to breathe clean air," the draft said, or words to that effect. It didn't happen, of course, but surely nothing is as important or fundamental to all citizens as the right to breathe clean air.

If the stripping down of the Expressway enables us to remove a few more toxins from our surroundings and breathe some clear lakeside air, surely it's a cause worth supporting.

5. Improved potential of waterfront

Toronto's waterfront is vastly underused. As a nearby resident, I hardly ever venture down there. When I've strolled along the rivers, lakesides and coastlines of our European cousins - Venice, Paris, La Coruna – and a zillion little British seaside resorts come to mind – I've been struck by what a draw the water seems to be.

It's as if people flock to shore to remind themselves of what it means to be human again – our Neanderthal instincts pulling us to the edge.

In successful European cities, the water is not just a tourist trap, it's a meeting place, an event, a hobby, a place to hang out and sit back, a place to be.

In Toronto, the lake is mainly for tourists. It's a hard place to get to, and a hard place to hang out. And, alas, many of the ingredients that have helped successful European waterfronts to come alive are not even on the menu in Toronto.

Improving the visitation and vitality of the lakeshore goes way beyond a single access and eyesore issue. In fact, if we're talking of overhead eyesores - what can we do about these condos? At various open points along the shore it is actually impossible to see the CN Tower - even when it's directly in front of you.

In the more congested spots by the lake, the sense of being closed in and squashed onto the sidewalk is overbearing to say the least.

If the waterfront is ever to attract a steady contingent of residents and tourists then a major makeover at street level is needed A moratorium on condos wouldn't go amiss either.

There's a long way to go before we see the last of the Gardiner but it's nice at last, to be able to talk about removing a roadway instead of building one. Perhaps we'll be having more of these discussions soon? Let's hope so.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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