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Why the Gardiner East should be torn down

Warning: This post turns into a bit of a rant near the end 🙂

Since 2009 (well, much earlier actually), Toronto has been trying to figure out what to do with the eastern portion of the elevated Gardiner Expressway (the portion from Jarvis Street to the Don Valley Parkway). The process used to help make this decision is called an Environmental Assessment (or EA) and that’s what is currently underway. But it’s a painstakingly slow process.

Recently though, a third public meeting was held in order to solicit feedback on the various design solutions and so there’s been a renewed interest in this city building issue. Since the beginning, my position has been that we should tear it down. And in this post I’m going to explain why I think that is exactly what the city should do. 

But first, a bit of background.

The EA started by identifying four “Alternative Solutions” to the problem of the Gardiner East. And they are: 

  1. Maintain the elevated expressway (Basically do nothing)
  2. Improve the urban fabric while maintaining the existing expressway
  3. Replace with a new above or below grade expressway
  4. Remove the elevated expressway and build a new boulevard

They then went out and assigned these solutions to a bunch of architects and designers—whom are some of the world’s best—and asked them to come up with specific design proposals. These proposals are available online and that’s part of what the public has been commenting on.

City Council seems to generally want the Gardiner down, but there are some naysayers. 

Rob Ford doesn’t want it removed (option #1) because it’ll add to driver commute times (no surprise there) and Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong is worried that tearing it down will just lead to another wall—a wall of waterfront condos.

But I think these views are terribly shortsighted and I’ve made my position clear by submitting a formal response through the City’s public engagement portal. To explain my view here on Architect This City, I thought the best way would be to simply share my answers. So here they are.

What do you like?

I can honestly say that I love my city. I was born in this city. And I was raised in this city. This city has given me so much, which is why I feel so compelled to try and give back to it. It’s also the reason why I’m first to defend it when people talk about how great this or that city’s waterfront is and how much ours sucks. I mean, I know ours sucks. But we’re fixing it.

We have a lot of great plans in the pipeline for our waterfront, but there’s a remaining obstacle: our elevated expressway. Boston buried theirs. And San Francisco transformed theirs into a magnificent public space. What are we going to do with ours? Now is the time to be bold and not settle for the status quo. That’s too easy. We need to remove the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway today and the design proposal by Field Operations offers a brilliant way to do it.

Not only is removing the Gardiner the most cost effective solution ($470M, versus $870M to maintain, $865M to improve and $1.4 billion to replace), but it’s also the most desirable from a city building standpoint.

The Gardiner is not the only barrier. We also have the rail lines. So while repurposing the Gardiner might be doable in isolation, we simply have too much friction standing between us and the lake. We need to remove the barriers that we can. It’s for this precise reason that Field Operations spent so much time worrying about the north-south connections. And I think their “architectural sleeves” are a really interesting way to solve this problem.

At the same time, timing is an important consideration. As the surrounding East Bayfront area develops, it’s only going to become more costly to remove this stretch of the Gardiner. If we’re going to do this, now is the time.

Finally, I think it’s important to note that Field Operations is the landscape architecture firm behind the wildly successful High Line in New York. So what we have is a firm that made a name for itself repurposing an old elevated rail line, telling us that our own elevated structure is worthless and uninspiring. Think about that for a minute. Should we really be spending more money to salvage the Gardiner East?

What concerns do you have?

That we’re getting hung up on commute times as one of the key decision making criteria. It’s a red herring. Let’s face it: irrespective of whether we tear down the eastern portion of the Gardiner or not, Toronto is fucked from a transportation and infrastructure standpoint. We’re sitting on decades of disinvestment and some of the longest commute times in North America.

Field Operations put it well when they said that the tearing down of the Gardiner East needs to be thought of as a paradigm shift. We have a 25-year transportation plan waiting to be funded. Let’s go out and do that instead of trying to sacrifice our waterfront so that suburban commuters can save a few minutes. Let’s give them a shiny new train instead. They’ll like that.

Either that or Torontonians need to stop talking about how great Chicago’s waterfront is, because we can do it too. Now is our chance.

What advice do you have for the Project Team as the study moves into the next phase?

Don’t listen to Rob Ford.

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