It wasn't all that long ago that demolition of the Gardiner Expressway was seen as absolutely necessary to remove a huge artificial barrier between downtown T.O. and its miserable waterfront.
The thinking was (and in some quarters still is), knock down the highway in the sky and before you know it long-repressed city slickers will start reconnecting with "their" lakeshore, and the entire port lands will become a happening hot spot. Or something like that.
But take a drive along the nearly 40-year-old autobahn these days and you'll be hard-pressed to see how the Gardiner represents any more of a wall between Lake Ontario and the city's core than all the high-rise condominiums shooting up right next to its flaking guardrails.
Down below, at the intersection of Yonge and Lakeshore, condos are going up on both sides of the road stretching west to Bay. Motorists on the expressway can wave at construction workers as they speed by. No word yet on whether future apartment owners will have to pay a premium for the privilege of waving back.
Just a block west of these condos, another huge development will soon be underway in the parking lot next to the Air Canada Centre. There, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and several business partners have plans for a $350-million complex to be called Maple Leaf Square. The half-acre square will be surrounded by an eight-storey shopping mall (complete with a 171-room hotel) and condo towers of 40 and 44 storeys with excellent views south to the Gardiner and the lake.
Keep heading west and you'll pass condo development after condo development after condo development all the way to Bathurst and beyond. Clearly, spending a couple billion bucks to dismantle the Gardiner and cart off its concrete, asphalt and steel cadaver wouldn't eliminate the residential curtain now being erected between the water and downtown.
And it's all being done in accordance with regulations passed more than 15 years ago, when the battle to stop high-rise condo development along the harbourfront was lost at the Ontario Municipal Board. In this context, is it still worth considering demolition of the Gardiner?
A feasibility report on the subject is due in the fall; in the meantime, widely differing viewpoints can be heard at City Hall.
"From my perspective, talking about taking it down is a nice idea, but what are you actually going to do instead of it?" asks Sylvia Watson, the councillor for Ward 14 (Parkdale-High Park).
"We may be better off concentrating our efforts to find ways to connect people to the waterfront under, over and around the Gardiner rather than undergoing the huge, huge expense of demolition," adds the councillor about the expressway running through the south end of her constituency. "I mean, we're not talking about a few million dollars or even tens of millions to take it down. It's a long shot for good reason, given our economy and the other priorities we have in housing, in child care, in all sorts of things that are of way bigger benefit to people than taking down the Gardiner Expressway."
Money will always be the determining factor in deciding the Gardiner's fate. When it seemed the monstrosity might be removed using cash the International Olympic Committee would give Toronto for hosting the 2008 Summer Games, almost everyone thought it was a great idea. But when Beijing got the Games, the price tag of upwards of $3 billion for freeway removal and replacement became a huge obstacle.
"It's not something I would put as my top priority," says Olivia Chow, councillor for Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina ). Oh, she'd love to see the "ugly" expressway gone from her ward someday. But because of the current fiscal situation at City Hall, Chow insists public transit is more deserving of funding than demolition of the Gardiner.
Brian Ashton, council's economic development committee chair, agrees. In fact, if the expressway were to come down, "I'd want to replace its transportation capacity with transit," says the councillor for Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest). "I don't want to replace it with more roads. It doesn't make sense to me."
That said, Ashton doesn't believe the Gardiner will disappear any time soon. "It's not necessary to take it down to remove the barriers between downtown and the waterfront," he says. "It doesn't matter whether it's there or not." That reasoning may be a little hard to swallow for those who imagined green space taking up the windswept corridor along the lakeshore.
But Ashton maintains that all the development happening along the Gardiner will itself bring people closer to the lake. And that will make it imperative for the city to upgrade the derelict real estate below the freeway with good lighting, proper walkways and usable public spaces. "I think the big issue is good, people-oriented development," he says. And that will come at a much lower cost than ripping down the expressway.
But Councillor Pam McConnell isn't quite ready to give up on the campaign to rid the city of the "grave mistake" by the lake. The councillor for Ward 28 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) was impressed with the outcome when the expressway's Leslie Street "stump" was demolished five years ago, opening up the Lakeshore corridor east of the Don Valley Parkway.
There were no high-rise condominium developments to get in the way of things there, of course. But McConnell isn't too concerned by what's happening west of Yonge.
"It says to me that those condominium builders, sellers and buyers are convinced the Gardiner is coming down," she says. "I think they'll be a powerful force to make sure it does." Depending on who pays for it, of course.