Big Daddy Meets Big Dig in Toronto Freeway Confrontation

The revival of cities as residential, and not just commercial, centers is sparking campaigns to demolish urban highways.

Toronto’s 59-year-old Gardiner Expressway is one of the latest examples: Running east-west along Lake Ontario, it cuts off some of the last remnants of land for development near the downtown core. Canada’s largest metropolis is joining cities such as San Francisco, Detroit and New Orleans in considering knocking down freeways as residents move from suburbs that the structures were built to serve.

Planners and developers with visions of parks, expanded mass transit, tree-lined boulevards and waterfront housing are facing off against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and decades-old businesses that say the freeway is a critical artery.

“Fifty years ago, we believed that the city wasn’t a desirable place to live,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, who recommends the city remove part of the road. “We’re now focused on creating complete communities where people can both live and work. As we densify, we are going to have to transition -- you simply can’t keep adding more cars. We’ve already hit a tipping point.”

It’s a long way from when Frederick G. Gardiner, nicknamed “Big Daddy” as first chairman of the regional Metropolitan Toronto council in the 1950s, initiated its construction. Back then, it was a working waterfront. A Unilever soap factory operated for more than a century on a plot where First Gulf Corp., a Toronto developer, wants to put up a 28.5-acre retail and office complex. The site is now derelict, the plant’s windows boarded up.


Boston’s “Big Dig” highlights the promise and peril of the teardown drive. The Central Artery/Tunnel Project, the most expensive U.S. highway initiative on record, rerouted Interstate 93 below ground and added a park, opening the harbor to the rest of the city and prompting development of 3 million square feet of office space. It cost $14.5 billion and came in almost a decade behind schedule. Even so, the city still ranks among the 10 most congested metro areas in the U.S., according to traffic-data group Inrix Inc.

The Gardiner was listed on the Top 10 Freeways Without Futures list this year by the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that promotes walkable cities. The Claiborne Overpass in New Orleans, Buffalo’s Skyway and Syracuse’s Interstate 81 also made the list.

Lakefront Access

Toronto city-council members, planners, and developers have recommended part of their city’s freeway be torn down to provide access to the lakefront.

“We’re becoming a different community,” said David Gerofsky, First Gulf’s chief executive officer. “Nobody really wants to live along the waterfront when there’s an elevated highway between them and the water. It’s not the kind of place people want to be.”

Toronto’s core population of 2.8 million is growing by about 38,000 people a year. In 2013, it overtook Chicago as the fourth-largest city in North America behind Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. A young educated workforce is moving in, attracted by the country’s five biggest banks and two of the biggest insurers.

At least 140 condominium towers are under construction -- the most in any North American city, according to data compiled by Victoria, British Columbia-based The city is experiencing its biggest office-building surge since the 1980s, says CBRE Group Inc., a Los Angeles-based commercial-property developer.

Urban Convert

Jim Keohane, CEO of Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, is an urban convert. He used to live in Mississauga and took the Gardiner to work downtown, eating up two hours of each day, the prisoner of what the Toronto Region Board of Trade calls the longest commute in North America after New York. He moved to Toronto several years ago to avoid the trip. The C$52 billion ($47 billion) pension fund he runs also is relocating south of the Gardiner to a new 800,000 square-foot office site by Menkes Development Ltd.

The city is absorbing the new migrants, sending joblessness down. Toronto’s unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent in February from 8.8 percent in the same period four years ago as the average household income rose to C$95,326. Residential rents rose 8 percent between 2011 and 2013; the average cost of a home has climbed to a record C$546,497.

Eight-Lane Avenue

The city’s public-works and infrastructure committee, a group that monitors and reports on the city’s physical needs, recommended in March leveling about 2 kilometers of the 18-kilometer (11-mile) Gardiner to build an eight-lane avenue at a cost of C$470 million.

Ford has said tearing down the Gardiner will cause “traffic chaos.” Maintaining it would cost about C$870 million over the next century, according to Waterfront Toronto, a government-funded organization tasked with redesigning the south shore.

Ford, 44, who captured international headlines after admitting he smoked crack cocaine while in office, is supported by businesses that say swapping the skyway for a boulevard would lead to congestion. Traffic already costs the city as much as C$11 billion a year, according to the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based nonprofit research institute. It will take commuters five to 10 minutes longer to drive downtown than if the Gardiner is left up or moved, the city report said.

Sugar Trucks

Redpath Sugar Ltd., which was founded in 1854, says it depends on the road. The compay’s refining plant opened along the waterfront in the 1950s, and Redpath now ships 2,000 tons of the sweetener each day in hundreds of trucks from the site south of the Gardiner.

“We really need the current capacity maintained,” Andrew Judge, the company’s head of logistics, said by phone. “Anything that’s going to impact traffic capacity, impacts our ability to deliver the sugar.” He said the company would support a hybrid plan First Gulf proposed, which the city is looking into.

First Gulf wants to level and move the eastern Gardiner as part of its plan to build 15 million square feet of office and retail space. It is offering to help fund a transit hub of subways, buses and light rail that would connect the development and the rest of the South Core, or SoCo, to the city. First Gulf also is ready to donate about three acres so a street can be extended further south to the waterfront.

Redevelopment Acres

The Gardiner now masks a 60-acre swathe of land, part of it acquired by First Gulf. That’s just a fraction of the 2,000 acres along the lake targeted for redevelopment.

“It’s like David Copperfield,” said Gerofsky, referring to the U.S. illusionist. “How can you make 60 acres of downtown land right in the heart of a major city disappear?”

The tussle between creating more livable neighborhoods and keeping the city moving is a growing challenge for policy makers. About three-quarters of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, from about half today and 30 percent in the 1950s, according to a 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers study.

“There’s no ideal solution for the Gardiner or any other North American freeway,” said John Campbell, CEO of Waterfront Toronto. “If you want a better public realm and at a lower cost, you have to put up with a bit of traffic congestion.”

With an October election for mayor heating up, the city council has punted on a decision on the Gardiner until next year. Although city engineers have declared the structure safe, concrete slabs from the Gardiner fell onto cars below about a dozen times in the last two years. Chunks of concrete still are missing, exposing rusted metal rods.

“If we leave the expressway for another five years, it’ll be a natural disaster,” said George Milbrandt, the owner of a restaurant just north of the highway, who says many Toronto residents want the entire thing knocked down. “If we can’t get the logic to prevail on the eastern Gardiner, the conversation for the western is never going to get started.”

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