The World’s Fair, the Gardiner and the Front Street Extension

[This item was originally posted last Saturday morning, and it has been recreated here following the recent system crash.  The comments submitted by various folks have vanished into the ether.]

Three would-be projects tell us so much about how screwed up Toronto’s priorities are. The proposed World’s fair is one of a long line of mega-events that would rocket Toronto to its place in the stars, a great city shining out for the world. Once upon a time, people came from all over North America to see “The City That Works” not for its one-time fairs, but for its neighbourhoods, for its commitment to a liveable city. We were renowned for that, and we managed to bring thousands of tourists here on the strength of that reputation. We really had something world-class to show off.That was 30 years ago.

For years we patted ourselves on the back and sat back content in our easy status. We did nothing. Well, no, actually worse, we built the suburbs in a style totally opposite to the very city that made our reputation. The iconic tourist shots of Toronto are the old buildings and neighbourhoods full of people, but what we actually built was miles and miles of wide streets, malls and expressways. Our transit system, once envied by other Canadian and American cities, wasted time and money on a handful of expensive subways that did nothing to make Toronto and the developing GTA a “transit city”.

I am extremely happy that we did not get a World’s Fair, that we escaped even the tedious process of submitting a bid.

Toronto is plagued with a class, a clique, who would happily spend their time and our money on this sort of scheme. Indeed, building these proposals is an industry in itself. We never actually have to open a fair or host an event, just write endless proposals and plans and studies. Meanwhile, the energy that might go into city-building is drained off into fantasies. Why talk seriously about how to make Toronto, all of Toronto, work when we can divert everyone’s attention, effort and fundraising to an event nearly a decade away.

The Waterfront desperately needs to redevelop, and it needs neighbourhoods like those that once made Toronto famous. The St. Lawrence neighbourhood isn’t perfect, but it’s a good mix of old and new buildings at a scale that works. We are immensely lucky to have it as a model, as a starting point. West of Yonge we were not so fortunate.

The plan to tear down the central part of the Gardiner Expressway surfaced recently, and with it the predicatable debates about what this would do for Toronto. Many suburban Councillors are apopletic that they won’t be able to drive through downtown, and many downtowners fear that traffic in the neighbourhoods will grind to a halt.

Yes, that elevated road is an eyesore and it cuts Toronto off from the lake, but would the replacement surface roads be any better? These are not leafy, four-lane city streets, an extension of the old downtown grid, but a mega-street that would slice across the city, a suburban arterial on steroids.

Lurking in the background we have the Front Street Extension. Many have fought this for years, but it’s an expressway plan that just won’t die. I am baffled by the political support it garners among Councillors and a Mayor who would quail if we talked about expressways anywhere else. The FSE project was moribund for lack of funding, and with luck it might die off from indifference. Then the Gardiner report came out, and the FSE gained a new life as an essential part of rebuilding the waterfront.

I’m more than a bit cynical on this topic: the only way that the Gardiner will come down is to fall down, and if that happens it will almost certainly be rebuilt in place. The most likely scenario would have us build the Front Street Extension with great hopes for the future, but then the Gardiner would stay as it is. We would have the worst of both worlds.

We are being conned by the expressway advocates with the connivance of those who believe an FSE is essential to development of South Parkdale and Liberty Village. All they really need is a local road, but the cabal of road lobbyists wants an expressway. A marriage not quite made in heaven.

Where should we go from here?  Let’s get back to what Toronto does, or did, well:  building neighbourhoods, making the city a welcoming place for pedestrians, showing that we are more than a high-rise village criss-crossed with arterials and expressways.



4 thoughts on “The World’s Fair, the Gardiner and the Front Street Extension

  1. I pinpoint two specific events that heralded the “end of the dream” of Toronto remaining a people city.

    The first was building a suburban shopping mall, replete with penitentiary-like walls facing an artirial road–yes, the Eaton Centre–right smack dab in the middle of downtown. That basically ruined Yonge St. south of Dundas (and it took them,what, TWENTY years to realize they needed stores to FACE Yonge St.?)

    The second was during the G7 summit when then mayor Eggleton damned Toronto as a “world-class city”. That basically ruined the rest of the town.

    Hell, I’d even venture to say that Sam Cass sucsessfully getting rid of the DUPONT car was the true beginning of the end.


  2. There was a streetcar on Dupont?  Cool.

    Steve:  As far west as Christie.  The northeast corner (now part of the Loblaw’s site) was the loop. 

    As for the FSE, I am usually against building new urban roads but this truly is a case of building a “missing link”; it doesn’t make sense that there is no exit off the Gardiner between Jamison and Spadina.  This has the effect of channeling all the traffic into the waterfront district and having it crawl under the train tracks into downtown.

    The FSE, which would be a landscaped four-lane road with bike lanes (not an expressway by any empirical definition) would improve traffic flow and would certainly help the case for tearing down the Gardiner past Yonge St., which is the best we can likely hope for (unless we would do like France does and rebuild it underground and a privately financed toll road).

    Alas with our current mayor the path of least resistance is to talk a good line and preside [over] nothing getting done.  I guess this is why the downtown anti-everything “activists” are so enthralled with him.

    Steve:  Just for clarity, I am not an “anti-everything activist”.  I happen to be anti-FSE because I don’t think it’s a good idea.  A local road, yes.  An expressway off-ramp, no.


  3. The FSE would go through undeveloped lands.  I don’t see how that would create divisions of any kind, the train tracks already do that quite well.  Not only would the FSE get those commuting east bound to locations west of Spadina off of the congested section between Strachan and Spadina, but the FSE if developed with a pedestrian friendly mindset could open up Fort York to the public.  Fort York is looking at revitalization for the bi-centenial of the war of 1812, the FSE would open it up to the public.  The FSE doesn’t have to be an expressway, just limit the number of acces points to 3 or 4 streets and it could channel people through the area while also having a nice streetscape lined with store fronts.

    Steve:  The problem is that the FSE is NOT intended as a local road to serve the neighbourhoods, and if it were redesigned on that basis it would probably be more acceptable.

    As for the Gardner blocking the city from the waterfront, I would argue that the GO rail tracks are even more of an obstacle.  Both of these should be burried. 

    Steve:  That’s not going to happen as the engineering to do this would be horrendously complex.  We have far more pressing needs for public spending than such projects.

    The city needs to engage a development firm through a public-private partnership to burry both of these transportation lines.  Simply give up the land to developers if they bury the Gardner.

    Steve:  The private sector is notorious for only taking on projects where they have a guaranteed return.  If this is something worth doing, it should be done by the public sector.  I am tired of hearing about how magically the private sector can fix everything when, in fact, it is their greed and demand for lower taxes than hamstrings the public sector’s ability to provide better services. 


  4. I’m interested to know how Montreal was able to construct an 8.5 km tunnel, Ville-Marie Tunnel, directly under downtown Montreal. Does anyone know how they found the funds to take on such a project?


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