In Retro T.O., we revisit key moments and places in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today. This week: With chunks of the Gardiner crumbling off on a near-daily basis, we look back at the first serious proposal to tear down the expressway in 1983.
“I’ve looked at this darn thing from one end to the other and I can’t think of anything I would like to change.” Frederick Gardiner’s verdict on the expressway that would bear his name was not one future municipal officials shared. Within a decade-and-a-half of the Gardiner’s completion in 1965, grumblings arose from City Hall that the elevated section through the core should be knocked down. Like clockwork, every few years a plan to bury or replace the freeway emerges. Each plan is initially greeted with relief that the waterfront will soon be rid of what many people have perceived as an eyesore and barrier. Just as predictable is the backlash, which usually involves fears about runaway costs and traffic Armageddon during construction. Given the current crumbling state of the Gardiner, somebody is devising a new burial plan as you read these words.
One of the first serious contemplations to tear the sucker down came in the fall of 1983, when Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton asked city staff to investigate burying the Gardiner. Eggleton was supported by Metro Toronto Chairman Paul Godfrey, who saw a golden opportunity for a new route through the not-yet-redeveloped railways lands to the north. Godfrey justifiably feared that “with all the bureaucracy and red tape involved in putting a roadway of that magnitude through, I really wonder whether we’ll all be alive to see it, even if all the money is available.”
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from the September 30, 1983, edition of the Toronto Star
The opportunity to use the railway lands soon evaporated, but other ideas abounded. City planning commissioner Stephen McLaughlin described to the Star three plans submitted to the city: “modest” ($25 million to demolish the Jarvis and York ramps and build a new exit at an extended Simcoe Street); “grand” (place the Gardiner in a trench or tunnel between Bathurst and Jarvis); and “visionary” (for $1 billion or so, re-route the Gardiner into a tunnel under Lake Ontario).
Such plans were hooey to Sam Cass, Metro roads and traffic commissioner, and staunch defender of the Gardiner. Cass, who was still promoting the completion of the Spadina Expressway in 1983, called the Gardiner “a beautiful structure that’s still doing what it was designed to do.” While we won’t quibble with Cass over aesthetics such as the view of the city skyline while cruising along in open traffic, his contention that maintaining it wouldn’t cost much proved incorrect. Cass boasted that the Gardiner required no repair during its first decade-and-a-half and figured once a modestly priced five-year program to fix salt damage was completed, the elevated section wouldn’t require further repair for a quarter-century. Given Cass’s math, the Gardiner is crumbling on schedule.
As annual repairs became a reality, calls for the Gardiner’s burial increased, especially as other cities contemplated demolishing their elevated highways. In a lengthy 1988 piece on why the Gardiner should come down, the Globe and Mail’s John Barber likened it to a Cadillac in a scrapyard. As chunks of concrete fell and its steel skeleton rusted, Barber declared “the highway that began life as a heroic symbol of the city’s progress is now just an overflowing traffic sewer.”
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from the September 28, 2006, edition of the Toronto Star,
featuring a timeline of Gardiner tear-down proposals
Among those Barber spoke with about alternative options was developer William Teron, whose company was covering over a section of the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. Bringing his plan to municipal officials in 1990, Teron proposed an eight-lane Gardiner buried along the waterfront and a revamped, landscaped Lake Shore Boulevard. He promised to deliver the highway in less than three years and cover the $1 billion cost in exchange for development rights for housing and offices along the Gardiner’s former route, which Teron figured would recoup his costs. Naysayers included Metro traffic officials, who warned of cost overruns, overstatement of green space, massive traffic tie-ups during construction, and disruptions to TTC service.
Teron’s plan went nowhere, as did the succession of proposals that arose over the next two decades. Visions of a buried Gardiner emerging from both City Hall and various task forces and waterfront authorities came and went, scuttled by fears over cost, voter reaction to tolls, watching the extended Big Dig in Boston, and complacency. Among our favourite quotes was councillor Howard Moscoe’s reaction to a 1999 proposal where the builders of the 407 ETR would have managed a $2 toll per trip to drive through a tunnel: “a truly a pie-in-the-ground proposal.” As experts and city officials are confident there’s no danger of total collapse anytime soon, odds are good everyone will enjoy the elevated section for a long time to come. Once the concrete is shored up perhaps another recurring plan for the Gardiner will re-emerge: building attractions and/or businesses under it.
Additional material from the October 28, 1988 edition of the Globe and Mail, the February 9, 1999 edition of the National Post, and the September 30, 1983, September 13, 1989, April 24, 1990, and July 15, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star.