Sunday, April 21, 2013

past pieces of toronto: the gardiner expressway's eastern section

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on March 17, 2012.
Demolition of Leslie Street ramp viewed from north side of detour, looking south-east, photographed by Peter MacCallum, January 20, 2001, City of Toronto Archives, Series 572, File 77, Item 4.
As work began on the eastern extension of the Gardiner Expressway in 1964, the man whose name graced the highway was proud of the road that became one of his legacies. “You know,” said Frederick Gardiner, “I used to lie in bed dreaming in Technicolor, thinking it was too big. Now I know it isn’t. Maybe in 20 years time they’ll be cursing me for making it too small. But I won’t be around to worry then. Right now, I’ve come up smelling of Chanel No. 5.”

Outside of some nearby residents who missed what Globe and Mail columnist Michael Valpy called their “private freeway” and city councillors who curried their favour, few who looked at the eastern stump of the expressway cursed Gardiner for making it too small. Quite the opposite: as time passed, the stretch between the Don Valley Parkway and Leslie Street was viewed as a crumbling eyesore.

Part of the problem was that it was an orphan of Toronto’s expressway plan. When it opened in July 1966, the stump was the first phase of the Scarborough Expressway, which would have linked the Gardiner to Highway 401 near Highland Creek. Had a request to the Ontario Municipal Board from a citizen group inspired by the fight against the Spadina Expressway not delayed work, the next approved phase of the Scarborough Expressway would have extended it to Birchmount Road and Danforth Road. While Queen’s Park cancelled Spadina in June 1971, provincial officials were willing to fund a short extension of the Scarborough Expressway to Coxwell Avenue if the OMB approved it. While the demise of Spadina muted enthusiasm for the new expressway, as did the looming task of buying 1,000 houses blocking the full route. Despite the City of Scarborough’s continued support of the highway, Metro Council approved a report in 1974 that scrapped it entirely. By 1980, references to the Scarborough Expressway were removed from Metro’s official plan, leaving only a “transportation corridor.”

By the mid-1990s, the stump was falling apart due to sparse maintenance since its opening. A report commissioned by the Metro Planning and Transportation Committee recommended demolition due to the road’s condition and the financial savings from not having to maintain it. Successive studies proposed adding green space, bicycle paths and public art to the newly-uncovered stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard. Opposition to the demolition came from two groups: film studios, which were worried about dust and noise that was carefully factored into the final demo process; and local residents who worried about traffic spilling onto side streets and into the Beaches, even though drivers would be able to follow essentially the same route into the lakeside community. On pre- and post-amalgamation City Council, Beaches representative Tom Jakobek resisted demolition, devising several compromise plans that would have preserved part of the stump. “Cars are an important necessity in this society,” Jakobek noted in 1999. “Why would anyone want to eliminate road capacity anywhere, when it’s located in the middle of an industrial area and people use it?”

But Jakobek was in the minority. Out of 50 public deputations before the demo was put to a final vote in 1999, those in favour outnumbered opponents by a 2:1 ratio. Nearly a year after council, supported by then-Mayor Mel Lastman, approved its demise dignitaries wielding gold-plated sledgehammers took ceremonial whacks at the stump on April 28, 2000. Among those present was Councillor Jack Layton, who noted that “to some people, the idea of even touching an expressway and trying something visionary, they’re going to oppose it. But finally, I think we have a majority of people that are saying we’ve got to do something down here. The area is a mess and nothing’s happening here.”

Once the bike path was installed, grass was laid down, and Lake Shore rebuilt, all that remained of the stump was a row of pillars transformed into public art. So far, nobody has coated them with a layer of Chanel No. 5.

Additional material from Unbuilt Toronto 2 by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011), the May 15, 1999 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the May 18, 1999, April 28, 2000, and May 6, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star.

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