The Anti-Big Dig

Two Toronto architects reimagine urbanism’s bête noir—the blighted space beneath an elevated highway.

The elevated urban expressway is high on the list of Modernism’s misdeeds. Enlightened urbanists insist that downtown-destroying highways are better off torn down and either buried, like in Boston, or turned into boulevards, like in San Francisco. But in Toronto two local architects, Calvin Brook and John van Nostrand, have proposed a radical solution to the problem of the Gardiner Expressway: leave it up and let the city absorb it.

The Gardiner, which slices between Toronto’s downtown and Lake Ontario, has for years been seen as the primary obstacle to waterfront redevelopment. Conventional wisdom calls for replacing it, at a cost of $800 million (U.S.), with a combination of tunnels and surface roads—a knock-off of Boston’s Big Dig. But Brook and van Nostrand’s “Gardiner Expressway Transformation Study,” now awaiting technical review, offers an alternative.

Drawing inspiration from the successful reuse of the space beneath railroad viaducts in European cities, Brook and van Nostrand envision a plan that would fill the vaulting space beneath the expressway with outdoor markets, light industry, clubs, restaurants, and artists’ lofts. This “fine-grained” urbanism would stitch the lakeshore to the city, they say, transforming the Gardiner from a barrier to a gateway. It is a third way of dealing with city-gouging expressways: neither demolition nor burial, but adaptive reuse on a grand scale.

“We spent a lot of time walking the corridor underneath the Gardiner and asking, ‘If it is actually a barrier, how is it acting as a barrier?’” Brook explains. “We found that it wasn’t so much a physical barrier as there was a stigma associated with it.” The gap in the urban fabric caused by Lakeshore Boulevard, a surface road running beneath the expressway, was more of a barrier than the expressway itself, and the cause of most of the area’s car noise. By “decoupling” Lakeshore from the Gardiner and rerouting it nearby, the gritty and unusual space beneath the expressway would be ready to welcome the sort of small-scale entrepreneurial development that is a hallmark of vibrant new neighborhoods. As Brook explains, “If the building fabric becomes very tight, this whole issue of the Gardiner being an eyesore or a visual barrier goes away, because you don’t see it as an independent object. It virtually disappears.” Traffic would continue to flow on the Gardiner, with sound-attenuation panels installed beneath. The $300 million cost of the transformation would leave more money to improve the waterfront—“which is what this is all about,” van Nostrand points out.

Brook, a principal in the planning firm Brook McIlroy, began studying the Gardiner in the 1980s while in the graduate program for urban design at Harvard. Van Nostrand, a partner at Architects Alliance, taught Brook in his undergraduate architecture studio at the University of Toronto. The two had kicked around ideas about what to do with the Gardiner—a popular parlor game for architects here. Toronto has been described as “Vienna surrounded by Phoenix,” with a dense, vibrant downtown and an increasingly sprawling and powerful suburban region. As the main artery carrying suburbanites downtown, the Gardiner is the place where the ideology of suburb and city face off. Its destruction has become a cause célèbre for old-fashioned downtown urbanism in a city that prides itself on being the adopted home of Jane Jacobs.

Yet Brook and van Nostrand are embracing the Gardiner like a giant piece of midcentury Modern furniture. By celebrating the Gardiner rather than demanding its destruction, they are arguing for a subtle shift in how Toronto thinks of itself as a city. “The Gardiner was an agent of modernity,” Van Nostrand recalls. “We’re actually trying to elaborate on that.”

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