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New role for elevated highway in downtown Toronto

The gritty environment of a highway underpass is being transformed into a unique urban park along Toronto's waterfront.


Rendering of Underpass Park in the West Don Lands, Toronto.  Image courtesy Waterfront Toronto (Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg).
Rendering of Underpass Park in the West Don Lands, Toronto. Image courtesy Waterfront Toronto (Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg).

The gritty environment of a highway underpass is being transformed into a unique urban park along Toronto’s waterfront.

The Gardiner Expressway has long been blamed for being a barrier between the city and the waterfront. Some eastern sections of the expressway were dismantled a few years ago, but most of it remains, huge and looming with its giant concrete pillars and shadowy spaces.

Now over a hectare of land under the expressway near downtown is being developed as “Underpass Park.” The park sits below the Eastern Avenue, Richmond and Adelaide overpasses of the Gardiner, in an area called the West Don Lands that will become the athletes village for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Jim Flaherty, federal Finance Minister, along with officials from the provincial and municipal governments, was on hand for the official start of construction of the park on May 26.

About half of “Underpass Park” lies below the highway structures. These areas will have ball hockey and basketball courts, and space for markets and community events. The remainder of the park will be open to the sun, with trees, grass and community gardens.

The description at Waterfront Toronto’s site notes: “To ensure the area is safe and inviting at all times of day, the design places a strong emphasis on lighting.” There are over 50 overpass columns that will be lit using LED spotlights, for example, and there will be in-ground and in-wall lights, as well as illuminated ribbons in the seating areas.

Prime consultant on the park is the Planning Partnership. The design lead is Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. Municipal, civil and mechanical engineer is SCS Consulting Group. Structural engineer is Quinn Dressel. Irrigation consultant is Smart Watering Systems. Electrical engineering and lighting design is by Hammerschlag and Joffe.

The park and the West Don Lands are part of a massive redevelopment starting to happen across the waterfront of downtown Toronto. At the launch ceremony, Mr. Flaherty voiced his support for the waterfront developments, which have come under fire recently. “Toronto is the economic engine of the country, and it’s important for Canada that Toronto’s waterfront reflects the transition from its industrial past to the modern age,” Flaherty said. “The long-term commitment to the waterfront is there.”

However, Flaherty did suggest the developments were taking too long to come to fruition.  “Some of the skepticism with regard to the delay is justified,” he said. “The waterfront initiative goes back 10 years. It’s been a long time coming and it’s good to see some of these projects come to fruition.”

Development of the waterfront is overseen by Waterfront Toronto, a body formed in 2001 that consists of all three levels of government.