Hume: Toronto’s towers and life under the Gardiner

  Even as the city fills up with condos and their inhabitants, little thought has been given to what’s happening down below where glass meet grass.

   By Christopher Hume – Urban Issues, Architecture March 11, 2011
If you liked the concrete curtain, you’ll love the glass wall.

Proposals brought before the Toronto Waterfront Design Review Panel last week include a 75-storey mixed-use condo tower at 10 York St., and a little further east, a massive scheme with two 30-plus-storey condos and 70-storey office tower.

The new Southcore Financial Centre is also taking shape. The PwC Tower just opened and two more — a second office building and a hotel — are underway.

East of that, by Air Canada Centre, the triple towers of Maple Leaf Square are already established fixtures on the skyline.

Meanwhile, up at Yonge and Gerrard, another condo tower, this one 78 storeys, is under construction. It will be the tallest residential skyscraper in Canada.

Toronto is growing at an unprecedented rate, onward, but more than ever, upward. Though many hate to admit it, this is Tower City, a spreading agglomeration of vertical villages, some no larger than a single building.

Yet even as the city fills up with condos and their inhabitants, little thought has been given to what’s happening down below where glass meet grass. This becomes especially interesting on the waterfront where a unique set of conditions prevail. In addition to the lake, there’s the Gardiner Expressway and the roads that feed it — Bay, York, Spadina and Jarvis.

The influx of people into a long-neglected part of the city has produced a curious juxtaposition of empty spaces and high-density development. This is most evident in the benighted landscape beneath the Gardiner and the enormous towers that now come within metres of it.

The clash of infrastructures — one from the 1950s, one being built today — raises new possibilities. This has resulted in a couple of projects; Underpass Park in the West Don Lands and Watertable, an artwork installed on the underside of the Gardiner in 2009. The city also raised the issue when it landscaped the space below the Gardiner between Yonge and Bay.

These are enlightened, even seminal, projects, but we need to go beyond these sorts of intervention to figure out what can de done with this strangely invisible terrain. Though builders and their architects prefer to pretend the Gardiner doesn’t exist, it’s here to stay. Ramps will be removed and the whole thing might come down east of Yonge, but to the west, it’s a fixture.

Indeed, the first block west of Yonge, south of the Gardiner, offers a glimpse into what might unfold. As part of a new condo complex, a half-formed alley now extends beside and below the highway. For the time being, it remains a void. But with thousands of residents above, most of them crammed into tiny apartments in the sky, the space has suddenly acquired value. It could be dedicated to parks, playgrounds, pathways, shops, restaurants and other amenities.

Toronto isn’t Tokyo yet, but as land grows ever more expensive, we must start thinking like a city where real estate is too precious to waste. Already the dog owners have penetrated the permanent darkness of the Gardiner’s underbelly. Why not joggers, walkers and strollers, or shoppers and diners?

If nothing else, resurfacing the land and adding a few benches in strategic locations would transform the landscape, and open it up.

We have always looked the other way, and just accepted the Gardiner as the price we must pay for having handed the city over to the car. It is, but looking the other way is no longer an option. People live here now, and they deserve more than a wasteland.

Christopher Hume can be reached at

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