BY GARY MAY
The elevated highway that separates downtown Toronto from Lake Ontario has been condemned by some as the barrier that prevents the city from connecting to its shoreline, its “front porch to the world.”
But as work begins on rejuvenating the city’s 46 kilometres of lakeshore and neighbouring areas, efforts are being made to turn part of the land beneath some overpasses into a gateway, rather than a barrier.
Underpass Park will be a $5.3-million, 2.5-acre space around the Eastern Avenue and Richmond-Adelaide overpasses, between Cherry Street and Bayview Avenue. With work under way, the idea is to soften what has been seen as a concrete barrier and to turn it into a place people can enjoy when it’s completed in 2011. No longer will those north of the highway be cut off from the lake to the south.
The unusual park is slated for an area called West Don Lands, a key part of the nearly 2,000 acres along and near the Lake Ontario shore that, in the next quarter-century, is to be cleaned up and turned into a place where people can live, work and play, and where tourists will come to enjoy new entertainment and recreation facilities.
But West Don Lands was split into two by the system of overpasses, and while some would like to see the high-level concrete demolished and replaced by a tunnel road, the cost is prohibitive.
Turning an overpass into natural art
Waterfront Toronto, the agency charged with overseeing the revitalization of Toronto’s former harbour lands, held a competition to look at alternatives. How could the two sections of the old industrial West Don Lands property, which officials want to turn into a community of 12,000, be knit together?
The winners took an unusual route: Don’t pretend the overpasses aren’t there, they said, work with them. Or, as landscape architect Greg Smallenberg said, at least they will shelter park users from the elements. What happens in West Don Lands will set the standard for the rest of the rejuvenated waterfront. For starters, streets are to be narrow and curbless, designed to give priority to pedestrians over vehicular traffic.
Construction is to begin this year on affordable rental units, as well as a LEED Gold-designated, carbon-neutral condo community. But with the highway cutting the area into two segments and isolating much of it from the water, many were having a hard time visualizing how this could ever be turned into a cohesive, water-oriented community.
Then came the idea for the Underpass Park, a portal that will provide newly arriving residents with park space and attractive, safe connections to their neighbours.
The transformation of this unlikely location into a place featuring public art, recreational space, children’s climbing structures and play areas, flexible community space, community gardens and public gathering places, is seen as a crucial early step in the campaign to revitalize the West Don Lands.
One piece of a giant sustainability puzzle
Planners have their eyes fixed firmly on sustainability with the new park. They’ll use reclaimed granite cobblestones from Eastern Avenue to create community garden structures; recycle rubber materials to surface recreational courts; plant more than 50 trees to beautify and naturalize the space; use energy-efficient LED lighting; and reduce the need for landscape maintenance through the use of drought-, salt- and shade-tolerant vegetation. Benches and even cafés will be introduced.
The park is small, compared to the 17-acre Don River Park, which will be the centrepiece of West Don Lands. But it will be an important link that will show how pedestrians and motor vehicles can live side-by-side.
The long-term plan is to make Toronto’s waterfront one of the most inviting and fascinating available in any city — anywhere in the world. The year 2009 is now seen as a significant turning point for the waterfront project, which has been long in the planning stage. Finally, there is solid evidence of progress. Improvements have now been made at several recreational areas along the shoreline, and Toronto’s winning bid for the 2015 PanAm Games included the announcement of plans for a $1-billion athletes’ village near Lake Ontario in the West Don Lands. The village will be available for countless other uses once the Games wrap up.
This year will see more progress on the waterfront. Sugar Beach and Sherbourne Park, which will be linked to a waterfront promenade, will open. At the Central Waterfront, a 1.4-hectare surface parking lot serving Waterfront Toronto and the Harbourfront Centre will be replaced with an underground parking garage, opening the surface area for future public space and a new cultural/retail village.
Toronto Waterfront also recently announced that it has hired the Transsolar climate engineering firm to prepare a study on the Don Lands. Transsolar designs buildings that utilize natural processes — for such functions as heating, cooling and lighting — to perform tasks otherwise carried out by mechanical systems.
Thomas Auer, a climate engineer for Transsolar, has pointed out that in New York City, half of all electricity is used for lighting — and incredibly, half of that during daylight hours. Now he’ll be building from the ground up in the Don Lands to create a carbon-neutral neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront.