Saturday, October 22, 2016Clear 5°C

How can Toronto reconnect the waterfront?

Posted by Derek Flack / April 25, 2014

Toronto waterfrontToronto has a lovely waterfront, but one doesn't really get that sense walking along Front Street, which thanks to various land reclamation projects, condo developments and the construction of the Gardiner Expressway, has been completely cut off from the lake. It's an issue Toronto has been talking about for decades, but barring fantasy-type discussions of tunnelling the Gardiner, it never really seems possible to do much about our troubled relationship with the harbour based on the sheer scale of the problem. In other words, it's the perfect subject for an ideas competition.

Thanks to the Urban Land Institute of Toronto's inaugural Urban Ideas Competition, we can all drool over visions for a waterfront that's integrated with the rest of the city. Gondolas, green decks, Ferris wheels, piers, and public art are just some of the ideas put forth by participants in the competition, the winner of which was announced on Wednesday at the TIFF Lightbox.

Inundation, a vision which would see seven canals added south of Front Street, was crowned the best concept, which makes sense when you have a look at the rendering. While completely unrealistic, it's fun to imagine a Toronto with such a dramatic waterfront. Even as one knows it'll never happen, the city of our dreams is one compelling place. Have a look at some of the other designs below.

2014425-green-deck-city.jpgGreen Deck City

2014425-shoreline.jpgDowntown Zipper

2014425-urban-skyway.jpgShoreline Skyway



tommy / April 25, 2014 at 11:49 am
The problem isn't the Gardiner or the condos - it's Lake Shore Blvd. Having to cross it, with it's complicated signals, is always a pain and really blocks access to the lake. Rebuild the Gardiner, tear out Lake Shore, and build a pedestrian/bike-way underneath with park space. If you're feeling creative, put in a few shipping container restaurants or parking space for food trucks.
seanm / April 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm
Not just Lake Shore, but the railway berm is really the biggest barrier. They're modernizing the lighting in some of the dimmer, dingy tunnels, but something really needs to be done to beautify the subways that pass underneath the tracks at Bay, Yonge, Jarvis, Sherbourne, Parliament and so forth.

Also, I know it's fantasy, and I actually like the channel ideas, but Inundation makes no sense. Union Station isn't connected to any railways, and they've torn down the Dominion Public Bldg- one of Toronto's grandest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture. Fail.
alan / April 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm
there's also a long stretch of rail, including GO that blocks the waterfront from the least with lakeshore and the other streets, pedestrians can cross at the lights or j-walk...when it comes to the rail, the only option is over the top...
Ismene / April 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm
Tommy, I was down at the waterfront just a couple of days ago and had *precisely* the same thought! Clearly, we are onto something. Great minds, yadda yadda. Centennial Park and surrounding area could be a gorgeous park, but it's ruined by Lake Shore. Take that away and suddenly you've got a graceful park that stretches towards the being-redeveloped tourist attraction of Fort York and arches of the Gardiner. It's larger, with space for more going on, and safer, and most importantly so much more pleasant.

I, too, had the idea of turning the space underneath the cathedral-like Gardiner into something productive. My thought was a market (could be a winter market in the winter etc.), but anything like restaurants or food or park would do. The concrete looks quite safe at that point and it's frankly quite beautiful. Any rebuilt Gardiner could take that into account.

I agree--the Condos aren't the problem. We need to think of the condos as housing full of people who could help fill up any nearby parks, who would make use of restaurants, who would enjoy any cultural amenities that could draw people down Bathurst and into that area that has so much potential.

This is a long term view, but Toronto is big enough for a long term view--like New York, like London, like anywhere that hopes to be somewhere special. We have to start thinking and building thirty years ahead because if we don't *nobody ever will*.
iSkyscraper / April 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm
The problem is not condos, please stop with this ridiculous myth. What, are there no buildings near the lakefront in New York or Chicago or San Francisco? Of course not. The issue is the street grid, specifically the width of streets and their arrangement. Toronto lacks a waterfront street in the style of an Ocean Drive or an Embarcadero, and unlike New York the views down perpendicular streets are too narrow and blocked by overpasses. The rail line is the original culprit here -- the Gardiner only magnified the problem.

The above comment is correct. Even once you get past the rail line and the Gardiner, Lakeshore is a piece of crap compared to, say, West Street in New York in terms of curbs, plantings, pedestrian crossings. It needs to be much easier and more pleasant to cross.

For the time being, the underpasses should be made as inviting as possible. Here is a good precedent that I saw in person last week, very impressive:

In the long term, Waterfront Toronto is on the right path and should continue to enhance the waterfront trails and Queens Quay. The coming transformation of that street will have a major impact, and the new urban beaches have probably done more to connect the citizenry to the water than anything else in recent memory. Keep plugging away, it is getting better.

DMR / April 25, 2014 at 12:21 pm
I agree with tommy that Lake Shore is a pedestrian barrier, but I think the biggest problem is neither it nor the Gardiner-- it's the rail lands. Just look at the width they occupy relative to the Gardiner's footprint and realize that the tracks can only be crossed at a few discrete locations, either through gloomy tunnels or over equally drab (with a few exceptions) bridges.

I've long been of the opinion that the rail lines should be covered where possible (probably around Spadina), a la Riverside Park in New York City. It would be a massive undertaking requiring real vision, and that's precisely why it's not going to happen in this city. But one can dream...
Ismene / April 25, 2014 at 12:40 pm
Responding to the article itself, it is fairly unrealistic. But there are realistic options that would be cheaper. See above.

All of these things, though, would require us to stop priviledging access to the city via road. We don't need a massive "boulevard". Improve access via public transport and take out all but the Gardiner and people will have to take the train. Which will be fine, because the train will be, by then, something to be proud of.

The train line runs right past. Put in a station at Fort York and people can disembark there and walk down to the beautiful, enlarged, well-tended, interestingly-landscaped, flower-filled park for a day by the lake.

Wait, did I just black out and start hallucinating? We can do it, Toronto!
Jordan / April 25, 2014 at 12:49 pm
The project looks great, though you'd think they would give first prize to a project that could actually happen. Bulldozing all of the newly built South Core seems a little backwards at best. This project could still work within the existing context - turn streets into Canals / Parks. Move some roads underground.
Ismene / April 25, 2014 at 01:12 pm
"I've long been of the opinion that the rail lines should be covered where possible (probably around Spadina), a la Riverside Park in New York City."

From what I understand from a "behind the scenes" visit to Union Station (perhaps wrongly), the rails cannot be completely covered because the engines give off emissions that would have to be let out. However, this isn't to say that the bridges (e.g. at the bottom of Spadina, Bathurst) cannot be widened significantly or otherwise improved. Perhaps even painted! Luxury bridges! Bridges are beautiful things. If we cared about them more, perhaps we would enjoy them more.

I actually don't think the rail lines are so much of a disaster. I think rail lines bring an energy to a city that roads do not. Imagine: two or more of those lines could be electrically powered and provide more frequent commuter/tourist stops along the lakeshore (as well as the more long distance, less frequent Go and Via stops). Now improve the bridges and make the rail lines and the trains themselves something to be looked at rather than something to be hidden. We are a city that works as well as plays and could be proud of its transit and its well maintained infrastructure. Now we see our beautiful trains coming along the lakefront and we can catch them at nicely designed stations as part of the TTC.

No, I think that the rail lines and bridges could be beautiful and should be celebrated for their historicity and improved, and made more useful, rather than simply being hidden.
Tariq / April 25, 2014 at 01:57 pm
If people are complaining about the city being cut off from the lake, then bringing the lake to the city via these inlets is a good idea.

My preference would be to do the opposite, bring the city to the lake: Transform Union into something like Osaka Station City:;es_sm=93&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=baBaU4iPEePq2gWAtYDIDA&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1156&bih=726

Keep the Gardiner and build a complex underneath it. Retail, office, indoor recreational, whatever the uses are just make something that will be used.

The train lines and Gardiner are not something apart from the city to be buried or hidden. They are a part of the city and if we interact with them as such the city will be richer for it.
Mark / April 25, 2014 at 02:08 pm
Toronto isn't cut off from the lake, people are too lazy to get there. Oh no, you have to walk a little ways from Front Street to get to the lake. Good lord people are lazy. If the Gardiner, Lake Shore Blvd and all the condos were gone tomorrow, there would just be another excuse as to why no one goes to the lake. No one goes to the lake because they don't want to go. To say Toronto is disconnected from the lake is cover for their goal of destroying the Gardiner and making getting around this city a living hell.
Trina / April 25, 2014 at 02:14 pm
Olivia Chow and Kathleen Wynne will decide how we reconnect the waterfront. Not a contest. Not you guys!
DMR / April 25, 2014 at 02:44 pm
"From what I understand ... the rails cannot be completely covered because the engines give off emissions that would have to be let out."

And the trains that run under Riverside Park in New York used to be fueled by coal or oil. Maybe they still are-- I'm not sure. They solved the problem there with a ventilation system that is inconspicuous enough. There would be other engineering dilemmas as well, to be sure, but they needn't be as restrictive as everyone makes them out to be. "Where there's a will there's a way." In Toronto there isn't enough willpower for such a project, plain and simple.
iSkyscraper / April 25, 2014 at 07:41 pm
Manhattan's Riverside Park (one of the few things Robert Moses got right) has continuous grilles in the deck over it that let out the diesel fumes. Not a big deal. But the grades don't work in Toronto because the rails are already up in the air in the central and eastern sections of the core. Burying the rails would make burying the Gardiner seem like child's play. Not a realistic idea given the topography.
Yardl / April 25, 2014 at 09:16 pm
The era of the big free park is over. Parks need to be as near to revenue-neutral as possible. That means commercial presence and per use costs like the zoo or cne. The idea of large frisbee spaces or unstructured picnic grasslands is truly inappropriate in the high-value, service-intense city boundaries. Toronto can't be a refuge or slacker zone - it is simply too complex and expensive to create pockets of loiter space. Spaces should always be improving and interacting with people - adding some value. If you need peace, quiet, and solitude then stay home. If you need some kind of non-indoors, non-work, exterior place to give your kids some fresh air or the road is not good enough to walk your dog, get a backyard. The city south of Bloor - or south of St. Clair really is not the ideal place to raise a big dog or children - and parks cannot be the free-public-backyard that you can't afford because you're not willing to go north of finch. Its reality time - and these big folies that architects are trying to push on us as the saviour of the urban space are utterly without merit. Great design does not add much more value to a city than competent design - after the 6 month novelty wears off. Community centres and themed outdoor museums are more appropriate uses of public spaces within a dense urban fabric.
Ron / April 26, 2014 at 10:07 am
Good to see that not everyone is blaming the expressway for all the ills of our waterfront. In fact the tunnels under the railway tracks are initmidating and the Lakeshore Blvd is too wide to cross comfortabily. Perhaps one can look at how Sydney's harbour front is designed, pedestrian friendly, with a highway overhead that no one even notice.
Pete / April 26, 2014 at 02:31 pm
@Tariq "Keep the Gardiner and build a complex underneath it. Retail, office, indoor recreational, whatever the uses are just make something that will be used." Exactly. Anyone who has been to London, UK can see the great use of their bridges/tunnels that house stores, and even markets. Combining some form of illumination that @iSkyscraper pointed out on Lake Shore / underneath the Gardiner, with markets/shops would totally transform the area. It's simple, it's a pedestrian generator, it's revenue, and hey look, the water is just one more block away!
Gil / April 26, 2014 at 05:09 pm
My first thought looking at those canals was a repeat of the garbage flotillas at the current wharves.

I just don't think increasing the amount of stagnant, concrete-encased water will improve the waterfront.
jimdaltroy / April 28, 2014 at 08:53 am
Take a look at Chicago's waterfront. They've done a superb job of planning. Toronto is the 4th largest metropolitan area in North America, and the cleanest and most modern. We need to put our crown jewel - The Waterfront - on display. Some time ago, a French company offered to demolish the Gardiner and put the roads underground, in exchange for the land above. We need innovative courageous thinking at the political level to look at solutions like this
Yardape replying to a comment from Yardl / April 28, 2014 at 10:52 am
Other Cities: Montreal