Sunday, April 4, 2010

Phototour: Expressing Spadina

While the Gardiner brings the people to the heart of downtown and the DVP lets them idle in a sea of brake lights while they dream of going up north and away, they would never live up to their full potential without the Spadina Expressway.

By the middle 1950s, with the end of the Second World War and the growth of the suburban dream, Metropolitan Toronto had a problem. In North York, what had once been rolling agricultural land dotted with village clusters was being divided into new residential subdivisions with such a fury that the world might as well have been ending in 1970. While downtown North York today is dominated by skyscrapers and condo towers to such a degree that the resemblance to downtown Toronto is eerie - so long as you don't journey more than five hundred meters east or west of Yonge Street, at least - it wasn't so back then. Just as was the case in cities across the free world, there were plenty of people clamoring for a patch of land and a home to call their own, but the jobs remained in the old central core.

North York's far enough removed from Toronto's core that walking's not really an option. Neither, at the time, was the subway - it wasn't until 1974 that it reached into North York proper, and the old Yonge streetcar had always looped right at the border between North York and Toronto. North York, like Etobicoke and Scarborough and Toronto's modern suburbs in York Region and Durham and Peel, owe more to the automobile than mass transit in terms of getting around. Highway 401, that great Windsor-to-Quebec motorway once thought of as the "Toronto Bypass," opened to traffic in Metropolitan Toronto in stages through the 1950s. The people who'd sought new lives in the suburbs were quick to take advantage - and Metro's planners were not slow to realize that there was work to be done to make sure all these people and their automobiles could get around.

The first projects were the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Picking up where the Queen Elizabeth Way - one of the first modern highways in Canada - left off, the Gardiner followed the shore of Lake Ontario into downtown Toronto, where today its elevated lanes remain as a psychological barrier between the core and the waterfront. East of the financial district's gleaming towers, it linked up with the Don Valley Parkway. The DVP, laid out next to the Don River in the largest of Toronto's many ravines, wound its way north to Highway 401 and would eventually be extended even further north, as Highway 404, to Newmarket in York Region.

These two expressways were only the beginning. Metro Council, led by Fred Gardiner - he for whom those elevated lanes were eventually named - believed that the automobile was the future, and sought to smooth out the city for it. Highway 400, which ran from the 401 north to Barrie, was to have been extended south to meet the Gardiner, linking along the way with the Crosstown Expressway, meant to connect to the Don Valley Parkway and thus encircle downtown Toronto with expressways. Personally, when I look at the maps, it reminds me more of a noose.

But the keystone to the whole project rested on one route - the Spadina Expressway. From Downsview it would plunge south through neighborhoods and parklands to Bloor Street. Construction began in 1963, and though it proceeded south as the years went on, popular opposition to the project mounted. Pro-urban activist Jane Jacobs, who was no stranger to standing in the paths of expressways, played a significant role in it. The great fear was not only that it would devastate the neighborhoods through which it passed, but that it would encourage the hollowing-out of inner Toronto, with the expressway providing a quick path to the outer suburbs.

It happened in many other cities across North America, but whether it would've happened to Toronto is a question for the alternate historians. On June 3, 1971, the Spadina Expressway was cancelled by the provincial government. None of the other planned expressways were ever more than lines on maps. The completed portion, which went no further south than Eglinton Avenue, is known today as Allen Road. For me, it was always the gateway to Toronto - my father would always turn off the 401 there, take it to the end, then navigate through a twisted skein of Forest Hill roads to the downtown core.

To some degree, the shadow of the Spadina Expressway still falls upon Toronto even today. Depending on who you talk to, it's either the great victory over encroaching car culture and one of Toronto's seminal moments in urban planning, or a great lost hope that has doomed the city to ever-increasing traffic congestion. It's become mythologized, something larger than life, bigger than it ever could have been in reality. So, given that this weekend brought the first breaths of summer to Toronto, I went to chart the expressway - both what had been built, and what never was.

Thanks go to TheCharioteer on the SkyscraperCity forums for providing scans of a planning document from 1961 for the route of the expressway. They were invaluable in figuring out just where the lanes would have gone.

Phase 1 - What's Done is Done

North of Downsview subway station, Dufferin Street forks, and one of the paths becomes William R. Allen Road. I checked up on it where it intersects with Sheppard Avenue, mostly because that point was conveniently accessible from Downsview station, and at that point there's nothing to distinguish it from any other wide suburban throughfare beginning to experience a boom in condo development. It's not until you go further south, to Wilson, that Allen Road really rises above the rest - seriously, since it's elevated by the point - and when it interchanges with the 401 at Yorkdale in a sweeping, swooping series of ramps and dips like bird's flight paths immortalized in concrete, it comes into its own.

If you've ever shopped at Yorkdale, by the way, you indirectly have the Spadina Expressway project to thank. It wasn't until the beginning phases of it were approved, funnelling motorists directly past its inviting signs, that construction on what was for a short time the world's largest shopping mall began.

This view, looking south from Viewmount Avenue at Glencairn station, is typical of Allen Road today, and had the Spadina Expressway been completed its surface sections likely would have resembled this. The subway right-of-way in the median echoes Chicago's Red and Blue Lines, and was really the prime beneficiary of the expressway project - even though the road was cancelled the subway continued on, and the route of the subway still parallels what the route of the road would have been. From what I understand, that's the reason why that particular line is called the University-Spadina Line. Being at the surface, not only was it inexpensive to construct compared to tunneling, but it also allows one to make faces at the motorists stuck in traffic on the other side of the barbed-wire fences.

At Eglinton Avenue, the lanes turn into off-ramps and Allen Road comes to an end, just as the subway enters Eglinton West station and from there the tunnels that continue uninterrupted to Finch, on the other end of the line. Traffic there is no surprise - after all, light cycles only last for so long. It's a brief journey, but it was intended to be much more. If the planners had had their way, there still would have been off-ramps but the lanes of the expressway would have kept on going.

Phase 2 - There But for Grace

Everden Road is a quiet, unremarkable residential street stretching south of Eglinton, and taking into consideration the layout of Allen Road as it was construction, it would have been obliterated had the expressway come through. It would, most likely, have been given over to the median, and this picture would then be looking right down the tracks - though the subway line may still have gone underground at Eglinton West. Still, Metro planners at the time didn't lose sleep over the expropriations and demolitions they had to conduct in the names of progress and traffic flow. A significant chunk of Parkdale, not to mention almost the entire Sunnyside Amusement Park, were demolished in order to build the Gardiner Expressway. For the most part, though, Everden was an outlier - the majority of demolition would have occured around the southern limits of the Expressway.

Demolition, but not destruction.

Everden ends at Ava Road, but the path beyond leads into Cedarvale Park. Occupying one of the city's many ravines carved in the wake of glacial action, it's a rolling, forested, wild expanse of greenspace left almost untouched. Aside from subway emergency exits and some tennis courts at the north end, very little has been built within it. Had the Spadina Expressway gone through, it would quite literally have gone through Cedarvale Park, the ravine transformed into asphalt and concrete. It's an understandable route - the scale of expropriation and demolition of existing properties elsewhere might have been politically unpalatable, and to say that nature was given short shrift back then would be putting it generously. The 1961 planning documents suggest that this area, photographed from the century-old Glencedar Bridge, might have been underground and roofed over - nevertheless, the construction would have changed the ravine, perhaps irreparably. The chirping birds, the wind rustling through trees, the buzz of bicycles passing fast on the path - none of it would be the same.

Cedarvale Park ends at Heath Street, as well as a convenient secondary entrance to St. Clair West station. The highway would have continued - likely to a degree underground, if only to prevent a rather expensive reconstruction that section of St. Clair Avenue - and into Nordheimer Ravine, smaller and more densely forested than Cedarvale. More importantly, Nordheimer marks where the route leaves York and enters Toronto, and the city of Toronto's strident opposition to the Spadina Expressway project was another significant factor in its cancellation. After briefly following the Nordheimer Ravine, the route turns south at Spadina Road, finally meeting its namesake and origin - the whole project, starting in the 1940s, was originally floated as a northward improvement of Spadina Road.

This area is a wealthy one, named after its most eye-catching residence - Casa Loma. Toronto's twentieth-century castle would have survived the coming of the Spadina Expressway, but only just, with artist's impressions I've seen perching it on the edge of an open-roofed, trenched highway. The Baldwin Steps, the pedestrian access from Davenport Road to Casa Loma up the edge of the Iroquois Shoreline, and which I commented on in my Scott Pilgrim phototour two weeks ago, would have have been destroyed.

This photo looks south along Spadina Road from the Baldwin Steps, and this perspective would have been utterly, absolutely transformed by the Spadina Expressway. If I read the maps correctly, Davenport Road would have been rebuilt to be carried over the Expressway here. Where the road is now would have been the northbound lanes, while the subway line would have been built in an open trench along the right side of the photo. The potential route of southbound lanes, crashing through the middle of existing construction, aren't visible. They would pass beneath the railway bridge you can see further down. Beyond that, approximately where the center line splits to form a peanut-like shape in the middle of the road, where some of the grand historic residences of the Annex still stand - it would have been entirely obliterated, because this is where the Spadina Expressway was to interchange with the Crosstown Expressway.

There's almost a grim beauty in the audacity of the plans, of the degree to which the planners wanted to smooth the ground for progress. Between the lanes themselves and the network of sweeping on-ramps and off-ramps necessary to guide motorists from the Spadina to the Crosstown, the Crosstown to the Spadina, or onto whatever residential roads survived the construction, it might be that no building photographed here would have still been standing had the projects all come to fruition.

After meeting the Crosstown the Spadina would split and separate out, in preparation for its planned Bloor Street terminus - while the southbound lanes would remain on Spadina, the northbound lanes would split to bury Madison Avenue. The number of heritage properties I passed in just a couple of blocks wasn't surprising - this is the Annex, after all, one of the historic residential centers of Toronto. It's a quiet street in terms of traffic, but considering how many of these houses are probably subdivided residences for students of the nearby University of Toronto, probably not as peaceful once exams are over. I doubt it ever gets even close to what it would've been like had the Spadina's northbound lanes come through here.

It was the residents of the Annex, Jane Jacobs among them, who were instrumental in pushing back against the suburban interests that sought to push the expressway through. Understandably, as in terms of the unbuilt portion, the neighborhood would have been bisected and possibly devastated - though the damage to Forest Hill and Cedarvale Park wouldn't have been small change either.

Here, at Bloor Street West, the Spadina Expressway would come to an end and the commuters would have to make the rest of their way downtown - an admittedly short way, mind you - on city streets. I can only imagine how clogged and congested this intersection would be if that had been the case. It would've transformed the area around it and beyond, that much is certain. It's safe to say that the Expressway would, among other things, mean that there would be no Spadina streetcar today - anyone trying to lock up two lanes in a right-of-way for transit vehicles along such a busy corridor, in the more car-centric Metro Toronto a completed expressway network would have fostered, probably would have been crucified. There are a number of possibilities for what could have happened beyond here - I've seen references to express lanes south, but I've also seen artist's impressions of the Spadina being taken south to meet the Gardiner, crashing through Chinatown and Kensington Market to get to the lakeshore.

I believe it's for the better that the Spadina Expressway was never built. It would have cut through established communities, reduced valuable greenspace to asphalt, and encouraged more and more people to quit Toronto for the suburbs and their siren song. Nor would have it solved any long-term congestion issues - congestion is never solved by just building more expressways. The phenomenon of induced demand is particularly noteworthy in terms of automobile infrastructure - new expressways would encourage more use of the system, ultimately to the extent that Metro's traffic troubles would just be larger and spread out over more of the city. The implementation of an auto-centric policy, such as the one behind the Spadina Expressway, would encourage people to use cars who might not have otherwise done so.

The Spadina Expressway was the keystone, and it's arguable that because of its absence, the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway never did live up to their potential. Today, every once in a while you can still hear people calling for a demolition of the Gardiner in downtown, nd the sheer weight of traffic it sees in rush hour should make it no surprise that the DVP's unofficial nickname is the "Don Valley Parking Lot."

There's always a cost to everything. Myself - I do believe that, in the end, it was one worth paying.

Previously Booked Tours:


  1. Unfortunately, (as i've said before) had the Spadina/Crosstown and 400 been built to the extent that they were supposed to be, we wouldn't have had the kind of traffic that we have now today. Instead of dividing up 1million cars on to 8 highways, we have 1million cars divided on to 4 highways.

    The 407 is a prime example of infrastructure blunder. Oh sorry... I meant Highway 7 and 16th Avenue, which are virtual parking lots during most rush-hours, on account of the large amount of cars crossing through Markham to get to the 404, instead of taking the 407 across.

  2. Though I do complain that it's hard to get around the city sometimes, I'm glad all these expressways never came to be.

  3. I knew this would bring you out, Tesseract. While my opinions are hopefully perfectly obvious, the problem is that in yours, I don't think you're taking the induced demand of a completed Metro expressway system fully into account. If Toronto today had eight expressways instead of four, there wouldn't be just a million cars on them. You'd also have to account for the people who, given the greater motoring convenience in Expressway World, went that route there but not in this one. If it's so much easier to get to downtown from the suburbs, a lot more people probably would have chosen to live in the suburbs.

  4. Great history lesson. I always wondered how and why Allen Rd / Spadina expressway would have but didn't change Toronto.
    Andrew I bet you're a SIM CITY fan. You know while I'm rambling away on the subject let me make a prediction - tunnels. They're coming to Toronto soon cause its getting cheaper and cheaper to make em, and I predict a private contractor will try to do one from 401 / Kingston rd to downtown, say Richmond a Queen / Bayview south entrance. What do you think? If you lived in Pickering, Ajax, or Oshawa would you pay $10 to skip the DVP every morning?

  5. SimCity on the SNES, and SimCity 2000 and later SimCity 4 for PC. Still awesome soundtracks.

    Hmm - I'm not that familiar with tunnel construction, but given the costs associated with new subway construction - tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars per kilometer - I don't think they'll exactly be cheap unless we use those mobile atomic reactors applying incredible heat from "Magic Highway U.S.A." to melt their way underneath the city.

    Though a transition between an underground highway and the existing infrastruture at Richmond and Queen wouldn't exactly be clean, either. There's a lot of built-up-ness around.