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Under the expressway: the vision behind “the gift of the Gardiner”

Judy Matthews, Ken Greenberg and the transformation of public spaces

(photo courtesy Harry Choi Photography)

For Judy Matthews, the Gardiner Expressway is “like our Berlin Wall, to be taken down psychologically and re-invented in a way that makes it a place for people.”

Matthews and her husband Will are donating $25 million to finance the transformation of a 1.75 kilometre stretch under the Gardiner. They want to transform it from a desolate, unused area into a place where people can walk, cycle, meet friends and one day even shop for fresh vegetables. 

When the new public space is created it will stretch from just west of Strachan Ave. to Spadina Ave. City Council’s executive committee unanimously endorsed the plan on Dec. 1 and council is expected to approve it on Dec. 9.

Matthews, who graduated from Trinity College in 1978, and architect Ken Greenberg spoke with U of T News at Hart House.

“The Gardiner has been a negative in our DNA for 50 or 60 years,” Matthews said. “It has always been for cars, and we are going to do a 21st century remake for people – put the cars up above and people below.” 

She produced a picture of the underside of the Gardiner. The area “is fabulous, majestic really, like a cathedral,” Matthews said.

“When you see it vacant and neglected, you can realize the enormous potential.”

(Photo below courtesy Harry Choi Photography)

photo of the underside of the expressway

Greenberg, the lead urban designer and the Matthews’ representative on the project, overseeing all of its aspects, called it “the gift of the Gardiner.

“More people now, since we announced this project, are seeing the Gardiner with new eyes. It’s been there all the time hiding in plain sight, and we have taken it for granted. The idea of having a roof giving you weather protection over 1.7 kilometres is quite incredible.”

(Photo below courtesy Stephanie E. Calvet)

artist's rendering of Under the Gardiner at night

Stretching five stories from the ground to the bottom of the expressway itself, the space would be divided up into 55 areas. Greenberg calls it a “city living room.” 

Both Matthews and Greenberg, who still mentors grad students at U of T's  John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, say the project will be a catalyst for others to create more usable urban space.

“This is opening a whole new avenue for philanthropy in the city,” Greenberg said, “something that has happened in other cities but not as much here. 

“Judy and Will are pioneers. People are discovering that philanthropy aimed at creating projects that contribute to the environment, public health, to people’s general well-being is just as important as contributions to museums, or hospitals, or other cultural centres.” 

Read more about Judy Matthews

The Gardiner, Matthews said “is pre-ordained to stay,” suggesting that the dozens of condominiums so close to the expressway couldn’t be removed without enormous costs. “We have to be very cognizant of the people” who live in those condos. “Their input will be crucial to our success.”

(Artist's rendering below courtesy Public Work)

artist's rendering of Under the Gardiner in summer

Greenberg is working with designers Adam Nicklin and Marc Ryan of Public Work, the landscape firm that worked on U of T’s One Spadina Crescent renovation.  The project is being built by Waterfront Toronto which will hold public hearings in January, with the expectation that tenders will go out for construction next spring.

“This is not a stand-alone project,” Greenberg said, “It is intimately woven into everything around it,” including the neighbourhoods of Liberty Village, Fort York, the Bathurst Quay and City Place, where two schools and community centre will be built. 

By 2017 most of the work will be completed including a pedestrian/cycle bridge over Fort York Blvd. and another trail to Spadina. “One exists there now but we are going to improve it.”

When completed, the area will be a place “where you can come out, meet a friend, have a coffee and watch the kids play,” Matthews said. “You can hear some music, go to a market, get fresh vegetables and in the winter make it a winterfest theme with a skating rink.”

(Artist's rendering below courtesy Public Work)

artist's rendering for Under Gardiner at winter