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Fort York bridge will help Toronto progress into a more walkable future

Soon, Fort York will be a bit easier to invade. As of 2017, the historic downtown site will welcome visitors with a new pedestrian bridge over the neighbouring rail lines.

It is a project that Rob Ford, as mayor, tried to kill in 2011. Now it will move ahead, and if you are looking for a metaphor for the state of Toronto's public realm, here it is: The bridge, when finished, will be five years late, and its budget and design ambition have been hacked back, but it will be built. And it will tie together a network of parks and open space in a fast-changing district, permanently altering Torontonians' mental map of their city.

Mayor John Tory is scheduled to join local councillor Mike Layton on Tuesday morning to name the project's team, led by Dufferin Construction, the bridge-engineering firm Pedelta and Toronto landscape architects DTAH.

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The $19.7-million project is scheduled to start in the spring and be completed in a year. It will allow cyclists and pedestrians to reach the northwest corner of the fort site, which is at Bathurst and Front Streets, from a pair of new parks under construction in the Niagara neighbourhood and Liberty Village.

And it will link up to the Under Gardiner, the new public space the city announced last week.

The bridge will bring new life to the fort, a National Historic Site that has long been hemmed in by rail lines, the Gardiner Expressway, industry and now condo towers. "It will probably double the traffic we get," says Stephen Otto, a co-founder of the Friends of Fort York and a tireless advocate for the fort. "All of a sudden, the whole system of streets and neighbourhoods north of us will be opened up."

It is good news for the fort, a crucial battlefield in the War of 1812 that deserves to play a much larger role in the city's cultural life. The site is controlled by the city, and well-run but chronically starved for funds. Its brilliantly designed visitors centre, opened last fall, got about a quarter of its $25-million budget from private donations. The Fort York Foundation is still seeking more money to finish its landscape design – which overlaps with the new Under Gardiner plan.

The construction of the new bridge, together with the Under Gardiner, presents the tantalizing possibility of a new park network and perhaps a sort of cultural campus for the city.

More than 70,000 people live in neighbourhoods nearby, which are cut by all kinds of infrastructure. "The bridge is the missing link in the green corridor, from the lake up to Trinity Bellwoods," Mr. Otto says. "It makes for a system of off-road paths we've been needing and wanting for a long time."

Those paths will reach the fort's visitors centre, which includes a gallery space that at the moment has an exhibition of the Magna Carta. As intense new residential development continues in the area, some locals are pushing for a new cultural hub just north of the fort – in the "Wellington destructor" (PDF), a grand building constructed in 1925 as a garbage incinerator that now lies empty.

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Tuesday's announcement caps years of political battles over the bridge. City council approved it in 2007, and it was proposed to be finished in 2012, in time for bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812. Its original design, by local architects Montgomery Sisam and AECOM, was a dramatically curving structure that spanned 300 metres – bold and elegantly engineered – would have been, like Montgomery Sisam's bridge at the mouth of the Humber River, a landmark.

Then the Ford era came along. Suddenly a $26-million bridge for cyclists and pedestrians was, in the words of conservative councillor David Shiner, too "fancy." With Mr. Ford's support, he introduced a surprise motion to kill it. Eventually, Mr. Layton and Mr. Shiner brokered a compromise. The project was kicked back to city staff with a lower price tag and a new procedure.

The resulting bridge has some of the same flair, but less. It is actually two separate straight spans – each reaching across a stretch of rail, and meeting on the triangular spit of land where the two rail corridors divide. (This has the advantage of bringing all passers-by to the new park in the middle of the triangle, which should be interesting; it is being designed by the clever landscape architects Claude Cormier and Associates, who designed Sugar Beach.)

Each span of the bridge includes a long, sinuous arch that adds flavour to the straightforward engineering of the bridge beneath. It will be made of duplex stainless steel, which has a tough, matte finish – and, more importantly, does not rust easily or require painting.

The bottom line? After a five-year delay, the city will save $6-million on a bridge that was needed 10 years ago, and getting less design quality. In a city that is ready to throw $910-million at a vague Scarborough subway plan, this is penny wise and tonne foolish.

But Toronto's civic culture has always been about incremental victories. The Under Gardiner is a victory for the public realm; the bridge will be another, pointing toward a walkable, bikeable and more lively 21st-century city. At last.

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