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City hall defers decision on future of Gardiner Expressway

The mouth of the Don River as it enters Toronto's inner harbour with the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway running beside it on April 27 2015. The eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway is key to development plans the city of Toronto has for the area around the mouth of the Don River where the former Lever Brothers plant sits.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

After almost nine hours of debate and discussion, a key city hall committee decided Wednesday not to take a position on what to do with the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway.

The public works and infrastructure committee voted to seek more information about the options and punted the decision to the next meeting of council.

The deferral came at the end of an all-day special meeting on the Gardiner that brought dozens of citizens and industry representatives to City Hall to weigh in. It's the most expensive decision facing this council so far – with a long-term cost that could climb past $900-million – and will shape the eastern downtown for decades.

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"The main objective today was to hear from the city of Toronto, meaning the residents, the businesses, the key stakeholders," said committee chair Jaye Robinson. "And we did. We heard from them loud and clear, and they were divided on this issue. And it is an emotional issue for the city, but the bottom line is we need to make a decision. We're going to do that June 10."

At issue is whether to rebuild 1.7 kilometres of the elevated Gardiner east of Jarvis Street largely in the same place – described in city documents as the "hybrid" option – or to replace it with a boulevard at ground level – the "remove" option. Keeping the Gardiner elevated is projected to cost $919-million over the life of the expressway; removing it is projected to cost $461-million over the same period.

Keeping it elevated is the better option for drivers, according to the city's environmental assessment, while the boulevard would be cheaper and better for the environment and city-building.

Mayor John Tory spoke this week in favour of the hybrid option, saying the cost would be a reasonable price to pay for reducing traffic congestion.

Wednesday's meeting featured vigorous arguments spelling out the pros and cons of both options.

"You didn't study your BIA?" Councillor Paula Fletcher asked one deputant incredulously. And Councillor Ron Moeser jabbed at a representative from the Canadian Automobile Association with the recollection that the group had been proven wrong on the effect of taking down a section of the Gardiner farther east in the late 1990s.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade was among those lining up in favour of keeping the highway elevated. "We always have to be concerned about what is the cost impact of any of the decisions we're making," said president and chief executive officer Janet De Silva. "But again, … economic development is something that's quite important, and the benefit of just having that traffic be able to move goods and services and our work force is more compelling."

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Among the opponents of that option was former chief city planner Paul Bedford, who said Toronto would be "a laughingstock" if it bucked the trend away from urban expressways.

"We've got to get this right," said Mr. Bedford, comparing the fate of the Gardiner East to the 1971 cancellation of a highway through the heart of Toronto. "The reality is this is a huge decision … almost like a Spadina expressway decision."

The aging Gardiner east of Jarvis cannot be kept up without serious rehabilitation work. Doing only that would continue to block access to the Unilever site, near the base of the Don Valley Parkway, the development of which Mr. Tory is hoping will help fund his main transit proposal. Rebuilding the elevated highway in its current location and moving some ramps at the eastern end would allow access to the site. So would removing the expressway, which would also allow access to 12 acres of city land encircled by highway and rail corridor.

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