The Bentway only opened last January but hasn’t had trouble drawing people to a previously overlooked spot beneath the Gardiner.
In Toronto's west end, next to historic Fort York, a few hardy ice skaters glide and crunch around a figure-8 trail. A sharp wind blows off Lake Ontario making the air feel like 5°F, but that doesn't discourage them from making gentle circuits of the brand new track.
Just a few months ago, the Bentway was a construction zone. Two years ago it was still a scrubby patch of land under Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, accessible but never used.
The transformation started with a phone call. In April 2015, retired city planner and philanthropist Judy Matthews rang her friend and prominent urban designer, Ken Greenberg. She and her investment banker husband, Wil, were interested in funding a legacy project based around a new public space, she said.
Previously, the Matthews had financially contributed to the improvement of St. George Street on the University of Toronto campus and the creation of the waterfront Toronto Music Garden. (City-building is Judy's blood: her great grandfather was E. J. Lennox, who designed many prominent historic buildings in Toronto, including Old City Hall and Casa Loma).
Luckily, Greenberg had the perfect project in mind.
“I had been nurturing this idea of: ‘What if the land surrounding Fort York, the garrison, and the space under the Gardiner could become a great public space?’” he said. “I took Wil and Judy down to the site. My wife and I went for a walk with them and introduced them to the idea. And to their enormous credit they saw the potential in a very similar way to I did, the magnificence of the space and so on.”
The patch of land Greenberg showed the Matthews was roughly a city block in length, running between Strachan Avenue in the west and Bathurst Street in the east. On the north side was historic Fort York and the south Fort York Boulevard. The Gardiner Expressway loomed roughly five stories overhead, monumental in size but surprisingly quiet. Traffic noise was limited to just the chop of car tires over the joints in the road deck.
“We were just blown away,” Judy Matthews would later recall. “The majesty, the monumentality of it. We saw the incredible potential.”
With the Matthews's support, Greenberg brought in landscape architecture firm Public Work to help develop the concept, and in July they pitched the idea at City Hall. It was an easy sell. The local councillors and Mayor John Tory threw their weight behind the project and deputy city manager John Livey was directed to help navigate the bureaucratic hurdles associated with working on city-owned land. By November, the idea was ready to unveil.
At a press conference at the Fort York Visitors' Center, Judy Matthews announced she and Wil would be donating $25 million to build the linear park, which was later named the Bentway in a public contest.
“We see the city struggling with this huge explosion of people coming into the downtown and the need for public open space and civic amenities,” Matthews said. “And if we can help nurture and expand that common ground, the places that we all share, we would like to do that.”
When the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway was built west to east through Toronto's downtown in the 1950s and 1960s, its route took it through mostly industrial land at ground level or in a shallow trench. Early plans called for an interchange with a north-south highway at the site of Fort York and the deck was built especially high in the area to incorporate the various connector roads.
This configuration would also have taken the Gardiner directly through the fort, effectively destroying the military base Toronto was founded around. A community effort, however, ensured the road was diverted just to the south. The north-south highway also never happened, but the increased height of the road deck remained.
The land around the Gardiner remained mostly industrial—railway sidings, cement silos, a supermarket warehouse—until a major residential boom in the 2000s. Upwards of 77,000 people now live within walking distance of the Bentway, most of them in high-rise condominiums in the new CityPlace, Liberty Village, King West, and Harbourfront neighborhoods.
The influx of people has also drastically increased demand for public spaces and emphasized the extent to which the Gardiner now acts as a barrier to the waterfront.
“As much as we all love to hate the Gardiner Expressway, and I was one of the people who did that, in this particular area the opportunity to take the expressway down had long passed,” said Greenberg. “On the other hand, it's an incredible space. It's 14.5 meters [48 feet] high, the equivalent of a five-story building, it's 24 meters [80 feet] wide, it has a beautiful undulating form, a kind of double-s curve that makes its way around Fort York,” he said.
Working with landscape architects Marc Ryan and Adam Nicklin from Public Work, Greenberg designed what he describes as a hybrid public space: part multi-use trail, part outdoor performance space, part ice skating rink. The gigantic concrete pylons—bents in engineering terms—divide the space into 55 sections that can be programmed individually or in groups.
“It's expandable, collapsable, shrinkable,” he said. “It has an enormous ability to absorb different kinds of things.”
At the west end of the 10-acre strip at Strachan Avenue, there will be an amphitheater that can be used as an outdoor cinema or performance space. To the east is an area shared with the entrance to the Fort York visitor center. Beyond that the skating trail, the first piece of the Bentway to open this January, less than three years after Ken Greenberg first pitched the idea to the Matthews.
“It would have been very hard for the city through any of its already identified streams of capital projects to come up with this idea, simply because it didn't fit into any of the known categories,” said Greenberg. “If it were something that somebody in one of the departments had conceived of and had to go ask for $25 million to get it started, it's very hard to imagine that would have ever happened.”
Bentway CEO Julian Sleath said it was important to get even a tiny piece of the park open as soon as possible, even if much of the site currently remains a construction zone.
“We pushed really hard this winter in really, really cold circumstances to open the ice skating trail,” he said. “That has been really, really terrific for us. The people who have been questioning why you would want to do something underneath the Gardiner Expressway have had a bit of an 'ah-ha' moment ... it has really captured people's imagination, they're beginning to [ask]: ‘What's next?’”
Thousands came out for the January grand opening, which featured musical performances, break dancing, and a skating party hosted by the mayor. Since then, there have been DJs at an event called “Beats and Bents,” choir singers, and free skating lessons sponsored by the nearby airport.
“Each time you come we hope there is something different about the space,” said Sleath. “We'll have a three-season calendar of events and activations. They could take the form of visual art installations for a particular period of time, or a series of concerts, or pop-ups. And we're partnering now with many other arts organizations, social organizations, environmental organizations, and wellness organizations who want to bring their programs and their ideas to the Bentway.”
Down the line, the park will be ideally placed to connect with a number of other outdoor public spaces being planned or built in this part of Toronto. The Mouth of the Creek Park is under construction at the east end of the Bentway and a new pedestrian and cycling bridge will soon link the adjacent Fort York grounds with two new parks being built to the north on former industrial land.
Biggest of all, the proposed Rail Deck Park—a billion-dollar plan to cover a large section of rail corridor near Union Station in a similar way to Chicago's Millennium Park—could connect to the east end of the Bentway, if funding can be found.
“On 360 degrees all around us are these connecting links,” said Greenberg. “What's emerging is this whole new web of interconnected public spaces, trails, green spaces in what was a largely inaccessible, unknown, post-industrial, derelict landscape.”
The first phase of the Bentway, including the amphitheater, is due to be fully complete by late summer. The next one involves construction of a bridge over Fort York Boulevard. From there, the park can continue east towards a planned connection with Canoe Landing Park, which was designed in part by artist Douglas Coupland.
Beyond that, space is limited. In downtown, Lake Shore Boulevard runs directly beneath the expressway. In areas like this the Bentway could take the form of art or lighting installations, Sleath said. “When you are stuck in the inevitable traffic jam, at least it [won't] look like a completely grey environment,” he said.
Back at the skating trail, the sun is setting. A weak orange light fills the massive space as a new group of skaters lace up on temporary bleachers beside the trail. The Bentway has just a few converted shipping containers right now—permanent buildings will follow—but it's already begun to draw people to this previously overlooked spot beneath the Gardiner.
“It's been in everyone's plain sight but not really entered into their active conversation,” said Sleath. “What the Bentway has been able to do through all its supporters is reanimate that conversation, bring this part of the city back into the conversation.”