A new project aims to transform what is currently a "no-go" space beneath the Gardiner Expressway into an urban hub of parks, bike paths and spaces for kids. 

On a map, the stretch of land between Strachan and Spadina Avenues just north of the lake is labelled the Gardiner Expressway. But within that stretch is a long, empty space hidden under the Gardiner that urban planner Ken Greenberg plans to convert into a new park space.

His project, called UnderGardiner, was unveiled on Tuesday along with a $25-million donation from philanthropist Judy Matthews to make it happen.

The plan is to create a park under the elevated highway using the five stories of space to build the green space up instead of out. Greenberg calls the unused space "hidden in plain sight." He said the public space will be less like Toronto's existing parks — such as neighbouring Little Norway park — and more like a "great public living room."

"It's a real breakthrough in the way we think about public space in Toronto and how we build it," said Greenberg on Metro Morning on Tuesday.

The space stretches 1.75 kilometres and spans seven different city neighbourhoods. Greenberg plans to have 55 "civic rooms" in that space, all connected through a multi-use trail for pedestrians and bicycles. 

The rooms would be formed by the columns and beams of the Gardiner, which are called bents. The rooms would house events staged by cultural producers in the city. Artist renditions show an ice rink in winter, and open benches and street performers in the summer.

Due to the shelter from the expressway overhead, the space would be intended for use year round.

"You could never afford to build this great civic roof if you were doing it from scratch. But because it exists and because the city is spending $150 million to restore this part of the Gardiner," he said, "we have an opportunity to bring into the space visual arts, performing arts, specialty markets, recreational and children's activities."

Greenberg said there would be a programmer to help plan events in the space.

The project is being built with public and private funds. Judy and her husband Wil Matthews, the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto are all invested. Greenberg is working with urban landscape company Public Work.

So far, the plans have gained admiration from at least one city councillor whose ward includes part of the area covered by the Gardiner. "This is an opportunity to turn what was once a no-go zone into a destination for kids, families, Torontonians of all ages and tourists," said Joe Cressy of Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina).

The project aims to attract more donations throughout its planning and construction. In fact, Waterfront Toronto is in the process of changing its legal status so that it can accept more donations, Greenberg said.

The first stage of the UnderGardiner transformation won't being for another two years.

Under Gardiner Park

This is an artists' rendition of what summertime would look like in the $25-million UnderGardiner park. (undergardiner.com)