Googly-eyed boom lifts look to break down Gardiner Expressway's barrier to waterfront

The Waterfront Business Improvement Area announced the winners this week of a national design competition to spruce up two Gardiner Expressway underpasses with artwork and attract more people to Toronto's waterfront.

Installations to be complete by late 2022

An artist's conception of Boom Town, one of the winning designs set to be installed at the Gardiner Expressway underpass at the York Street intersection. (Submitted by 5468796 Architecture + Office In Search Of)

Two busy pedestrian stretches underneath the Gardiner Expressway will soon get a fresh coat of paint and some eye-popping structures as part of a way to get more people to Toronto's waterfront. 

The Waterfront Business Improvement Area (BIA) announced the winners this week of a national design competition to revamp two underpasses, at York and Simcoe streets — just south of the bustling area that includes tourist draws like the CN Tower, Rogers Centre and Scotiabank Arena, as well as a large number of condo towers. It's all part of a project called Waterfront ReConnect.

One design, called Boom Town, features googly-eyed characters looking over the road from what look like colourful boom lifts. The second, Pixel Story, includes a gradient of blue squares resembling digital pixels, sprawled over the underpasses' concrete pillars as well as some newly-made asymmetrical fence-like structures.

"For decades, the Gardiner served as a barrier," said Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents the area on city council and is welcoming the facelift.

"The more we can open up access to the waterfront, for businesses, for residents, for all of us, the better we'll be."

The Rees Street underpass, the site of the initial Waterfront ReConnect pilot project in 2019. A mural was painted featuring quotes leading pedestrians to the waterfront. (CBC News)

The installations aim to build on a similar success farther west, where The Bentway — a linear park that runs underneath the Gardiner between Strachan and Bathurst streets — has become a major draw. The Waterfront BIA is also hoping the project makes the area safer for pedestrians and brings more people down to Lake Ontario's shores. 

The winning design firms are 5468796 Architecture Inc., which is working with Office In Search Of on Boom Town, and O2 Planning & Design Inc., working with Mulvey & Banani Lighting and Entuitive Consulting Engineers on Pixel Story.

According to Cressy, both designs will cost just under $1 million in total and installation will start in the fall. It's all supposed to be done before the downtown section of the elevated highway undergoes repairs in 2025.

The Waterfront ReConnect  project began in 2019 at the underpass on Rees Street, where a mural was painted featuring quotes leading pedestrians to the waterfront.

An artist's conception of Pixel Story, the winning design for the Simcoe Street underpass of the Gardiner Expressway. (Submitted by 02 Planning & Design, Mulvey & Banani Lighting, and Entuitive)

Tim Kocur, the executive director of the Waterfront BIA, says the work will be done entirely at night to limit the disruption to local traffic. He also says his organization has a dedicated team to clean up any vandalism.

"We actually remove graffiti ourselves because we can do it a lot faster than some of the city agencies responsible for those assets," Kocur said. 

"I don't think there's anything you can do to prevent the idea of graffiti, but you can remove it the next day as opposed to waiting, say, eight months when it gets to the top of someone else's to-do list."


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