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Why Jennifer Keesmaat’s Gardiner teardown pitch is key to her campaign - gardiner_east

Why Jennifer Keesmaat’s Gardiner teardown pitch is key to her campaign

PUBLISH BY: Edward Keenan  | October 2, 2018



Over the weekend, mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat pledged that if she’s elected, she’ll cancel plans to rebuild the Gardiner Expressway east of Jarvis St. to the Don Valley Parkway, and instead pursue plans to build a surface-level “grand boulevard” on Lake Shore.

I don’t know if this will work to galvanize support for her as she attempts to make up ground on front-running incumbent John Tory as time runs short before the October 22 election. But I do think it’s a good policy for her to emphasize as she tries to do so. It’s a good idea, first of all, reversing a billion-dollar mistake. But it also highlights the differences, practical and symbolic, she’d like voters to see between herself and Tory.

I don’t expect, at this point, that many people are going to change their minds on the subject at hand. But there’s likely a large constituency for revisiting the decision, and one Keesmaat will need to capture if she has any hope of winning. Polls taken back in 2015 when council was debating this issue showed support for both the “boulevard” teardown option and the “hybrid” rebuilding option. Tory already delivered for the rebuild constituency. There is a substantial number of voters on the other side.

I think, as I wrote at the time and have written since, that Keesmaat’s side is right. The boulevard option for a surface-level road that could carry the same amount of traffic would mean only slight delays in travel times for car commuters, and would open up 12 acres of mostly city-owned land for redevelopment that are not available under the hybrid option. That would bring in massive development revenue and millions more per year in perpetuity in property taxes. But more importantly, it would mean building a whole new neighbourhood that otherwise wouldn’t exist, connecting to the Port Lands along the Keating Channel and connecting to downtown.

It’s about building a city for people to live and work in, building neighbourhoods. By contrast, rebuilding the small stretch of expensive elevated highway is about forsaking that opportunity to ensure some people can continue to drive over a neighbourhood at maximum speed. The old way, versus the new way.

And the old way — the hybrid option — is going to cost us vastly more money. In construction and maintenance costs alone, the rebuilding project is likely at least $1 billion more expensive than the boulevard, and that is without considering the income from development and property taxes.

I think there are good arguments for the benefits and risks on both sides, and ways to imagine both the hybrid or the boulevard working. But when you include the difference in cost and in city-building opportunity, the decision becomes less difficult, in my mind.

On the other hand, I think it’s possible to paint too pretty a picture of what the boulevard will look like. It would be a big, busy street. Lake Shore Blvd. near the eastern and western beaches today, where it already does not run under the Gardiner, is not the Sunday-strolling, cafe-society avenue of anyone’s dreams. It feels, at both ends, less like a street than a kind of surface highway punctuated by traffic signals.

But I have visited the Embarcadaro in San Francisco, where an elevated double-decker highway used to run, and seen how such a wide, high-traffic street can also be a thriving place, travelled by streetcars in a right-of-way and wide bike lanes and home to a busy commercial high street that serves as a beautiful gateway to the waterfront. I’ve visited Chicago’s waterfront and seen how massive high-speed surface streets can coexist with one of the most beautiful and celebrated waterfront park networks in the world.

And as a city planner who would be mayor, moreover, Keesmaat is selling her expertise knowing how to make it work. How to make it magnificent. People may or may not buy her ability to deliver on it, but that is what she is selling as a candidate. If there’s a reason to support her, it’s because of this, and things like it, where her expertise and vision as a planner and city-builder contrast with Tory’s well cultivated reputation as an incrementalist middle-of-the-road manager.

It’s a contrast that is both practical and symbolic. In the hybrid, a lot of John Tory’s defining qualities are evident. His aversion to doing anything that would subject him to “war on the car” rhetoric. His almost pathological impulse to find the kind of compromise that in the end doesn’t please anyone all that much, but that winds up costing much more than the alternatives. That has worked for him: there is support for that way of doing things.

But there is opposition to it, too.

And for Keesmaat, there’s the opportunity, to contrast Tory’s approach to this question and dozens of others like it with her own. Building a city for people and neighbourhoods, not for cars to travel through. Investing in new transit to serve those people, not spending to maintain inadequate car infrastructure. Opening up new opportunities to build the city of the future, not spending hundreds of millions to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I don’t know if it will turn into votes. But for Keesmaat it’s a way to start making her case more aggressively.

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