For years, those of us who work at The Globe and Mail have watched the transformation of the former railway lands across Front Street West.
From brownfields left by the Canadian National Railway Co., to a temporary golf course driving range, we’ve watched the windy knoll change from a no-man’s land into the thriving CityPlace highrise community of 13,000 condo dwellers.
Suddenly, The Globe’s sleepy neighbourhood off Spadina Avenue, where one could barely find a good cup of coffee 12 years ago, is full of people.
They’ve taken over the streets around the newspaper. Pedestrians and cyclists are everywhere. Our quiet neighbourhood Winners, once the original store in the discount chain, is now full of shoppers, who bring their urban dogs into the store on a leash. Woof. What a change.
The change continues. It seems only a few months ago that Concord Adex Developments began to build an unusually yellow-coloured pedestrian bridge to allow all of those pedestrians to walk from their CityPlace homes to Front Street and further north, to the new Thompson Hotel and the new restaurants that have popped up in King West Village.
On Friday, the 125-metre-long bridge opened to pedestrians. After the dignitaries cut the ribbon, I joined the crowd to walk across Puente de Luz, or Bridge of Light, one-quarter of which was built in Chile.
Spanning Toronto’s busy downtown railway corridor, where the commuter Go Trains marshall and trundle below, it’s a simple yet elegant piece of public art in a city that’s not known for extravagant displays of architectural beauty.
Only in Canada could a team of Chinese-Canadian developers join forces with a Chilean sculptor to produce such a delightful, yet utilitarian result. The opening festivities were a multicultural statement of what makes Toronto events special. Chilean music and wine. Lake Ontario wind and construction grit.
Sculptor-designer Francisco Gazitua came from Chile to christen the project. A humble man of great vision, he deflects credit to the team – structural engineer Peter Sheffield, art consultant Karen Mills and Concord Adex architect and vice-president of development Gabriel Leung. They took his poetic dream and made it real, he says. “You’ve got to have a very good engineer to land the dream.”
The bridge has to be strong, yet lightweight. It has to span the railway gutter with only one central pier. It has to deal with wind gusts that barrell down the street from the SkyDome and CN Tower, yet handle the weight of 1,000 people.
In his workshop in Chile, Mr. Gazitua started with prototypes – some with squared-shaped sections, others with feather-like delicacy – until, after six months of discussions and drawings, the team settled on the system of arches. The sculptural portals on the 60-metre end ramps were built in Chile to echo the arches on the bridge and bring a fanciful personality to the overall structure.
And then there’s that distinctive colour. Historic Front Street has never seen anything like it. It took us a while to get used to the shade suggested by Ms. Mills. The calming yellow plays across the steel – a good contrast against a grey-blue sky and the grey-black tones of the CityPlace high rises. The overall effect looks pricey, but no one would reveal the exact final cost of the bridge on Friday.
“The cost of it isn’t as significant as the value,” Mr. Leung said, coyly avoiding the question. When Concord Adex bought the land, it agreed to the City of Toronto’s requirement that a pedestrian bridge be built – at the developer’s cost.
Mr. Leung is on the record, though, as saying that Puente de Luz cost about “one-third” of the red Peace Bridge in Calgary, which is almost the same length. It became a source of friction due to its $24.5-million price tag – shouldered by the taxpayers.
However, on Friday, Puente de Luz’s opening day was not about money, but about the City of Toronto’s vigorous public art program, the strength of north-south connections between Canada and Chile, and the energy of a young condo neighbourhood.
Perhaps the best comment about the relevance and value of public art came from Roberto Ibarra, the Chilean ambassador to Canada.
After the devastating earthquake in Chile in 2010, Mr. Gazitua, the sculptor, came to a small town in the ambassador’s home region that had been levelled. In the public square, Mr. Gazitua erected public art sculptures to give the people a sense of hope.
“I think our cities need more culture, not only businesses, to allow us to get us to know one another,” Mr. Ibarra said. “Public art makes cities more human.”
In the future, CityPlace residents plan to host a farmers’ market and other street activities for the 20,000 people who will eventually live there when all of the highrises are complete. The development still has its critics. But those who venture over Puente de Luz may be pleasantly surprised.
Christine Mushka is the editor of the Property Report page