One resident’s ears hurt from trying to ram earplugs in deeper. Another has cancelled meetings because fatigue left him unable to function properly. Others talk about becoming emotionally jagged from lack of sleep.
These are among the thousands kept awake by the redecking of the eastern Gardiner Expressway, a noisy job that has prompted a flood of complaints and offers a preview of how disruptive this work will be as it progresses across the increasingly populated downtown.
The controversy speaks to the changing face of this part of downtown Toronto. The city has encouraged development here and – amid an increasing body of evidence showing that noise has negative effects on public health – now faces competing pressures to manage the needs of both residents and drivers.
The Gardiner rehabilitation has required shutting part of the elevated highway. And elements of the work, which is being done between Cherry and Jarvis streets, require the part of Lake Shore Boulevard directly below to be closed for safety while it is under way. A 2015 city report shows that the two roads carry together, at their peak, about 5,900 vehicles an hour in this area and staff decided it would be too disruptive to allow the Lake Shore lanes to be closed during the morning or evening rush hours. The job has also been deemed “necessary municipal work,” meaning that normal nighttime noise bylaws do not apply.
The result has been weeks of overnight racket, often going past 2 a.m., and the sense among locals that they are being sacrificed to the convenience of passing commuters.
“Absolutely, there is some noise which is expected, especially within a city, but there’s just the degree of noise,” said local resident Preet Banerjee, a financial expert, television host and occasional Globe and Mail contributor. “From my perspective, I’m losing sleep. From the drivers’ perspective, they’re losing time. So what’s more important?”
Mika Hamilton, an anesthetist and intensivist who lives close to the highway, has done enough shift work that she can sleep through most things. But this still disrupts her nights.
“It’s been more the sort of emotion of it that keeps me awake,” she said. “I lie there in bed and I think ‘I can’t believe they’re allowed to make this much racket overnight’.”
The city expected recent Gardiner work noise to hit 10 or 12 on a scale of 1 to 15, but has been surprised at how loud it’s been. Staff couldn’t say this week what the noise level actually reached, but acknowledged it was worse than it should have been. The city is looking at ways to mitigate the cacophony, but there is no appetite for switching the most disruptive work to the day.
“This work is going to be impactful, there’s no denying that,” said Toronto chief engineer Michael d’Andrea. “Our challenge is to make sure that we balance all of the needs.”
The Gardiner dates from a time when Toronto had an industrial waterfront. In the decades since, though, hundreds of thousands of people have settled immediately around the highway. This influx was facilitated by the city, both directly through its development approvals process and indirectly through zoning rules that made it harder to increase density in much of the remaining downtown.
These rapidly growing neighbourhoods are now adding population much faster than the rest of the city. The highway, meanwhile, continues to act as an artery for commuters into the core.
But the aging Gardiner is deteriorating and there’s a 10-year plan to replace the elevated deck along its length. The rehabilitation started in the east end and will work its way across the core.
To speed construction, large pieces of road deck are built off-site and then dropped into place. The noisy part is removing the old road. To do that, the surface is broken with jackhammers and saws and then each section of old road is hoisted out.
In an attempt to restrict noise, the crews switched recently to drilling from jackhammers, though some residents say the sound-level difference has been negligible.
“This amount of noise I’ve never heard in my life,” said Suzanne Kavanagh, an Esplanade resident and chair of the development committee of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association. She describes the construction noise bouncing off the elevated concrete, reaching far in all directions.
While the association is considering consulting lawyers, she stressed that members would prefer to find a solution through less adversarial means.
Local councillor Joe Cressy argues that it would be unreasonable to ask people in any part of the city to put up with noisy overnight construction for 18 months.
“We just tore up Bloor Street to do significant water-main replacement and road resurfacing,” he noted. “We did not do that work overnight. It stopped at 11 p.m. So why treat residents of the Annex and Yorkville any different than residents of the downtown core?”