Skip to main content

Pedestrians use a newly constructed bridge that connects the downtown core to the waterfront over the Lakeshore Blvd. and under the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, Ontario, Monday, November 10, 2014.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Can a simple footbridge help bring a whole new city neighbourhood to life? It seems implausible, but architect John White makes a compelling case.

The neighbourhood is the South Core, the booming office, residential and entertainment district that is going up south of Union Station. Thickets of condo and office towers are rising in what used to be a barren stretch of parking lots and empty land cut off from the rest of the city by the railway tracks and the Gardiner Expressway.

Those two barriers separated the city from its neglected waterfront. Conventional wisdom said they represented an unbridgeable gulf. But development started leaping over the tracks a few years ago and now it has jumped the Gardiner, too.

Surrounded on both sides by buildings, the elevated highway is disappearing from view and diminishing as a barrier. "It was our own city wall, but it isn't any more," says Mr. White, a principal with WZMH Architects. "We have actually built on both sides of the wall."

His little bridge is playing a part in that great leap. It helps connect the South Core to the PATH system, the network of passageways beneath the central core. When Royal Bank of Canada decided to move into an office tower on Queens Quay, it asked for an indoor pathway so that commuting employees could make the walk from Union Station in comfort. The developer, Oxford Properties, asked Mr. White's firm to help.

Putting passageways underground would have been too expensive because of the high water table in the waterfront district. The inspired solution was to build a pedestrian bridge passing just under the Gardiner.

Getting it there was quite a feat. A huge truck brought the biggest piece of the preassembled structure to the expressway in the predawn hours of Aug. 16 and manoeuvred it into place, a neat trick that Mr. White calls "parallel parking a bridge."

It is designed so it can be winched sideways on beams to allow for maintenance on the Gardiner, which lies just 200 millimetres above.

The link opened to foot traffic on Oct. 1. Crossing it is a delightfully urban experience. Look up and you see the concrete underbelly of the expressway, a unique view of that colossus. Look down through the tall glass walls and you see the traffic on Lake Shore Boulevard streaming by. Drivers passing below look up to see pedestrians hurrying back and forth, illuminated in their glass box.

"There is a kind of theatre here – us watching them, them watching us," says Mr. White, a trim 52-year-old who bubbles with enthusiasm for the project as he conducts a tour.

A second new glassed-in footbridge just to the south carries people over Harbour Street, connecting to the WaterPark Place complex, which now includes the 30-storey office tower where Royal Bank resides. Southbound pedestrian traffic flows out of the back of Union Station, around the west side of the Air Canada Centre, under the Gardiner and over Harbour. Now that the link is open, a pedestrian can go all the way from Yonge-Dundas Square to Queens Quay indoors.

"You've brought the business district down to the waterfront," says Mr. White. "The downtown starts at the water now."

The PATH connection helps link the South Core to the financial district. It eases access to the great hub of Union Station, with its connections to the subway, the GO train and, soon, Pearson via the new airport express train. It helps link the city to the waterfront. It helps make the new district more walkable and more accessible to pedestrians in all weathers. Mr. White dismisses the concern that the indoor passageway will deaden the area's streets as people abandon the sidewalk. City rules demand that developers "animate" the streets they occupy with street-facing storefronts and entrance ways. Already, he notes, pubs, restaurants and convenience stores are popping up on streets such as Bay, York and Yonge. Wider, more inviting sidewalks with trees and other plantings are going in. Just steps away from the new southern terminus of the PATH, the rebuild of Queens Quay, designed to make it more welcoming to walkers and cyclists, is under way.

You can see the activity on the roads and on the sidewalks. You can feel the area coming to life as you look down from those glassed-in walkways.

"This is all about possibilities," says Mr. White. "It is the spark that ignites the fire."

That may seem a touch on the poetic side for a steel footbridge, but small flourishes can help build a great city. This little bridge slung under an expressway is the start of something big.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe