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The scene in 1964: British American Oil’s tanks were an obstacle for where the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway would join.Boris Spremo/The Globe and Mail

It's not every day that local politicians get a chance to move something as, well, immovable as a highway.

But that's just what will happen beginning next week, when a council committee sits down to figure out exactly where the "hybrid" eastern leg of the Gardiner Expressway should run.

During the Sept. 22 public works and infrastructure committee meeting, city staff will present three alternatives to the current routing, which swoops in a broad arc south from the Don Valley Parkway, hugs the northern edge of Keating Channel and then curves back up toward the railway corridor west of Cherry Street.

The options, developed in the wake of last June's showdown over the highway's future, feature tighter curves linking the DVP and the Gardiner. The city's aim is to shift the highway north and free up as much as 121/2 hectares of city-owned shoreline real estate. Staff members estimate land sales could generate proceeds of $60-million to $100-million, depending on the configuration chosen.

The stakes, in other words, are massive.

Yet, this isn't the first time Toronto's municipal leaders have had to weigh enormously consequential options for the Gardiner's footprint; indeed, history holds some critical lessons for today's councillors.

In the mid- to late-1950s, in fact, when Metro Toronto was planning its new expressways, officials had to make several pivotal decisions about the precise location of the Gardiner and the DVP – choices that determined the waterfront's current form and would impact its future.

In October, 1955, Fenco-Harris, an engineering partnership, delivered a report to Metro Toronto chairman Frederick Gardiner that laid out how the DVP would connect to the proposed $36-million waterfront expressway, which was to run from Queen Elizabeth Way all the way to the Woodbine beaches.

According to the Fenco-Harris proposal, the lakeshore highway would be built along a ruler-straight corridor from Jarvis to Woodbine, running well north of Keating Channel. The connection to the DVP, the engineers suggested, would take the form of a pair of ramps.

Strangely, those plans failed to account for one formidable roadblock – a sprawling refinery complex that extended from the railway corridor to the portlands, including two factories and a dozen giant fuel-storage tanks north of the channel.

The complex was owned and operated by British American Oil Co. Founded in 1906, the Toronto firm grew into a major industrial concern, with refineries in Ontario and later Alberta, as well as a chain of gas stations. The company, later acquired by Gulf Canada, also sold fuel and asphalt to area municipalities.

By the late-1950s, as Metro prepared to build the eastern leg of the Gardiner, its officials quietly reconfigured the DVP interchange to steer clear of BA's facility at the mouth of the Don River.

Yet, they couldn't completely avoid the refinery, so in mid-1961, Metro expropriated the southeastern portion and paid BA $500,000 in compensation. The Gardiner, as a result, would veer south to the water's edge, creating the land-use riddle that council, six decades later, is trying to sort out. The overgrown but heavily polluted BA refinery site has been fallow for decades, except for a parking lot.

That 1961 tweak to the eastern portion of the expressway generated no public response, but Mr. Gardiner faced a tough fight over the alignment of the western end of a highway meant to relieve the brutal congestion along Lake Shore Boulevard. The resolution of the controversy, in fact, paved the way for major public space improvements and waterfront redevelopment in subsequent decades.

Early in 1954, Metro officials set up a secretive expressway planning process overseen by a local engineering firm and a Chicago-based consultancy known for its highway projects. Mr. Gardiner's intention, according to archival documents and news reports, was to route the highway directly along the water's edge, between the Humber River and the central waterfront – a swath that included the Sunnyside Amusement Park, the Boulevard Club and the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.

But on April 22 that year, The Globe and Mail broke the news that two Canadian engineers on the planning team had quit over apparent objections to the proposed path of the highway.

"It is believed [they] disagreed with the other engineers on the route of the Expressway, believing it should be constructed behind rather than in front of the CNE grounds," Globe reporter Alden Baker wrote. "Metro chairman Gardiner is being sold a bill of goods in the opinion of some of the Expressway planners, it was reported."

One of the dissidents was a highly regarded transportation engineer named Norman D. Wilson. As the sensational news of Mr. Wilson's decision to bolt from Mr. Gardiner's pet project spread, the Toronto Harbour Commission and Board of Trade took up his case, lobbying Metro to shift the proposed highway well back from the water's edge so it would travel just south of the railway tracks in land set aside for a hydro corridor.

With spring turning to summer, Metro officials scrambled to produce alternative alignments. In July, engineers released a report showing three "inland" highway options, two of which would create 41/2 hectares of park along the waterfront, at an estimated additional cost of $11-million.

One envisioned the Queen streetcar running along Lake Shore Boulevard West, and another completely eliminated the road network south of the planned highway.

On Nov. 9, 1954, Metro approved a final route for the marquee project.

While council rejected the idea of bringing the Queen streetcar down to the beachfront parks, Mr. Gardiner bowed to pressure and ultimately agreed with Mr. Wilson's explosive critique – a decision that made possible the later development of the recreational areas extending from the western beaches to Ontario Place and on to Harbourfront.

Over the course of just seven months, the principled objections of long-forgotten technocrats altered not just the path of a highway, but the very shape of modern Toronto.

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