For decades, downtown Toronto faced two seemingly impenetrable barriers on its south flank. The railway corridor and the Gardiner Expressway blocked southward development and cut off the city from its waterfront. Between them lay a wasteland of parking lots, vacant land and off ramps.
But in the past few years, something remarkable and unexpected has happened. The barrier effect, once considered permanent, has faded away. Development has jumped over the railway tracks to create a teeming new district becoming known as the South Core. Office and condominium towers are nudging right up to the Gardiner, clustering both north and south of Fred Gardiner's elevated behemoth.
Until recently, says Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance, the lands between the rail tracks and the expressway were "just a kind of DMZ." Developers considered the area too remote from the central business district for office buildings and too unattractive for residential projects.
"Now you've got this kind of crazy, zany neighbourhood where there are all sorts of people around. You have office uses, hotel uses, retail, restaurants. It's a hyper-distilled version of the city."
Iain Dobson, co-founder of Real Estate Search Corp., says that "this what we all aspire to in intensified urban areas – mixed-use development – and it's great for the city."
The rise of the South Core casts a new light on the debate about the future of the Gardiner, which is crumbling and in need of hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs. Taking it down may make sense for financial or safety reasons, but not because it stands in the way of development or waterfront access. Developers are simply building around it.
"The more this happens, the less the Gardiner becomes an impediment, because it becomes invisible," says city councillor Peter Milczyn, an architect by training. Viewed from street level in some places, it is already starting to disappear behind a curtain of tall buildings.
For a pedestrian, says Mr. Milczyn, "The Gardiner just becomes a place where the rain doesn't fall on your head."
Toronto's Great Leap Southward has happened at remarkable speed. Telus was one of the first off the mark, completing a 32-storey office building just south of Union Station in 2009. Several other projects are built or under construction, from Maple Leaf Square to RBC WaterPark Place to the dramatic twin Ice condo towers.
Still more is on the way, from a big office-residential project at the foot of York Street to the pending redevelopment of lower Yonge Street and the Harbour Commission lands.
It is not just the South Core that is booming. Just blocks to the west, a cluster of new condos and other buildings are sprouting north and south of the Gardiner, including a planned extension of the massive CityPlace residential project.
Critics say more glass towers in a city already bristling with them is nothing to cheer about. But if there is any place for such intensive development, this is surely it.
The South Core is just steps from the Canada's biggest transportation hub: Union Station. Union's ambitious renovation and expansion was one of the catalysts for the great leap over the tracks.
Because the district began almost as blank slate, there is no risk that intense high-rise development will annoy existing residents or overwhelm established neighbourhoods. Mr. Clewes calls the South Core "a poster child for appropriate intensification."
Very quickly, the new neighbourhood is being knit into the rest of the downtown. Enclosed walkways will link pedestrians from many buildings to the downtown-wide PATH network. One walkway is actually being designed to go under the Gardiner, over Lakeshore Boulevard and into the Air Canada Centre. It is the type of thing you might see in Hong Kong or Shanghai, and that it the feel the area could have once it is fully built up – a humming high-rise neighbourhood with busy street life where people both live and work.
As for play, the area already has the ACC, and the Ripley's Aquarium is nearing completion at the foot of the CN Tower. A new park will be installed in place of the Gardiner's winding York Street off-ramp, which is being removed as part of a redesign.
The area around Fort York is getting a new public library and a pedestrian bridge to tie it to the city to the north. Fort York itself, long overlooked in its hidey hole between the rail tracks and the Gardiner, will have beautiful new visitors centre that comes right up flush with the pillars of the expressway, using the area underneath as its forecourt.
"We always believed the Gardiner was the great divide," says Mr. Clewes. "Now it's becoming irrelevant."