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Underpass Park hopes to elevate the Gardiner

A rendering of the imagined Underpass Park

The land beneath the Richmond and Adelaide street off-ramps just west of the Don Valley Parkway is a mess of giant puddles and construction detritus. A pile of plastic sheeting blows past discarded wooden pallets and torrents of spring runoff spill over crumbling curbs.

A steady hum of traffic drifts down from above, while a barricade of metal fencing leans under the weight of billboards painted with a colourful, tree-filled landscape, a literal sign of what's to come.

This, a place that could have been used as a backdrop for the apocalyptic saga The Road, is where the city expects people to hang out.

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Next month, construction will begin in this practically invisible pocket of land just north of Eastern Avenue. The plans for Underpass Park, a highly landscaped development directly under a pair of busy roadways, were announced last year to a barrage of hype that was fuelled mostly by disbelief.

"Toronto is so boring, its residents will attend the opening of an underpass," culture writer Rosemary Heather posted on her Twitter feed.

Located smack in the middle of the West Don Lands development, just north of the future site of the Pan Am Games athletes' village, the park will feature moveable coffee kiosks, public basketball courts and an ambitious work of public art hung from the highway itself.

It's a bold re-imagining for a town where underpasses are generally regarded as nothing more than graffiti galleries and pigeon coops. Linger too long under most Toronto roadways and you get the distinct feeling that something disgusting is going to drip onto your head, and it won't be sliding off a piece of art.

But some urban thinkers are beginning to see the spaces as the downtown's untapped natural assets, and say that beautifying them could completely change the way people move around the city.

"Toronto's got all sorts of overpasses and roadways, and I think there are places that could be really interesting if enough imagination was brought to bear," said Greg Smallenberg, the Vancouver-based landscape architect who designed Underpass Park.

In New York City, transit commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan transformed a parking lot beneath the Manhattan Bridge overpass in Brooklyn into a public park simply by painting a white border around it and laying down some grass, completely changing the neighbourhood.

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"It was a quick way of showing you can transform a space in a matter of hours instead of a matter of years," she recently told Esquire magazine.

Granville Island in Vancouver is perhaps the most successful underpass development in the country; it's a bustling community, parts of which are carved out beneath the Granville Street Bridge.

Before it was developed into a public market, the False Creek area around the bridge was a polluted industrial wasteland, said Mr. Smallenberg.

"For a year and a half it was a dead zone. Everybody thought it was going to be an absolute white elephant," he said of the area's redevelopment. "Now it's elbow room only to get your fresh fruit and vegetables."

While Underpass Park is intended to be a thoroughfare rather than a destination, making it more palatable to walk from one side of the bridge to the other, it does signal a new way of thinking about the city's unused space.

The new Dufferin Street extension north of Queen Street West has created a brightly lit underpass, which serves as a pristine point of comparison to the dingy, constantly flooded sidewalks running east-west.

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But by far the worst underpass is the stretch of space beneath the Gardiner Expressway.

A windy, desolate expanse that cuts the city off from its waterfront, Mr. Smallenberg calls the underpass "one of the most inhospitable pieces of road in Canada."

"I don't see the Gardiner so much as the villain," he said, "I see Lake Shore as the villain."

Waterfront Toronto is currently doing environmental assessments of four tentative plans to deal with the Gardiner, one of which, in the words of chief executive officer John Campbell, involves "tarting up" the space underneath.

But some initial steps have already been taken. This spring, the city is scraping and repainting the minty green beams on the highway's underside, while the concrete support bents have already been pressure-washed into a lighter shade of grey.

Two years ago, the city held a competition to select a piece of public art that would be installed beneath the Gardiner in front of Fort York. The winner, called Watertable, by artists Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak, illuminates the underside of the highway with waves of light that mark the original shoreline of Lake Ontario.

"It's one of those spaces where people kept asking 'Where is it, where is it?'" said Mr. Tomczak. "Of course, they've been there many times."

Although most people move through the Gardiner underpass as quickly as possible, Ms. Steele points out that the space is becoming more valuable as the area surrounding it develops.

"It will be the front yard of thousands of people," she said. "It will just, de facto, be used."

Through their work on Watertable, the couple said they fell in love with the space, which Ms. Steele describes as dramatic, majestic and even "beautiful."

The pair said it was satisfying to create a work of art in an area that is considered uninhabitable and even dangerous.

"You want to affect some kind of change in your audience and often we don't get to see it, but we could certainly see it this time," said Ms. Steele.

A little farther to the east, near the corner of Lake Shore and Dan Leckie Way, artist Pierre Poussin created Mitosis Courtyard, a permanent piece of public art underneath the Gardiner that was commissioned for the Panorama condominium complex.

"There are a lot of areas of Toronto that are neglected and there so many great opportunities to create unique, dynamic public art work," said Mr. Poussin.

But the spaces also come with inherent challenges. Because the Gardiner underpass has long been a place of refuge for the homeless population, Mr. Poussin was encouraged to incorporate light into his work so that the condo's security guard could easily see who was hanging out there.

And both his work and Watertable were required to be fully removable to ensure that city engineers could have full access for highway maintenance and repairs. Watertable is currently in storage while the underside of the Gardiner is being painted.

But there are also psychological hurdles at play when it comes to enticing people to rethink such unappealing space.

Mr. Smallenberg insists that the air around Underpass Park will be no more polluted than any other Toronto street corner, but said that drastic landscaping and lighting measures will have to be taken before people will accept it as a place to walk at night.

The park is scheduled for completion by this fall, and its designer insists that people will be happily surprised by the result.

"It's a space that does have a lot of promise," said Mr. Smallenberg. "There's a lot of spaces that don't have any promise at all."

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