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Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg + Bjarke Ingels Group

Conceptual plans to fix, improve, replace or rip down the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway prepared three years ago by a who's-who of international firms are finally seeing the light of day.

The blue-sky visions commissioned by the city and Waterfront Toronto as part of a $7-million study into tearing down parts of the aging highway include everything from four-lane tunnels to raised "parkways" to demolishing the section east of Jarvis Street and persuading commuters to leave their cars at home and take a new downtown relief subway line.

The plans – six in all, commissioned at a cost of $50,000 each – are the result of an international design competition that attracted big-name talent, including the firm of prominent Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Waterfront Toronto was preparing to release the preliminary designs in 2010, but put them on the shelf before the election.

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That's when a committee of half-a-dozen staff from the city and the agency quietly decided to stop work on a council-ordered environmental assessment.

Faced with rising costs to keep the crumbling elevated highway safe, council ordered staff to restart that study and take the wraps off the conceptual plans.

The public will get its first chance to weigh in on the Gardiner's future at an open house on Thursday evening at the Metro Convention Centre where the plans will be on display.

Even before the plans were rolled out for the media on Wednesday, Mayor Rob Ford made it clear what option he prefers: "We've got to maintain the Gardiner. We've got to invest money in the Gardiner."

Waterfront Toronto head John Campbell called the drawings "big vision ideas" intended to spark discussion, not provide a "wholesale solution."

"It's a bit of a cafeteria. It's a buffet that you can pick and choose from," he said at a midday news conference.

Deputy city manager John Livey said staff expect to give council a "preferred alternative" in a year, which will likely make the future of the highway an election issue. He stressed any delay in making a decision could force the city to invest more money in major repairs to the eastern section, which, with some minor work, is expected to remain safe until 2020.

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Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the city's public works committee, said it is important that the public get its say, but cost must be part of the equation.

"Some of the diagrams appear quite fanciful and, once again, whatever we build we have to pay for, and at some point in time we're going to have to get real."

Mr. Livey said the designs are a way to inject some creativity into the process, adding that staff are committed to giving council two or three options that are "practical, feasible but also inspiring."

The six ideas are a starting point.

"I know that none of them are going to be the solution," he said.

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