A wisp of pit smoke wafts from Mayumi’s grill. Her youngest child sits in a high chair, his face smeared with barbecue sauce while his older siblings nervously grin and size me up. About 50 yards beyond her railing is Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway, an elevated span of freeway standing a couple stories high, jutting perpendicularly from the shores of Lake Ontario through a cluster of fresh-minted housing projects in a neighborhood called Corktown. I had introduced myself as a reporter from Lafayette, La., a town contemplating building something very similar to the nine-mile expressway sitting in what amounts to her front yard.
While Mayumi (she declined to give her last name) has only lived in the shadow of the Don Valley since 2014, Toronto grew up around municipal expressways like it and the intersecting Gardiner Expressway — two asphalt seams stitching together once independent townships into a dense urban monolith.
Over the latter part of the 20th century, Toronto’s population boomed into futurist high rises and blocks upon blocks of international neighborhoods. Tapped out of land for new construction, planners in Toronto have looked beneath the Don Valley and the Gardiner as the next frontier in space-making. Renderings of their projects have been on display at Lafayette I-49 Connector meetings, painting a rosy impression of what life with an urban freeway could look like. But seeing them in three dimensions, it’s not obvious how these renderings apply to what’s in the offing for Lafayette’s urban core. Where Toronto, and cities like it, are attempting to mitigate disruptions to which they have grown accustomed, Lafayette is solving a problem not yet caused.
Under the Don Valley Parkway
As Mayumi and I chat, a group of local kids plays basketball on one of two hoops in a shaded corner of Underpass Park, the innovative under-freeway playground and spacemaking project beneath the Don Valley that had brought my attention to Corktown in the first place. The park has been referenced as a “precedent” of context sensitive freeway design for the Lafayette Connector, along with re-purposed viaducts in Paris, France and Zurich, Switzerland and a waterfront reclamation project in Louisville, Ky.
The spans of the Don Valley converge perhaps 10 feet above the rims, about the same height as the elevated mainline in the Connector’s preliminary plan. Light shines between portions of the north- and south-bound lanes where they split over jungle gyms, but for the most part where there is concrete, there is shadow. I ask Mayumi if her kids use the park much. Sure, she says, but they usually walk a few blocks down to a park near Lake Ontario, with more green space, open air and a better view of the crystalline waters.
The park, the first of a two-phase project, primarily services residents of several subsidized housing buildings in Corktown and the nearby Canary District, buildings that dwarf the expressway. It features impeccably curated graffiti, mounted octagonal mirrors to disperse light, basketball courts, a skate park and arachnid jungle gyms that emulate public sculptures scattered around the facility. Above, the Don Valley struggles to move twice as many vehicles as the 60,000 it was intended to carry when it was constructed in the early 1960s.
The second phase of the park will take advantage of green space further west of the phase one park next to Mayumi’s apartment. Landscape architects will plant drought and salt resistant trees to populate the now naked fields, with community gardens on the horizon. Once complete, the $7 million addition could supplant Mayumi’s current choice of park somewhat further away from her home by providing the fresh green space she can’t access beneath the Don Valley spans near her apartment building. This will be a green park where one has not before existed. Much of this zone was industrial or commercial before affordable housing was erected.
To the extent that the Underpass Park is innovative, playful and remedial, it’s a plausible reference for the possibility of sub-interstate space-making in Lafayette. It at least looks good on a glossy sandwich board. But even in Toronto, where the space has been designed with remarkable vision, the park seems to be used primarily out of necessity rather than choice.
“It’s better than not having it,” Mayumi tells me. “I guess you could say it’s reclaiming the space in a positive way.”
Under the Gardiner Expressway
Standing on an Astroturf soccer field at Canoe Landing, a multi-use park frequented by millennials from a nearby cluster of futurist high-rises, the 11-mile Gardiner Expressway almost disappears into the skyline. The real visual barriers to Lake Ontario from the sun-kissed park are retail and mixedused developments just on the other side of the Gardiner.
Shore-adjacent spaces have been reconfigured into shopping districts with skyscrapers boasting million dollar penthouses.
Between these incommensurate zones lies the underbelly of the Gardiner, itself the object of a $25 million public reclamation project — mostly a private donation — known as Project Under Gardiner, also displayed by Connector planners. Scheduled for completion in 2017, Project Under Gardiner seeks to rehab roughly one mile of sub-freeway space into 55 alcoves of markets, galleries, performance spaces and parks, using the freeway’s pillars as skeletal walls.
Downtown Toronto seems to function despite the Gardiner.
Travel on the expressway during peak hours is an exercise in futility, with standstill gridlock not uncommon on both three-lane spans. When it opened officially in 1964, the Gardiner conveyed between 40,000 and 60,000 cars per day. In recent years, depending on which side of downtown you’re on, the Gardiner carries anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 cars per day. For reference, roughly 60,000 cars are said to travel the Evangeline Thruway corridor every day. Some models project more than double that number by 2040.
Sub-structure activity ignores the highway coughing above. Toronto Blue Jay fans move to and from the lake and Rogers Arena via crosswalks that traverse the Under Gardiner. Sculpture parks sit gloomy and vacant. Pits of cobblestones deter homeless encampments near public crosswalks. The encampments sprout anyway beneath lowgraded exit ramps.
Standing under the 50-feet-high spans of the Gardiner can be haunting and cold, even as sunlight glints off nearby highrises. Perhaps this is what makes such a thing so unimaginable in a town the size of Lafayette: No matter how high the spans go, the light simply doesn’t penetrate. Some planners sell it as shade, but underneath it’s hard to see the lack of sunlight as a benefit.
The more than 50-year-old Gardiner has fallen into disrepair with estimated maintenance costs around $9 million per year. Chunks of concrete have broken off the freeway’s undergirding, falling onto the heavily-trafficked Lakeshore Boulevard beneath, and forcing the city to shut down portions of the expressway for repair. Toronto’s city council recently considered tearing down the eastern-most portion of expressway, opting instead for a $1 billion remodel.
Organizers with Project Under Gardiner position it as a way to reconnect severed neighborhoods, not only with Lake Ontario, but with each other. The project is both admirable and ambitious, but it confronts an extant problem rather than a new one. With more and more affluent urbanites arriving, Project Under Gardiner is among the only space left to recycle.
Under the Connector
Visiting these projects is instructive of what Lafayette’s future could be, good or bad, with the I-49 Connector in place. But you don’t have to know much about Toronto to realize that it is vastly different from the Hub City. Scale is naturally the first distinction that comes to mind. Not one of the precedents cited by the Connector design team are in a city of comparable size or building scale to Lafayette.
Toronto and Paris both host more than 2 million people in the city population alone. Metro Louisville and Zurich each eclipse 1 million residents, with city populations more than double the size of Lafayette Parish.
Like Toronto, each precedent is a retrofit or reclamation projects, not new highway construction. Even given that much of the blight and disrepair associated with urban freeways is already in place along the Evangeline Thruway corridor, a new freeway in Lafayette’s urban core would be the dominant structural feature of the city for miles. It’s possible that, like Toronto, Lafayette grows up around it, but there’s no denying that mitigation measures like parks feel different when they’re used to sell a new highway rather than improve an old one. That Torontonians have grown up with the Gardiner and Don Valley establishes those disruptions as a baseline. Reclamation projects beneath them are thus improvements by definition.
Back on the terrace, Mayumi and I continue our conversation. She’s invited her two oldest children out of the house to get their picture taken by American journalists. “So where are they building this thing anyway?” Mayumi asks me of the Connector, turning over a charred chicken quarter on a spitting barbecue grill. I explain the story we’ve all heard a thousand times. It’s an interstate, straight through the middle of town, above a blighted street. People in town are apprehensive about what it might do the neighborhoods around it.
“Well that’s a little different,” she says, motioning to the expressway with her barbecue tongs. “This thing has always been here.”
[Editor’s Note: All costs in this piece were converted from Canadian dollars to U.S. dollars, using an exchange rate published on May 14, 2016.]