This week we’re taking a slightly different approach to last week’s blog post about how we can make the most of single-use urban structures like bridges and in this case, overpasses. The Bentway, an exciting project currently underway, aims to maximize the empty space below a section of the Gardiner Expressway.
The Gardiner has been quite the hot topic in the news over the past couple of years because it’s quite literally falling apart. When Toronto City Council announced that they were committed to rehabilitating the Gardiner, Judy and Wilmot Matthews generously donated a whopping $25-million to renovate the surprisingly beautiful vacant space below the expressway. While it’s common for institutions like schools and hospitals to receive charitable funding, The Judy and Wilmot Matthews Foundation have made several donations over the years with a focus on developing and improving public spaces around the city.
The name for the Bentway, which was put to a vote over a 3 month period, comes from the bents which are the column and beam structures that support the Gardiner and, in essence, frame the space below. The plan, which kick-started in March, is to develop a 1.75km route below the Gardiner Expressway into a multi-use trail that connects seven city neighbourhoods: City Place, Wellington Place, Bathurst Quay, Fort York, Niagara, Liberty Village and Exhibition Place. With its proximity to these seven neighbourhoods, there’s said to be about 70,000 people within a 10 minute walking distance of the trail. Book-ended by Strachan Avenue and Spadina Avenue and following the original shoreline of Lake Ontario, the Bentway will connect and engage communities by offering year-round activities and events. They’ve even instituted a new not-for-profit organization, The Bentway Conservancy, which will be the administration behind the space. “The Bentway Conservancy is a respectful steward of this unique public space, committed to accessibility and openness, while cultivating a culture of discovery and community participation.” 
Urban designer, Ken Greenberg, in collaboration with Public Work, are creating a trail that offers people a new way to move through the city. Showcasing the sections along the path as urban “rooms”, this 5-storey underpass will house recreational amenities, a skating rink + building, gardens, theatres and more.
The first phase, set to open in December, will include a lawn amphitheatre with seating for 500 extending from the Fort York Visitor Centre, a skating trail building and an open performance space with bleachers to seat 250 people at Strachan Avenue. In 2018, the smaller (though extensive) details such as lighting, furnishing and remaining landscaping will be complete and different phases of new art spaces and park infrastructure are set to roll out.
Ever since the project was announced, there has been massive support from the community and even Mayor John Tory himself has helped to expedite the process. With all of the bad press that the Gardiner has been getting, it’s nice to see some actionable improvements getting prioritized for its underbelly. For all of you living along the Bentway stretch, grab yourself a pair of skates, ‘cause you’ll be skating to work this winter.
For more on the Bentway or if you’re interested in becoming involved in the project, visit www.bentway.ca