East-enders seeing red over ‘postapocalyptic hellscape’ on Lake Shore. How will they cope with years of traffic turmoil?

East-enders seeing red over ‘postapocalyptic hellscape’ on Lake Shore. How will they cope with years of traffic turmoil?

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Aaron McIntosh thought he could escape. His family left home by 1:30 p.m., earlier than the deadline he’d set to avoid Friday rush hour. His daughter had a dance competition in Niagara Falls. Early the next morning, they would be ensconced in a world of jazz, hip hop and ballet. But first: the delicate dance of Toronto traffic.

McIntosh and his family have lived in the Upper Beach neighbourhood for nearly two decades, and like everybody in this leafy enclave, he knows you don’t take Lake Shore to the Gardiner anymore. In 2021, the city tore down the Logan ramps that connected the two major arteries, an early step in the process of moving the Gardiner Expressway north. What remains is a dusty, under construction Lake Shore Boulevard, clogged with heavy trucks and commuters inching toward the nearest westbound ramp at Jarvis Street. On the same route, Enbridge is replacing portions of their natural gas line that serves downtown. At certain points, it’s down to one lane. On the local Facebook group, it’s described as a “battle royale” and “postapocalyptic hellscape” and a “complete s— show.”

But not by Aaron McIntosh.

“Anyone remember the days when society could progress and build things without its citizens whining about everything?” he countered. “There is often some discomfort with growth. Let’s suck it up.”

“You can’t let the complainers take over,” he says. Everyone wants progress, but nobody likes pain.

There is plenty of pain in the east, where a series of ambitious projects are underway. There’s the early work to realign the Gardiner Expressway and Lake Shore Boulevard East, being done in conjunction with the Port Lands Flood Protection Project. Cyclists are thwarted with parts of the Lower Don River Trail closed for that same reason. What about the TTC? In May, the Queen streetcar began a 4-1/2-year diversion around Metrolinx’s Ontario Line subway construction. All of these projects will make Toronto easier to navigate — someday. For now, they’ve turned most routes west into molasses.

McIntosh would have taken another route to the Gardiner, but he had to drop something off at FedEx in the Port Lands. Lake Shore Boulevard was right there. It was 2 p.m. and he figured the traffic would be fairly light.

“I was significantly incorrect,” he says. It was red brake lights as far as the eye could see, a bottleneck of rage and anger. It was slow enough that he could tell his daughters about the worthwhile projects snarling the drive. It was slow enough that the family could calculate their speed, which was 0.84 kilometres per hour. Would it be slow enough to turn him into a complainer?

A ‘life-altering’ closure

Phil Marion woke before sunrise, grabbed his camera, and hopped on his bike. The retired Beach resident spends most summer mornings searching for beauty in his neighbourhood, whether it’s a paddleboarder on the still lake at sunrise or a rollerblading nun on the boardwalk. In late August 2021, he went a little further from home, in search of a “brutalist eyesore” on the last day of its life. He knew the Logan ramps would soon enter the realm of the vanished city, and he wanted to capture them before they were gone.

When the Gardiner Expressway was built in the 1950s and 1960s, the city built a small elevated section beyond the Don Valley Expressway. They envisioned a network of highways connecting downtown Toronto to its booming suburbs, and this was the beginning of the Scarborough Expressway.

Enthusiasm for the plan was mixed — especially in the Beach, where homes would need to be expropriated. The expressway was killed in 1974, but the stub of highway — now called the Gardiner East, remained, a handy, if ugly access point at Lake Shore Boulevard and Leslie Street. By the 1990s, the elevated highway needed maintenance, so the city tore it down in 2000, replacing it with a wider version of Lake Shore Boulevard, and new access ramps for the east. The Logan ramps were replacements for the stub of a failed highway.

But the Gardiner problem didn’t go away. In 2016, city council had to decide the fate of the crumbling section east of Jarvis. They chose the so-called “hybrid option,” which requires the city to tear it down and rebuild it to the north, freeing land for development. The Logan ramp was in the way — both with the Gardiner East project, and the Port Lands Flood Protection Project. Both require changes to the Lake Shore bridge over the Don River, which needs to be lengthened to accommodate a wider river, and widened for the Gardiner realignment. The Port Lands work was happening first, but it made sense to build the bridge for the needs of both projects at once. So the Logan ramps were coming down earlier than anticipated, in 2021.

When he set up his tripod at sunrise, Phil Marion was alone. The news crew came later that night, as workers closed the road with pylons.

When he posted the photo, people grieved. One woman called it a “life-altering closure.”

“We’re literally going to have to move to the west end now,” she wrote. She was gone the next month.

Potholes, diversions and dust

It’s 6:30 a.m. in the Port Lands, and the air is fragrant with onion, garlic, and sautéed veggies. David Farnell tilts his head to take a sniff. Beef and bean chili, he guesses.

Farnell is in the hot lunch business. All through the night, the Real Food for Real Kids team has been making 13,000 hot meals and 50,000 snacks for daycares across the GTA and beyond. Now, it’s loading time, and the bins of broccoli-kale salad, kiwi, oranges, multi-grain squares, oranges and milk, along with portable heated ovens with chili and garlic bread rattle down the conveyer system, to the waiting vans. Twenty-three drivers load and leave quickly, their radios playing snippets of Elton John and Kim Mitchell. This afternoon, six more will head out with snacks for afternoon programs. They aim to arrive at each daycare within 15 minutes of the scheduled delivery time.

“That,” Duncan Salisbury says, tipping his head to the cut-off Logan ramp in the distance, “has absolutely screwed us over.”

As the director of supply chain and logistics for the catering company, Salisbury solves problems. At first, they got creative with their routes, but when the Don Roadway closed, they began sending out westbound routes by 6:40 a.m., about an hour earlier than usual. Wait any longer, they’re buried in traffic. They make their delivery window 98 per cent of the time, but returning from the west takes a half-hour longer. “It’s costing us a considerable amount of time and money and patience,” he says.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be an optimist, CEO David Farnell says. They had plenty of notice, and this is what they do: Dodge punches, avoid catastrophes.

Across the street from their Saulter Street South headquarters, their neighbour is an enormous heap of soil, excavated by Waterfront Toronto as they build a new river through the Port Lands. The ambitious Port Lands Flood Protection Project, slated for completion in 2024, will create floodplain, parkland, a naturalized mouth of the Don River, and safer transportation connections to the rest of the city. Most of this soil will be used to build the new landscape. (Housing will come later.) Right now, the potholes, diversions and dust make the renderings feel like a fever dream.

“It’s going to be absolutely beautiful when it’s done,” Salisbury says, surveying the grey and brown landscape across the street. “This will change the region.”

Farnell wishes the city would do a better job co-ordinating construction. The greatest toll is felt by employees. The bike path closures mean employees have to ride on busy streets, and many don’t want to take the risk.

“I think the greatest challenge we face is a lack of public transit down here, which, frankly, is what they’re trying to fix,” Farnell says.

Fight or flight

Toronto has ignored crucial infrastructure investment for decades, and there is plenty of pain to go around. Just ask the people of Scarborough, who are set to lose their SRT line years before it is replaced with a subway. Or the long suffering folks along Eglinton Avenue, who have watched their babies become teenagers as they wait for the opening of an LRT line plagued by dysfunction.

Aaron McIntosh says his quaint little community is “fairly against change.” People were accustomed to easy access to the Gardiner.

“Quite frankly it was nice to be able to just zip out of the Beach and be at Sherway Gardens in 25 minutes,” he says. “And we’ve lost that. And we will continue to lose that.”

People have elderly relatives they take care of in Mississauga, jobs in Brampton, flights to catch at Pearson. Since the Logan ramps came down, many feel trapped, disconnected and helpless. It’s not just that their trips takes longer, but they are unpredictable. Sometimes it’s a few extra minutes. Sometimes it’s an hour or worse.

You’ll find every stage of grief for the “nice little ramp” in the community Facebook page, along with pushback from people who see this as the price of progress. Some circulate petitions to bring it back. They share hacks to cross the city, although a few guard alternative routes like email passwords.

“To say it is a nightmare would be an understatement, says James Riley, an administrator of the group, who no longer sees his friends in the west end. “I feel very sorry for anyone who has to travel that every day.”

The issue has seeped into the mayoral race. Candidate Josh Matlow, councillor for Toronto-St. Paul’s, says the frustration is real and justifiable, but he doesn’t think rebuilding the Gardiner in the air will address it. Rebuilding at grade would save “hundreds of millions” at a time when Toronto is facing budget shortfalls and declining service levels.

Candidate Brad Bradford, who is the councillor for Beaches-East York, says changing the plan will only add uncertainty and delay, and people have had enough of both.

Building in a city is disruptive, but we desperately need these projects, says Matti Siemiatycki, the director of the Infrastructure Institute at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities. It’s easy to say from a position of remove, but much harder when you’re experiencing it, he says, speaking as an academic and east-ender.

“You can know that this is all so critically necessary,” he says, but you can also be “immensely frustrated” by the longer and less-predictable commutes.

The brain is wired that way. “We think of ourselves as one person, but really, we are two distinct individuals at all times,” says Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. In the frontal lobes of the brain, a person might think, “I support this infrastructure work, even though traffic is bad,” he says.

But lurking just below those rational thoughts, is the older and more powerful limbic system, constantly scanning for threats.

“It’s where all of our emotionality kind of resides,” he says. When it senses danger, cortisol and adrenalin flood the body, preparing for fight or flight mode. Blood flow in the brain switches to favour the limbic system, and “those lofty left-wing ideas started to recede,” he says. The stress is more intense if the situation has been imposed by a higher power and you feel like a victim.

To calm your limbic system, you need to find control and autonomy. In a traffic jam, that might be a podcast or an audiobook. Something that adds value to the purgatory.

As Aaron McIntosh inched foward, he tried to make sense of the chaos. It was about 3 p.m. By now, his daughter’s phone was dead. He was in the lane destined for the Gardiner, but cars kept zipping by on his left, turning on their indicator light for the last-minute merge. It was every person for themselves, and it was infuriating.

But he kept sitting there, waiting his turn.

Diversions and expropriation

At the beginning of May, another route west was compromised. On the first day of the Queen streetcar diversion, the driver of the 501 was already sounding surly. “This is a reminder to not charge the doors,” he said, in a voice tempered with forced professionalism. “Try the button. It’s safer.”

He warned riders that the streetcar would turn up Broadview Avenue to give Ontario Line construction downtown a wide berth, but few were listening. A couple of confused people lifted their gaze from their phones when the streetcar turned off-route. One man grabbed his laptop and tried to escape, but it was too late. Saif Hashmi was sitting in a four-seater, drinking a coffee, dictating emails into his phone. It would only add a few minutes to his route. Unlike the Lake Shore chaos, this is a manageable snag, he says. And at least he can work here.

The Ontario Line will run from Exhibition Place to the Ontario Science Centre. Major construction work begins this year, and there is more disruption to come. Expropriation lawyer Ava Kanner has fielded plenty of calls from people whose homes and businesses are in the way of the much-needed subway. Some clients are in the homes they planned to die in. It’s a stressful and difficult process, and once a settlement is reached, a confidentially clause cloaks the details. Even if you’re not losing your home, the ripples are already being felt in the east.

Customers of Access Storage in Riverdale received letters marked “URGENT” this March. “We were informed by Metrolinx that we must end our business operation at 356 Eastern Avenue, Toronto and surrender our property for demolition,” the company wrote.

Movers would transport their belongings at no cost to a nearby location. They had 10 days to respond. “Time is of the essence.”

As if people in the east didn’t already know that.

Adapting to inconvenience

It took Aaron McIntosh an hour-and-a-half to make it to the Gardiner Expressway. It was the worst traffic of his life, including snowstorms. His family arrived in Niagara Falls around 7 p.m.

He always appreciated the Logan ramps, but he appreciates them more now. If he needed to drive to a Jays game, a restaurant, or Sherway Gardens, he could bypass downtown.

“We were very privileged that it existed as long as it did because it cuts off a large part of the city to development,” he says, “and it was quite an eyesore.”

McIntosh has a background in economic development, so he understands the need for massive infrastructure projects, even if they inflict discomfort and inconvenience. He’ll adapt — spend more time on his bike and Google Maps. His wife now takes the GO train to work. He recently lost his job in the tech industry layoffs, and this affects his job search. He’s not applying for jobs in Oakville.

In late 2021, after the ramps were torn down, local councillors held a virtual town hall. There were 40 questions about traffic and congestion. People in the east felt “boxed in.” They were fed up with the confusing signs, the lack of signage, the dump trucks from the Port Lands cutting the queue to get on the Gardiner. Why didn’t the city build new ramps before they killed the Logan ramps? They were told that new ramps east of Cherry Street will be built, but the Gardiner realignment needs to happen first. Construction on the ramps should start in 2026.

Aaron McIntosh wasn’t there, but he’s seen the drawings of what Lake Shore Boulevard will eventually become, with space for bike lanes and transit. It’s going to be worth it.

“It’s just going to take a while to get there.”

Katie Daubs is a Toronto Star journalist and senior writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs

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