One bridge to somewhere

Toronto's Eastern Gap bascule bridge

In 2011, somewhere on the Twitters (lost now to the 3,200-tweet event horizon), I proposed the idea of a small draw bridge linking the Unwin Avenue/Cherry Beach mainland with Ward’s Island on the Toronto Islands.

This idea, which would not only create a direct land link for Toronto Fire and EMS, would also deliver an emergency backup for delays with the only present service linking the Islands to the mainland — the Billy Bishop Airport ferry.

These ferry delays are a legitimate risk hazard, too: if the airport ferry is on the wrong shore, then time is lost when seconds become the essence. A major house fire on Ward’s Island, one affecting other houses, might be a rare occurrence. Still, where on-island fire services might be able to handle a one alarm blaze, multi-alarm fires present legitimate problems. Getting fire equipment from the mainland, as is, means dealing with delays of:

  • The ferry ride over (double this time if the ferry is docked at the Billy Bishop);
  • The drive from the airport across Hanlan’s Point, across Centre Island, and over to either Algonquin or Ward’s Island is about 6.5km of driving;
  • Unploughed snow in winter; and
  • Avoidance of people who use the pedestrian-oriented Cibola and Lakeshore avenues in summer, particularly around Centre Island.

Even as EMS is needed, there may not be a need for equipment from the mainland (air ambulance an exception), but there remains a vital delay of getting over from the eastern residences, to the airport ferry, and to a trauma care centre like St. Mike’s, when only the airport ferry is the sole link between Islands and mainland.

Once a peninsula

Once upon a time, when Toronto was barely a municipality, the Toronto Islands were a glorified peninsula, a spit of land not unlike the Leslie Street Spit today. The difference: the Spit was made by us, while the Toronto Islands peninsula was built naturally by the gentle erosion of the Scarborough bluffs and effluent from the Don River (before it was diverted by us).

In the 1850s, a succession of major winter storms cut open a gap (now today’s Eastern Gap). The gap made the Toronto peninsula into Islands, separating the mainland from where Ward’s Island now exists. Today, the gap between Ward’s and the mainland is about 220 metres.

Draw me a bridge

Inspired by Seattle’s ingenuity for linking together its many divisions of land — peninsulas, islands, isthmuses — partitioned by the many natural water formations of lakes, bays, and even canals, enter the bascule bridge. In Seattle, such a bridge links together Capitol Hill to the University of Washington.

The University Bridge on Eastlake Avenue crosses Portage Bay. The span is 66 metres; shore to shore, the distance is about 258 metres. It was built in 1919. The University Avenue Bridge enables both multi-lane rolling traffic and sea traffic to alternately use the corridor. The height of the bridge allows most smaller marine traffic to cross without the bridge being lifted.

A Toronto bascule bridge

The imperative for an Eastern Gap Bascule Bridge (EGBB) is not only to provide Toronto EMS and Fire services with a more efficient, redundant means for reaching the Islands when time is precious. A bascule bridge for Toronto’s Eastern Gap might only be a one-lane bridge — wide enough for emergency vehicles — but it would open a route for bicyclists and pedestrians to the Islands. It also would open Island residents with a direct bicycle link to not only the mainland year-round, but that link would open direct bicycling access to business services in the West Don Lands and to old standbys like the Loblaws on Lower Jarvis.

Meanwhile, an EGBB (it deserves a better name, but that should wait until it actually exists) opens new development opportunities at the southwest base of Unwin Avenue. With planning on the Port Lands being a constant tug-of-war between smart ideas and stupid ones, the creation of a pedestrian/cyclist-oriented cluster or node at what is now a concrete-slabbed staging area means creating small-scale retail and services designed at a much smaller scale than what Toronto is used to. It means creating an economic centre on a scale to accommodate Island residents, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

We already have two bascule bridges on Cherry Street, so this infrastructure is not unprecedented for the area or even for Toronto.

Waterfront connectivity and the Unwin Village

The EGBB, meanwhile, would make practical the means to bike from Hanlan’s Point all the way to the tip of the Leslie Street Spit without any interruption. This is an enticing draw for both Torontonians and tourists alike who want to experience the best of our waterfronts.

The midway between Hanlan’s and the Spit would be this somewhat informal node at the base of Unwin Avenue — where food trucks, bike repair shops, tourist boutiques, and even mixed-use, low-rise (under three storeys) residential-commercial structures offer a resting-staging area.

The area would be automobile-free, but open to enable emergency vehicles and small-scale service trucks to provide local delivery and public services. It would extend the small-scale attractiveness of the Islands to the mainland by being an extension of the Islands on the mainland.

Unlike the propensity of Toronto’s developers insisting on large scale, this would be a “development conservation area” which would allow for development, but it will also be under much greater regulation to maintain the scale and purpose of the area. A “development conservation area” would require developers to accommodate the city, not vice-versa. It would mean that developers would have to be dramatically more conciliatory to get in on the action. It is a place where developers who are committed to this area can showcase the smartest ideas they can’t reliably execute elsewhere in the city.

The more things change, the more the Islands stay the same

The EGBB would not change zoning or services for Ward’s Island. If anything, Ward’s and Algonquin Islands would remain the same, but residents would have easier access to mainland services year-round. More importantly, though, Islanders would have much more robust city emergency services they presently lack. The inefficiencies of having the only emergency link to the mainland on the far end of the Islands are made more apparent once an alternative link is added.

EGBB first, Port Lands next

The EGBB is an idea. It is a catalyst, and it can also be an economic and social stimulator.

This idea can also serve as the centrepiece in an emerging Port Lands we have yet to realize. The EGBB would also raise further doubt on the foolhardy suggestions of casinos and other thoughtless developments which presently do not have the city’s health and well-being anywhere in mind.

To have an Unwin node at the eastern side of the EGBB is to create a rhythm for the kind of development the Port Lands should be considering in earnest. It is the kind of development designed to embrace the best of what is already there — Cherry Beach, the Waterfront Trail, Tommy Thompson Park, and the Leslie Street Spit.

To build the EGBB means not only saving lives and property, but also no longer forcing the leisure question of where to spend the day bicycling. With the EGBB, it would be easy to experience all of the waterfront from Billy Bishop to within eyeshot of the Bluffs.

Non-bascule (non-lift) bridge concept by MontgomerySisam Architects, Inc., 2004 [MontgomerySisam]

Non-bascule (non-lift) bridge concept by MontgomerySisam Architects, Inc., 2004 [MontgomerySisam]

EDIT: In 2004, a proposal for an Eastern Gap bridge was entertained, but was ultimately never built. It was not a bascule bridge design nor was it designed for emergency vehicles, but it did propose a connection between Ward’s Island and the Unwin terminus (h/t @ProjectEND).

About Astrid Idlewild: Astrid (@accozzaglia) is an urban design graduate from the School of Urban Planning at McGill University (2012). She completed her HBA in Canadian and urban studies at the University of Toronto in 2009. She is a film photographer, #RIDEOCCUPYSURVIVE button fundraiser for Jenna Morrison, former bike courier, the brains behind the DenizenTO TTC subway shirts, and curator for the Kodachrome Toronto Registry. Astrid is no one-trick pony.

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