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When architect John Plumpton imagines a pedestrian and cycling bridge linking the Toronto Islands to the mainland, he doesn’t think uniquely in functional terms.
He imagines the bridge as a tourist attraction, like Frank Gehry’s BP Pedestrian Bridge in Chicago, snaking gracefully over a large, noisy thoroughfare.
Plumpton envisions a similar sinuous link spanning the 200-metre Eastern Gap of Toronto’s inner harbour, with lookout points and a bump-out where refreshments like ice cream could be sold.
“The idea is that this thing isn’t just a bridge. It’s actually a place to enjoy the waterfront. It would be the most spectacular view of the skyline,” said Plumpton, who was a consultant for the CN Tower’s EdgeWalk, 116 storeys in the air.
When COVID-19 lockdowns began highlighting the relative lack of green space in Toronto, in particular in the burgeoning condo communities along the waterfront, Plumpton’s firm RevelHouse came up with the idea for a bridge from Unwin St. on the mainland to a point north of the residential area on Ward’s Island.
RevelHouse specializes in attractions and public spaces.
Instead of the lift bridge proposed by Ward 10 (Spadina—Fort York) candidate April Engelberg last week, the RevelHouse bridge would swing open to allow tall sailboats, freighters and other large vessels through.
It would provide free, 24-hour, 365-day access for pedestrians and cyclists in summer and winter, and hopefully increase the number of people who can visit the islands from the current 1.2 million a year, according to Plumpton.
“The CN Tower alone has more than two million visitors a year. More people should be going to the islands and it should be easier for them to get there,” Plumpton said.
It’s blue-sky thinking — the number of marine and environmental studies and public consultations needed to talk about a bridge in a realistic way would take years, even if council starts running with the idea after the Oct. 24 municipal election.
The full cost of the bridge is unknown — Plumpton estimates the structure alone would be $150 million, and likely more.
Two new electric ferries desperately needed to replace the existing aging ferry fleet that operates out of Jack Layton Ferry Terminal are expected to cost the city $63 million.
But since the city is already engaged in a massive redevelopment of the Port Lands, and in drawing up a new master plan for the Toronto Islands, Plumpton said the time has arrived to seriously consider the idea of a fixed link.
“The islands are public, and currently they’re not as accessible as they should be to the general public,” he said.
“Toronto doesn’t have that major downtown park that so many other world-class cities have — your Hyde Parks and your Central Parks — this is an opportunity to do that and we’re not taking advantage of it.”
The idea of a bridge that touches down near a residential neighbourhood has little support among Islanders. They point to the numerous ecologically sensitive area that need protecting, identified by the city, harbouring fragile dunes, meadows, a breeding habitat for northern leopard frogs and resting places for migratory songbirds.
There seems to be an inherent contradiction in the goals the city is trying to meet as it gathers information for the new master plan for the islands — improve access, but preserve the environment, said Tony Farebrother, chair of the Toronto Island Community Association.
“How they will sort through and come up with priorities is a concern,” he said.
The other concern is how a greater influx of visitors will treat the islands. While most visitors are respectful, on those sunny summer days when hordes make the crossing, things can get out of control, Farebrother said.
“We get an awful lot of people that do not necessarily respect the environment on those days. They just come over to drink and party and light bonfires and tear down trees to burn them,” he said.
“I mean, there are people who have private parties and block off beaches and sell tickets.”
There are 675 people living on the islands and 262 houses.
Residents along the mainland waterfront have their own ideas for improving access and they don’t include a bridge.
The tripartite agreement for the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is up for renewal in 2033 and they’d like to see it expire. Then the land currently being used as an airfield could be converted into parkland and the pedestrian tunnel that runs from the mainland to the airport could become a free link to the islands for everyone.
Angelo Bertolas chairs the York Quay Neighbourhood Association, representing 600 people living along the waterfront from Bathurst St. to Yonge St., who were hoping Rail Deck Park would provide a whole new level of green space for the community.
Converting Billy Bishop airport to green space is a much cheaper option than building a bridge, Bertolas said, noting that in the decades since the airport was built, the waterfront has been transformed from a commercial and industrial site into a densely populated residential community.
“Currently the airport is just noise and air pollution,” Bertolas said.
Others have pointed out that the airport makes a significant contribution to the city’s economy.
Joan Prowse is chair of the Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood Association, the community nearest the island airport.
She is also a member of Parks Not Planes, the group lobbying to have the airport turned into a park.
She does not personally support the idea of a bridge.
“I think it’s a really dumb idea. First of all, it’s a lot of money to build a bridge. And the harbour is so busy — I’m a sailor so I know what it’s like — the bridge would always be up. It’s not worth the money, it’s not worth the trouble, especially when there is a pedestrian tunnel that is already built,” said Prouse.
“And there’s an opportunity that exists at the airport lands — their lease is coming up in 10 years, to 2033. So why not put that on the agenda for the election, rather than talk about some expensive project that is not practical?”
Mayor John Tory said that while he thinks the Toronto Island Park is an underutilized city asset, particularly in winter, the idea of a pedestrian and cycling link would have to be explored thoroughly and carefully.
“You know, one of the great things about election campaigns is you have people putting forward ideas, and most of them are worthy of consideration, but it has to be careful consideration,” he said.
Correction — Sept. 12, 2022: John Plumpton of the firm RevelHouse was a consultant for the CN Tower’s EdgeWalk. A previous version of this article said he was a project architect. The Star was supplied incorrect information.
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