Low Overhead

Toronto’s Underpass Park, seemingly there all along.

By Jane Magolies

After the park opened, artwork was commissioned for the columns in response to a tagging problem that had necessitated frequent power washings. Photo courtesy of Tom Arban Photography.

Corktown Common is the marquee public space in the evolving West Don Lands area of Toronto. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the lovely 18-acre park contains meandering paths, pocket-size lawns, and a marshy cove, all tucked into a multilevel landform engineered to protect the downtown of Canada’s largest city from the threat of flooding on the Don River, which flows into Lake Ontario.

But just a block from Corktown Common, the much smaller Underpass Park, designed by PFS Studio with the Planning Partnership and situated on the same flood protection landform but beneath a tangle of roadway overpasses, is quietly gaining fans.

OK, maybe not so quietly.

Visitors to the park hear skateboards hit the pavement—clack! Basketballs bounce, and young children shout gleefully in the vicinity of the playground equipment, the sounds reverberating through the echo chamber formed by the cement columns and beams that support the roadways above. The visuals, too, are none too quiet: Colorful murals on the columns take inspiration from graffiti. And in the middle of the site, an artwork composed of flat, mirror-polished stainless steel panels hangs overhead, adding fun house distortions to whatever moves below.

An outdoor rec room, town square, and art gallery all in one, Underpass Park, which cost $9.6 million and was completed in 2013, has turned a forbidding area that divided the emerging neighborhood into a vibrant space that helps unite it. And whereas Corktown Common is evocative of Toronto’s original marshy waterfront landscape—before it was filled in, paved over, developed by industry, then abandoned by it—Underpass Park embraces, and celebrates, Toronto’s present-day urbanism. From the underpinnings of the transportation network has sprung a park that, if not grand and glorious, is most definitely resourceful and arresting. It has not only garnered a 2016 ASLA Professional Award of Excellence in the General Design category, but also is featured in an exhibition that recently opened at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

“It’s a really brilliant use of a leftover, forgotten space,” says Cynthia E. Smith, the Cooper Hewitt’s curator of socially responsible design and organizer of the exhibition, called By the People: Designing a Better America.

In fact, a number of noteworthy public spaces have been built under overpasses in recent years—from Jose Marti Park in Miami and I-5 Colonnade Mountain Bike Park in Seattle to SEART Park in Mount Wellington, New Zealand. And as undeveloped sites in dense urban settings become increasingly rare, it makes sense for cities to turn to the empty areas under transportation infrastructure to eke out public space.

Which is not to say that Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, a principal in the Vancouver-based PFS Studio (previously Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg), felt particularly inspired the first time he got a look at the Toronto site, under and around raised sections of Richmond Street, Adelaide Street, and Eastern Avenue. The irregularly shaped 2.5-acre parcel—roughly three blocks with two streets running through it—was one tiny puzzle piece in the nearly 2,000 acres under the jurisdiction of Waterfront Toronto, a public development corporation jointly established by the city of Toronto, the province of Ontario, and the national government of Canada. In what is being billed as one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in North America, Waterfront Toronto is reclaiming barren brownfields to extend the fabric of the city out toward the lake. In the process, it is creating brand-new residential communities—such as West Don Lands, laid out by the Planning Partnership, which is based in Toronto, with PFS Studio—thoughtfully knitting them together with parks, infrastructure, and public art. Transforming the entire 2,000-acre swath is expected to take several decades.

PFS Studio had already designed Sherbourne Common, a stunning 3.6-acre park atop a stormwater treatment facility in the East Bayfront area, on what had been a mostly vacant former industrial property. But the site that would become Underpass Park was particularly unsavory. Whereas the spaces under some overpasses can be lofty, even cathedral-like, this one was decidedly squat—as low as 13 feet at the eastern end, where the site climbs up onto the flood protection landform. And it was dark. Needles, broken glass, burnt-out cars and rubble were strewn about. “It was the sort of space where you expected drive-by shootings,” Smallenberg recalls.

Designers combined ambient lighting (for safety) and spotlights (for visual interest). Image courtesy of PFS Studio.

Originally Waterfront Toronto hadn’t given any thought to the site, according to Christopher Glaisek, the group’s vice president for planning and design. But as the parcels north and south of it were developed with a mix of market-rate and subsidized housing, it became clear that something had to be done to make the spot lighter, brighter, and less threatening so that people would feel comfortable walking or biking through it.

But what? Someone threw out the idea of turning the derelict space into a park. To figure out whether that was even a possibility, Smallenberg, a construction manager, and David Leinster, ASLA, a principal at the Planning Partnership, bundled up to take a look at the site one frigid day in 2007. “It was muddy, wet, and ugly,” Smallenberg says. Cleaning up the place and adding lighting would be key.

Smallenberg’s companions soon took off, but he stayed behind, walking back and forth. He began to see that the site was “not beautiful but of interest.” The columns and beams telescope from one end to the other. “There’s this repetition that is simple and hypnotic,” he says. The rows of columns were spaced about 60 feet apart, defining “rooms” in which discrete activities could take place. Smallenberg took some photos. By the time he finally left the site, he was thinking, “OK, we can do something with this.”

Support columns suggested distinct spaces that could be devoted to different recreational activities. Photo by Mike Tocher.

Back at the office, Smallenberg and his colleagues started sketches that would lead to a plan in which one “room” would be devoted to two basketball half-courts, another to skateboarding rails, ramps, and ledges. An unprogrammed area was conceived as the spot where a farmers’ market, flea market, or a performance could take place. The fact that the roadways provide a roof over all these spaces means they are usable even when it’s raining or snowing or heat and sun make paved areas elsewhere inhospitable—a huge plus.

On the western end of the site, which is open to the sky, the designers socked in plants, which help soften all the hard surfaces. Plots that were conceived for community gardens have been filled, for now, with prairie grasses—which look terrific and vibrate with the sounds of crickets (from a strictly visual point of view, it would not be a bad thing if these temporary plantings became permanent). Kentucky coffeetree and black locust were also planted, chosen in part for their salt tolerance. The roadways above are heavily salted during the long Canadian winters, and when there’s snow on the road surfaces, wind blows it down into the park, bringing all that salt with it.

The designers sought a way to guide pedestrians through the park from north to south and south to north. Early sketches show wiggly little lines, contrasting with the rigid east-west geometry of the transportation infrastructure. Those squiggles became a system of low concrete ribbon, or “noodle,” walls that rise up to become benches (topped by ipe wood slats), slope down to the pavement, and edge planting beds.

A section of the park is devoted to two basketball half-courts. Photo courtesy of Natta Summerky.

Lighting was also important to make the park feel inviting. The designers used ambient lighting for safety and added LED spotlights to provide visual interest. The spotlights, which are inset in the ground, come on at dusk and cycle through the color wheel—green to blue to purple, pink, white, orange, and yellow—uplighting the column-beam configuration and turning the structural elements into sculptural forms. As cars pass through the park, the reflections from their headlight beams dance in the overhead art installation by Toronto’s Paul Raff Studio.

Appropriately named Mirage, the piece is composed of 57 shiny elongated octagons, covering 2,900 square feet and visually expanding the underpass area upward. During the day, the panels capture reflected sunlight, gently illuminating the space. They bend and shape things, too. When I stood under the artwork, my image was slightly distorted, and the reflection of a man walking his dog along the outer edge of the park made him appear to be walking upside down.

Unfortunately, pigeons seem to like Mirage as much as people do. To deter them, the artist had fine wires strung along the perimeter of the piece and inserted them in gaps in the panels, secured to the backside of the work. The wires have helped, but they haven’t completely vanquished the pigeons. I saw broken wires dangling where the birds had pecked away at or pushed through them.

Graffiti has been another issue. When the park opened, the columns were clean. But they kept getting tagged, forcing the parks department, which now has jurisdiction over the site, to repeatedly send in the power washers. Then, in 2014, the department tried another tactic; it turned to StreetARToronto, or StART, a program within the city’s department of transportation that promotes public art. The result was a competition, with two winning muralists—Troy Lovegates and an artist who goes by the name Labrona—awarded the job of painting a row of columns along one of the streets that cut through the site. Then, in June of 2015, 18 other muralists joined in, doing “live art” during a festival that also featured skateboard stunt demos, wheelchair basketball, Brazilian stilt walkers, and a DJ dance party. Today, with a significant number of columns decorated, the amount of money the parks department is spending on graffiti removal has been halved, says Jennifer Tharp, a project officer of design and planning initiatives.

And recently, with additional funding from StART, Lovegates and Labrona were invited back to work on the row of columns facing the ones they’d already painted. When I visited the park, Labrona was up on a scissor lift painting the cement beam while Lovegates, a Toronto native who is now based in San Francisco, dabbed at a portrait of a baby on a column below.

“All the people I’m painting here are from the community,” he said. “This baby lives in that building,” he continued, gesturing at an apartment building on the Corktown Common side of Underpass Park. The man he’s already depicted seated in a wheelchair rolls through regularly. Lovegates said he met his subjects while working on the first mural he and Labrona did in the park.

These portrayals seem perfectly suited for a park that was conceived primarily as an amenity for the surrounding area. But the truth is, Underpass Park—like Corktown Common—attracts residents from all over Toronto.

Prairie grasses soften the site’s hard edges. Photo courtesy of Tom Arban Photography.

While I was there, two young adults arrived to practice Kali, a Filipino martial art that involves twirling sticks; they chose Underpass Park because of the shade. Three hipsters drove up in a car to take photos of the murals. Karen Preston also drove, bringing her son and his cousin, both budding skateboarders, aged 10, with her.

“When they were working on this, I thought, ‘What are they doing?’” she said, keeping a sharp eye on her boys, who wore helmets and knee and elbow guards while older skateboarders swooped and spun, sporting nothing more protective than baseball caps. “When they finished, I thought, ‘What a great idea.’”

Such a great idea, in fact, that it has helped inspire another local project, dubbed “the Bentway.” Thanks to a recent donation of $25 million from local philanthropists, Waterfront Toronto has been charged with activating a mile-long stretch under the city’s elevated Gardiner Expressway; the Toronto urban design and landscape architecture firm Public Work has been selected to design the space, which will include a playground, a dog park, and venues for performances and outdoor markets.

And now, with exposure from the ASLA award and the Cooper Hewitt show, perhaps Underpass Park’s influence will spread beyond Toronto. There are certainly a lot of highway overpasses out there. Maybe this Canadian city will inspire other communities to come up with their own strategies for the often dead and derelict spaces under them.

Jane Margolies, a New York journalist who is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, last wrote for LAM about South Cove in Battery Park City off Lower Manhattan.

Project Credit List

Client/Owner Waterfront Toronto, Toronto. Lead Designer PFS Studio, Vancouver, British Columbia (Greg Smallenberg, FASLA; Jeffrey Staates, ASLA; Nathan Brightbill, ASLA; Jia Li). Landscape Architect of Record The Planning Partnership, Toronto (David Leinster, ASLA; Michael Ormston-Holloway, ASLA; Brett Hoornaert; Karen Arnold; Eric Stewart). Artist Paul Raff Studio, Toronto. Civil/Mechanical Engineer SCS Consulting Group Limited, Markham, Ontario. Irrigation Consultant SMART Watering Systems, Milton, Ontario. Structural Engineer Quinn Dressel Associates, Toronto. Electrical Engineer Hammerschlag + Joffe Inc., North York, Ontario. Geotechnical Engineer Golder Associates, Mississauga, Ontario. Environmental Engineer Environ (now Ramboll Environ), Toronto. General Contractor UCC Group, Toronto. Construction Management Eastern Construction Company Limited, Toronto.

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