Back in February, news broke about a private company's venture that would see a cable car—also known as a gondola—connect busy Danforth Avenue near Broadview subway station with the Evergreen Brick Works in a more bucolic corner of the Don Valley. The proposal came as a welcome surprise to many Torontonians, who live in a city too often starved of innovative ideas, and an annoyance to others. About 100 people from both camps showed up to an information session on the evening of March 8 to find out more about the proposal.
The concept is the brainchild of Bullwheel International Cable Car Corp., who together with Swiss company Cable Car Consultants, hopes to improve access to one of Toronto's greatest natural assets: the Don Valley. Steven Dale, Bullwheel's Chief Executive Officer, presented his pitch to the crowd which had assembled at the Estonian House on Broadview Avenue. It was followed up by audience questions and a roundtable discussion facilitated by Liz Nield of Lura Consulting.
Dale first pointed out the few entry points into the scenic ravine system. Getting to the Evergreen Brick Works in particular—the former quarry turned recreational area—proves to be a challenge for those without motor vehicles. An Evergreen-operated shuttle bus does provide a link from Broadview Station, though its capacity and schedule is limited. The cable car would provide an alternate and far more scenic way of reaching the popular Brick Works and its connecting pathways.
The one-kilometre cable car would accommodate two stations. One would be situated adjacent to Playter Gardens, a small park on the north side of Danforth Avenue abutting the eastern end of the Prince Edward Viaduct. It would be cantilevered over the edge of the valley to minimize impact on the park itself. A green wall would be constructed to absorb noise and protect the privacy of the neighbouring residents to the north.
The other station would be built in the western parking lot of the Brick Works, a much less sensitive location with more space to work with. It is however a spot prone to occasional flooding, an inevitable situation that will be avoided with a raised station platform, and in fact the cable car system could act as a stable and reliable evacuation method of the valley should any serious flooding occur.
Three to six towers would span the length of the route, although two of them would be located just metres from each of the stations themselves. Dale assured the audience that the towers will be strategically placed so that no old-growth trees or parkland space would need to be removed. Speaking to the height of the towers, Dale cited the Broadview Avenue Planning Study, which indicated residents would generally be opposed to buildings exceeding six storeys.
One of the questions posed for further study is whether the main tower should rise those six storeys above the Prince Edward Viaduct. A taller tower height would afford more impressive views of the valley and the skyline, but could be more visually intrusive, potentially obscuring some of the natural assets the gondola seeks to promote. Whatever height is eventually settled upon, Dale stated that the tallest tower would be "customized", producing something more iconic and "aesthetically valuable". As no development application has yet been submitted, all aspects of the alignment, design and scope of the project are approximate.
Likening it to the Toronto Island ferries and CNE Skyride, Dale reiterated that the gondola would be a piece of recreational infrastructure rather than a public transit line. Round-trip tickets will cost about $10, though a dynamic fare structure would allow Torontonians to board at a reduced cost. A $50 pass will give users unlimited access to the system over the course of a year. The $20-25 million project would be completely financed by the private sector and led by Collins Barrow Toronto Corporate Finance Inc.
Speaking to the long-term viability of the project, Dale noted that only one cable car system in the western world—Mississippi Aerial River Transit—has closed for economic reasons in the past 35 years. In that case, the project was simply removed. The small footprint of cable car systems also allows the system to be relocated. A reserve fund will be created to finance the dismantling of the structure in the unlikely event of bankruptcy. Dale stressed that the City will not have to take over management and operations of the project if it fails.
Travelling 2.5 to 5 metres per second depending on passenger demand and time of day, the entire length of the route would be traversed in 4 to 8 minutes. About 40 cabins would hold 8 passengers each, translating to roughly 500 to 1,500 users every day. At peak times, 400 riders per hour are anticipated, though typical ridership is expected to be 100 per hour. To prevent queues from spilling out into the park and the street, the system will be designed at a minimum three times higher than peak weekend demand. "Those 400 people per hour would be boarding a system that can move 1,200 people per hour per direction," said Dale. "Given that vehicles depart every 15 to 30 seconds, we'll be able to deal with that queue very quickly."
All tour buses would be redirected to the Brick Works for drop-off and pickup. Dog owners will be allowed to bring their furry friends along for the ride, while cyclists could bring their bikes. In terms of broader community benefits, Dale envisions the creation of a foundation that will receive a portion of ticket revenue. Those proceeds would go towards making recreational, environmental and cultural improvements to the Don River and its surroundings.
The biggest issue acknowledged by Dale—and one raised in several audience questions following the presentation—was that of parking pressures that might be added to the community near the Danforth station. Dale stated that in his discussions with the community, residents spoke to an "inequity in how non-resident permit parking is allocated in the neighbourhood," worsened by a lack of enforcement. Dale believes the neighbourhood's parking demands could be partially met if the expansive lots of the Brick Works, which are mostly empty during off-peak times, serve as an extension to the supply of parking on the Danforth. In the roundtable discussions, several members of the audience proposed using the parking garage of the City Adult Learning Centre, located just across Danforth Avenue from Playter Gardens, as a possible measure of accommodating cable car users. Given the proposed terminal would within a short walk of Broadview subway station, and not too far from Castle Frank either, Dale hopes new vehicular traffic would be kept to a minimum.
Dale, who grew up in the area, emphasized the need for great recreational spaces in Toronto during this period of explosive population growth. "Whether we build this cable car or not, there are tens of thousands of people that are going to move into this area. Whether we want them in the Lower Don Valley or not, they're going to be there and they're going to need things to do. In the last 25 years, the Greater Toronto Area has grown by two million people and in the same period of time we've built one recreational attraction, Ripley's Aquarium. In the same period of time, we closed one in Ontario Place. We have a net gain in 25 years of zero recreational attractions. That is unbecoming of a city of six million people."
Not only would the cable car system provide a needed fully-accessible link to the ravine, it could serve as a platform for unique educational experiences. The bike rack-equipped cabins may also feature video screens with digital media allowing users to interpret and curate the rich history of the Don Valley. The Prince Edward Viaduct, which will be celebrating its 100th birthday on October 18, 2018, was actually constructed using a network of cable cars. Though admittedly ambitious, Dale hopes the gondola will open to the public on this significant date in Toronto history.
Some residents had issues with the proposed alignment of the system, pondering whether Castle Frank was considered as an alternative location. It was, Dale said, but its alignment would have necessitated travel above residential properties. The Broadview location is shielded by dense foliage that already acts as a noise and privacy barrier. Evergreen's Chief Financial Officer Manissa Patel expressed interest in seeing the project move forward, calling it an "interesting way to expose Toronto to the Don Valley." Councillor Mary Fragedakis was also in attendance to listen to the community response and find out more about the concept, and expressed her support for "fostering innovation and considering substantive ideas."
Though many in attendance—including some who sporadically interrupted the proceedings—questioned the need for the gondola, there was near consensus that more could be done to promote the valley's picturesque offerings. Community Member Chris Williams presented an accompanying, or perhaps alternative, way of strengthening the Don Valley's amenities. He wondered whether the mainly disused Half-Mile Rail Bridge could be Toronto's answer to New York's High Line. It would complement the Group of Seven's Studio Building in the Rosedale Valley, a National Historic Site that Williams feels needs to be invigorated and publicized.
Supporters of the project, who did share concerns about parking in particular, were generally met with loud applause after speaking. Most residents took a selfless and holistic approach in their view of the concept by recognizing the Don's untapped potential. Even if it meant their slice of heaven would lose some of its secretive charm, the majority of those in attendance were on board with providing additional transportation options that would open up the valley for the whole city to enjoy.
A resident steering committee will be created to ensure the needs and wishes of the community are taken into account as the process continues. Pending community support, an application will be lodged with the Toronto Office of Partnerships, the preferred avenue identified by the City to move the project forward. If it clears that process, engineering and design studies will be completed in advance of a formal development application submitted to the City. If approved, the project will enter the manufacturing and construction stages, which should only take about one year.
Dale's remarks ended on a metaphorical note that captured the essence of the Don's vast network of trails and greenery. "During our icebreaker sessions, Chris Williams had a line that just stuck in my head," said Dale. "He said 'cake needs icing.' What he meant was, your amenities need amenities. The Lower Don Valley, at three times the size of Central Park, is an amenity that any city around the world would die to have. This is a fantastic cake. All we want to do is put a little icing on it."
More information is available on the project's official website. Want to share your thoughts about the project? Leave a comment in the space below this page, or join in the conversation at the associated Forum thread.
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