‘The streets belong to the people’: Why a premier killed the Spadina Expressway

Fifty years ago, Bill Davis made a speech that changed his political life — and some say saved downtown Toronto
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Jun 03, 2021
Stop Spadina, Save Our City Committee protest march in Toronto on December 8, 1969. (Bill Russell; York University Libraries, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC00707)

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“We must make a decision as to whether we are trying to build a transportation system to serve the automobile or one which will best serve people. If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.”— Premier William Davis, speaking in the Ontario legislature, June 3, 1971.

Three sentences, written by veteran political strategist Dalton Camp, that stunned Metro Ontario and beyond. Three sentences that established a new premier as his own man. Three sentences that, as Camp biographer Geoffrey Stevens observes, “had more impact than three dozen speeches or conferences of urban planners could have had.” Three sentences that still echo when critical political decisions need to be made. 

Planning for the Spadina Expressway (known today as Allen Road) had first begun in the ’50s; during the late ’60s, the debate about it was as much over differing views of Metro Toronto’s future as it was a fight over a particular road project. “Suburbanites thought it entirely reasonable that the existing city be demolished to make way for the new city, including building roadways necessary to join the downtown office towers where people worked to the suburban houses where they lived,” former Toronto mayor John Sewell observes in his book The Shape of the City.

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However, city residents, he writes, “argued that their homes were important to them and shouldn’t be destroyed; that the cost of the expressway was unreasonable; that the time savings were miniscule; that the downtown would be one giant parking lot; that public transit was a much better investment than roads for more cars.”

There were also fears related to the devastating impact urban expressways had had on the cores of several American cities. In the United States, citizen protest had led to the cancellation of such projects as the extension of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York  — a proposal that had pitted urban planner Robert Moses against critics including urbanist Jane Jacobs. 

In Toronto, Jacobs once again took up the fight, joining a coalition called the Stop Spadina Save Our City Coordinating Committee, which had been established by University of Toronto professor Alan Power in 1969.

black and white photo of protest march
Protest Meeting and March on March 18, 1970. (Robert Lansdale fonds, University of Toronto Archives)

While citizens groups formed the core of opposition to Spadina, its supporters were largely found among Metro politicians, civil servants, planners, and those who looked forward to using the route. When the Ontario Municipal Board voted 2-1 in February 1971 to complete the expressway, they appeared to have the upper hand. At the time, Spadina had been completed from just north of Highway 401 to Lawrence Avenue, and a segment stretching south to Eglinton Avenue was almost ready for paving. 

Opponents found hope in the dissenting opinion in the OMB ruling from chairman J.A. Kennedy. He argued that conditions had changed since the project’s initial planning stages during the early 1960s and that the expressway would result in the loss of parkland and “the cruel social cost” of air and noise pollution; some projections, he noted, indicated that it would not reduce traffic congestion. 

When Davis became premier in March 1971, his cabinet was split on the issue, so he weighed his options. If he cancelled Spadina, he might face accusations of wasting taxpayer money or usurping the power of municipal and regional governments. But he might also earn praise for being sensitive to public concerns about pollution, quality of life, and other urban matters. 

After discussing the issues with Camp, one factor became clear to him: if he were to cancel the project, he would establish his own identity as premier and create a new image that might appeal to voters in the upcoming provincial election. Camp wrote a nine-page statement that did exactly that.

After saying the three famous sentences, Davis noted that he was “well aware” that he was reversing decisions made by the OMB and elected representatives. “But the government and legislature of Ontario have their responsibilities, as well. We can do no less than discharge them in light of present-day circumstances.” He noted that the province “cannot help but heed the rising anxiety and concern in questions relating to pollution and environmental control.” At the end of the speech, he repeated a mantra of the anti-Spadina forces — “the streets belong to the people” — and promised that an alternative plan would be developed. 

During the speech, the PC and NDP caucuses banged loudly on their desks, and Spadina opponents in the public gallery broke into applause. When it ended, half the Liberal caucus joined in. NDP leader Stephen Lewis rose and praised the decision, noting that “citizen groups can rightly feel a great sense of exhilaration.” 

Liberal leader Robert Nixon, however, attacked the government for having wasted millions of dollars and for wishing “to appear as some sort of new-wave administration.” His deputy, Vernon Singer (whose Downsview riding provided much of Spadina’s traffic) accused Davis of throwing construction jobs away and disrespecting the idea of responsible government. Davis accused Singer of being incapable of recognizing when change was necessary, while Lewis called him a “professional patsy.”

The split among Liberals was apparent when Scarborough East MPP Tim Reid lauded the move as “the most major policy statement by the government in the last 20 years,” as it shifted the emphasis in urban transportation from cars to transit. Reid predicted it would be “significant for the rest of the century.”

Spadina opponents congratulated cabinet members as they left the legislature. Trade and Development Minister Allan Grossman, whose downtown riding would have been affected, indicated that he was relieved that the pressure he’d been under had been reduced and that, up to now, he hadn’t been able to respond publicly, because “it would have jeopardized the ultimate decision.” Grossman felt that the decision was historic — and would lead governments across North America to “take a hard look at highways, which fill up with cars as soon as they’re completed and therefore force more to be built.”

Anti-Spadina leaders, such as architect Colin Vaughan, credited careful research, public-outreach efforts, the range of people involved, and its decentralized structure as keys to the movement’s success. “We always knew it was mainly an educational problem — that people who digested and understood the facts couldn’t help opposing the expressway,” Vaughan told the Toronto Star.

Victory celebrations sprang up downtown that evening. There was an impromptu snake dance along the pedestrian mall pilot on Yonge Street; participants shouted “We’ve won!” and “You can beat City Hall!” One of Jacobs’s sons led a sing-along. As the members of the jubilant crowd began moving the party into local bars, an unidentified person told the Globe and Mail that pro-Spadina Toronto mayor William Dennison, then on a trip to Italy, “must be choking on ravioli.” 

Agenda With Steve Paikin panel, December 1, 2016: Jane Jacobs revisited

When the press caught up to him, Dennison expressed his outrage and promised, after a scheduled visit with Pope Paul VI, to rush back to the city. “You can’t build a wall around Toronto to stop people from coming in,” he told the Toronto Star. “You have to build facilities to accommodate them. The whole thing is short-sighted and stupid.” 

Metro Toronto chairman Albert Campbell was livid. “We spent 10 to 20 years planning this expressway and, with two weeks’ study and the stroke of the pen, they kill it,” he told the press, his hands shaking. “God — it’s unbelievable.” He predicted it would take a decade to create a new Metro road plan. Given that the province had interfered with a Metro matter, he wondered whether regional governments were worth the bother. 

Metro roads commissioner Sam Cass felt that, without Spadina, his proposed network of municipal expressways was pointless. North York councillor Paul Godfrey, who thought the government “have got to be out of their skulls,” urged Metro to defy the province and at least complete the unfinished section to Eglinton, which the public now referred to as the “Spadina ditch.” Metro officials searched for loopholes, threatened lawsuits, and contemplated plebiscites. As a Globe and Mail editorial observed, “the extent of their bitterness is one indication of how unexpected the reversal was; now we have an emotional outburst in which some curious excesses are being given play.” 

The province stood by its decision. In late June, it introduced legislation promising increased public-transit funding and regulations that would allow more event street closures and pedestrian malls. 

One solution that went nowhere: Project Spadina, which was unveiled in October 1971. It would have filled the ditch with a complex of pyramid-shaped buildings containing 4,000 apartment units and 250,000 square feet of commercial space, and parking for 3,500 commuters using the Spadina subway line. The project was greeted with derision: critics argued that it would increase congestion and took issue with the decision to hire American architect Buckminster Fuller, who had recently worked on another failed pyramid proposal for downtown, rather than local consultants.

In other cities, expressway plans carried on. The province announced financing for projects in Brantford (Highway 403), Guelph (Hanlan Expressway), and Windsor (E.C. Row Expressway) and for the widening of Highway 400 from North York to Bradford. Supporters of these projects argued that they weren’t likely to face Spadina-style protests, as most of the routes were on the outskirts, not in already built-up areas. 

newspaper ad
Robert Nixon campaign ad from the October 12, 1971, edition of the Windsor Star.

During the fall election campaign, the PCs and NDP promised to keep Spadina dead and work on new transportation plans. The Liberals vowed to pave the ditch and used images of it in campaign ads that criticized how much money had been wasted. Though some polling indicated substantial public support for finishing Spadina, the Tories captured 17 of Metro’s 28 seats. 

After numerous failed schemes and legal battles, the Spadina ditch was paved and opened to traffic in September 1976. Though no official ceremonies were held, the first vehicle was driven by one of Spadina’s loudest defenders, North York councillor Esther Shiner. After Davis had indicated that there would be no relief for commuter traffic on her residential street, Shiner organized numerous pro-Spadina protests; until her death, in 1987, she continued to promote its completion — and claim the public was on her side. 

Even as the 1980s began, obituaries for Spadina seemed potentially premature. For years, Davis had dangled a promise to lease a three-foot strip of land to the City of Toronto to permanently block any southward extension, but nothing had yet come of it. Paul Godfrey, by now Metro chairman, was among the senior officials who believed it was inevitable that the expressway would be built whenever Davis left office. “You can’t kill Spadina,” Godfrey told the Toronto Star in 1982. “It’s like a time clock that keeps ticking along. One day the alarm will go off.” When Downsview was seriously considered as a site for a domed stadium, proponents insisted Spadina would be necessary for its success. 

On February 7, 1985 — his last day as premier — Davis announced he’d closed the three-foot-strip deal:  the City of Toronto had agreed to lease the land for 99 years for a dollar. (Today, it’s the site of Ben Nobleman Park.) Although Davis’s successor, Frank Miller, during his leadership campaign briefly floated the idea of a Spadina tunnel, he maintained the provincial policy once he was in office. When David Peterson became premier later that year, he also insisted the expressway was still dead. The idea has occasionally resurfaced, most notably in 2010, when Toronto mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi proposed to build a tunnel down to the Gardiner Expressway. Well into the 21st century, there were still properties on the books set aside for Spadina construction. 

The merits of the Davis’s decision continue to be debated. It allowed Toronto’s central neighbourhoods to flourish at a time when many North American downtowns declined. It demonstrated the effectiveness of well-organized protests on civic issues, spurring an era of reforms and a new consultative relationship between civil servants and citizens to produce liveable cities. As Toronto Star columnist David Lewis Stein observed in 1992, it allowed the public “the confidence to say that their feelings about urban life were just as valid as the opinions of the experts.” One could argue this has promoted both stronger neighbourhoods — and NIMBYism. 

But the congestion problems didn’t go away, and efforts to boost construction and funding for public transit were stalled by political games. According to some, Davis’s move produced a worrisome trend. “Virtually every politician since Davis has felt free to wave off the advice of experts, ignore any amount of already-spent money, and just do whatever suits his or her purposes,” observed Philip Preville in a 2014 Toronto Life look at the causes of gridlock in Toronto. 

And there are still people who believe it was the wrong decision. “I’ll always hope for the Spadina Expressway,” Godfrey told Paikin in 2015. “I still think it should have been finished in the 1970s.” 

Sources: The Power & The Tories: Ontario Politics 1943 to the Present by Jonathan Manthorpe (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974); Bill Davis by Steve Paikin (Toronto: Dundurn, 2016); The Shape of the City by John Sewell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993); The Player: The Life and Times of Dalton Camp by Geoffrey Stevens (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2003); Planning Toronto by Richard White (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); the June 2011 edition of The Canadian Historical Review; the June 4, 1971, June 5, 1971, October 13, 1971, and February 8, 1985, editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 29, 1971, edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the June 4, 1971, June 5, 1971, June 8, 1971, October 13, 1971, October 22, 1971, September 8, 1976, April 28, 1982, and May 22, 1992, editions of the Toronto Star; the October 2014 edition of Toronto Life; and the Spring 2011 edition of Urban History Review.

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