Bentway Skate Trail set to open under Gardiner Expressway this weekend

TORONTO – Skaters in Toronto will soon be able to glide along a new ice track running under a busy elevated highway as the city opens its latest winter attraction this weekend.

The Bentway Skate Trail, a 220 metre ribbon of ice, runs in a rough figure-eight around several massive concrete pillars – or “bents” – supporting the Gardiner Expressway. The trail, which opens to the public Saturday, is part of a larger project – The Bentway – that seeks to make better use of the space under the key artery leading into the city core.

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“The city is getting very dense in terms of its population, which is a great thing for Toronto, but we also recognize that people need a new kind of backyard, a new kind of place to hang out and do stuff with friends and family,” said Julian Sleath, CEO of the non-profit Bentway Conservancy, which operates the site.

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“We hope that, in the days to come and the years ahead, the Bentway becomes a very public space for everyone to enjoy.”

For the rest of the winter, the Bentway will be a hub not only for skating, but for community programs. DJ performances, free skate rentals, free skating lessons, and programs to teach kids to use DJ turntables will all take place on a regular basis.

“We think it’s really important for public space to be embraced by everyone and to make it as free and accessible as we can,” said Sleath.

About one kilometre of sub-Gardiner space is slated to be open to the public by mid-to-late summer 2018, featuring pedestrian and cycling trails, open-air gallery and performance spaces, landscaped greenery and more.

“We’re still talking and developing and consulting,” Sleath said. “I think it’s really important to work with the local community and neighbourhoods to determine what they want with this space … We’re talking to a number of organizations about pop-up summer classes and activities but we also want to talk about long-term interest in this area.”

Eventually, the Bentway will span 1.75 kilometres, from Spadina Avenue to Strachan Avenue, becoming part of a loose network of parks stretching from the city’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, to the former Ontario Place site on the waterfront.

“It (will be) a way to move through the city in different ways, so you’re not stuck on major thoroughfares with a lot of traffic and noise,” said Dave Harvey, executive director of Park People, an organization that works with community groups to improve urban parks.

“You don’t have to be in some huge central park space. Just by getting off the street a little bit, with a little bit of greenery and a little bit of space around you, studies show that it really helps not just physical health but mental health.”

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The Bentway plan got startup funding in the form of a $25 million donation from urban planner and philanthropist Judy Matthews and her husband, Wilmot Matthews.

The public agency Waterfront Toronto is managing the construction project, while the Bentway Conservancy picks programming for the space.

“I think there’s just this new attitude in Toronto of how can we make interesting things happen in our public spaces (by) all working together,” Harvey said. “It’s not just the city doing it, it’s people working constructively together to support the city and partner with the city.”

Toronto’s mayor called the project a joint effort.

“We got (the Bentway) done thanks to the teamwork of a lot of city officials but, even more importantly, some of the visionaries, all the people who did the hard work, the designers,” Tory said while surveying the new trail on Friday.

“The fact that we’re here two years after this was talked about is a dream, and a testament to what can get done.”

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