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Toronto Waterfront Vision Focuses on Tourist Dollars

September 13, 2011

By Paula Melton
This story first appeared in GreenSource.

When the U.S. Green Building Council chose Toronto as the location of the first Greenbuild convention beyond U.S. borders, it talked up Ontario’s capital city as a hotbed of sustainable planning and development. The world’s largest Ferris wheel, a 1.6-million-square-foot megamall, and a boat-in resort hotel were probably the last things on their minds.

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Image City of Toronto
Mayor Ford's vision for the port lands section of Toronto's waterfront, as rendered by architect Eric Kuhne, includes the world's largest ferris wheel, an "emerald necklace" marina for yachts, and a monorail.
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Toronto citizens were just as surprised as Greenbuild planners must have been to discover in late August that all these features—plus a monorail—are part of a new waterfront vision proposed by Mayor Rob Ford. The proposal, which seeks to speed up waterfront development and make the industrial port lands area into an international tourist destination, is intended to replace an environmental reclamation and mixed-use urban revitalization plan that city, provincial, and federal governments have been working on jointly for more than a decade. The mayor’s proposal—which would transfer control of the land away from the three-tiered government steward and allow the City to sell it to developers instead—has already passed executive committee and will be voted on by the city council September 21, two weeks before Greenbuild.

According to architect and lifelong Toronto resident Lloyd Alter, even though the Ferris wheel and other attention-getting features do not constitute a final plan, “conceptually this is what the final plan will be like”—meaning that developers will likely be given free reign to add retail centers and high-rises that the mayor hopes will fill the city’s coffers with tax revenue.

Toronto has been here before, Alter notes. “The problems with Toronto’s waterfront go back about 120 years,” he explains; that’s when the ability for pedestrians to walk along an esplanade by the Don River and enjoy Lake Ontario was disrupted by out-of-control development: railroads and factories at first, and later elevated superhighways and high-rise condominiums. According to Alter, citizens have so little access to their waterways that several generations have grown up without even realizing the city is on a lake.

The port lands gradually became a toxic industrial wasteland, and cleanup has barely begun—something many critics of the mayor’s plan are beginning to see as a silver lining, since the environmental devastation is likely to forestall any large-scale building for years to come, even assuming developers step up to invest in the waterfront brownfield. In Alter’s view, the proposal “completely changes the whole environmental strategy, and there’s no way it won’t go through another five years of environmental approval.” He explains that Waterfront Toronto, the government entity that currently controls the port lands and other waterfront areas, “was taking it slow and careful, developing the whole waterfront properly, and not making the mistakes the city has made for the last 100 years.”

Proponents of the mayor’s vision don’t see it that way. Waterfront Toronto’s progress has been too slow, in their view, and its long-term plan, unanimously approved last year when Ford was a councilman rather than mayor, is not visionary. In their view, it focuses too much on mixed use and re-naturalizing the Don River and not enough on revenue generation and opportunities to make the area a tourist destination. The mayor does not even appear to consider Waterfront Toronto’s work so far to be a plan: the port lands offer “the most beautiful view of the entire city, and we should develop it,” says Ford, quoted in the Toronto Star. “Right now there is not a plan.”

Legal challenges are already in the works, based on a perceived lack of transparency—the developers with whom Ford has discussed his plans may not have registered as lobbyists as required before talks began—and Alter predicts that multiple lawsuits could be under way soon, assuming the proposal passes the full council vote later this month. Although Toronto does not give much executive power to its mayoral office, Alter pointed out, the council has generally been going along with all of Ford’s plans. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen” with the vote, he says, “but if they keep framing it in the argument that we’re going to keep taxes down” by selling the land, suburbanites are likely to be in favor, and the plan is more likely to pass.

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