Posts Tagged: waterfront

Aug 11

The Fords have a terrible, no-good, very bad plan for Toronto’s Port Lands

From a 2006 report by Waterfront Toronto, a look at the site plan for the Port Lands. The renaturalized Don River, flowing through the neighbourhood, is the defining feature.

After months of posturing and bleating about slow development timelines and the superiority of the fabled private sector, the mayor’s office has finally made a move on waterfront development with an item on next week’s Executive Committee agenda that would see the City re-establish control over the Port Lands project. All of this is seemingly being driven by Councillor Doug Ford, whose ward in the northern part of Etobicoke decidedly does not contain anything resembling a waterfront. He’s also not — seriously — the Mayor of Toronto. That’s another guy.

Doug has been rambling on about the huge potential for development in the Port Lands and the need to kickstart things. He’s promising a monorail that zig-zags across the city with little regard for the actual physical location of attractions it would connect to. Also, we’d get the world’s biggest ferris wheel, which would need to be over 541 feet high to beat the current ferris wheel champ in Singapore. And if novelty trains and gargantuan amusement park rides aren’t enough to get you excited, how about this: a mega-mall! The pitch includes a bunch of heretofore America-only chains, like Macy’s & Bloomingdales. We can only pray for a Jamba Juice.

And guess how much it’s going to cost us, the taxpayers? Zero dollars! The private sector is going to pay for everything, Doug Ford says. And it’s not like the Fords have given us any reason to doubt their claims that the private sector will gladly fund insanely expensive and risky infrastructure projects.

It’s hard to find words to describe this move that aren’t epithets like “short-sighted” or “foolish” or “monstrously stupid.” But I’ll do my best.

Why do the Fords care about the Waterfront?

Others have done a great job this week tearing down the specifics — such as they are — of the Ford plan, but I keep coming back to the question of motive. Why does this Rob Ford-led administration have such an immediate interest in spurring waterfront development? During his campaign, he had very few thoughts on Toronto’s waterfront, except to say that we couldn’t afford development right now.

But less than a year into his term of office, we’re hearing all about the need to cast off the established planning done by Waterfront Toronto and immediately drive development forward. Given that the political messaging we’re being fed going into the budget process has been all about cutting the “nice-to-haves” and focusing on core services, it’s bizarre that a revitalization project would be deemed a priority by anyone associated with the Fords.

So why this? Why now?

The answer goes back to the budget process itself. It’s money. Quick money. Easy money. Doug Ford is Vice Chair of Build Toronto, a Miller legacy project that has been successful in managing the sale of Toronto’s real estate assets. Last month, the agency’s CEO told the Toronto Star that the Fords had asked him to expand his mandate and look more aggressively at selling city property.

The Port Lands, in terms of location and potential, are enormously valuable. The sale of some or all of these lands won’t do much to contribute to the end of the City’s structural budget problems, but they will contribute one-time revenues that can plug giant holes in operating budgets and facilitate things like property tax freezes.

What does the Ford plan really look like?

Let’s start with the obvious: if the Port Lands were such an amazing opportunity for the private sector, they would have already developed the area. It’s not like the opportunities haven’t been there. Instead, what we have — aside from the very nice Cherry Beach and the Martin Goodman trail — is a T&T Grocery Store with a massive parking lot, a couple of restaurants, a driving range and go-kart track, and Toronto’s only drive-in movie theatre.

This is the kind of thing the private sector is interested in. Quick, low-risk business opportunities that don’t require much design, engineering or construction. They’re not looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars rehabbing polluted soil or diverting a river, nor do they see much point in paying for water mains or traffic signalling or — as we’ve learned — public transit. And we can’t really hold this attitude against them, because it’s not really their role to pay for these things. That’s what government is for.

Remember that when the Province attempted to do a similar deal with the West Don Lands neighbourhood a decade ago — divesting themselves of the responsibility to rehab the area and make it suitable for development — the only private sector partner they could find was a company that wanted to build a venue for horse racing.

To imagine Doug Ford’s revisioned Port Lands, start by taking the status quo and expanding it. The City isn’t contributing any funding, apparently, so expect no changes to the street grid or to infrastructure: no realigned Cherry Street, no major new bike paths, no streetcar that connects both to Union Station and to King Street East. Nobody’s talked about a plan for the dump site on Commissioners Street, so let’s assume it stays there, giving the area a nice musky scent. Most notably, expect no changes to the path of the Don River, eliminating what was to be the crown jewel in Waterfront Toronto’s plan.

Instead, add a few more seasonal and amusement-oriented businesses. Some middling restaurants and tourist-focused shops. A ferris wheel is actually achievable, though maybe not desirable unless you’re some kind of enthusiast for slow-moving rides or ignorant of the other major attraction in the city that lets you go up high. The wow-factor,  I guess, would be some kind of Smart Centre-type commercial development, anchored by a couple of box store retail tenants. And since underground parking is mostly a logistical impossibility and most developers would see a parking garage as an unnecessary expense given the space available — not to mention the lack of public transit to their doors — we’d probably see surface parking. And lots of it.

Sure, we might get reassurances that the Fords will play tough with developers to ensure they build projects that better fit our collective vision — whatever that is — but those calming words will ultimately prove toothless when developers own the land and start appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board to build whatever they find to be most cost effective.

Port Lands: What We’d Lose

Opponents of the Fords can wax on about the particulars of Waterfront Toronto’s current plan: how it creates public greenspaces and provides opportunity for affordable housing. And, yes, we’d lose all that if the political winds blow that way, but the real, bottom-line impact we’d face harkens back to the reason the Fords have embarked on this quest in the first place. It’s money. A lot of money.

Because despite all his bluster and enthusiasm, what Doug Ford has proposed will ultimately bring in far less tax revenue and development charges than what we’d get with the Waterfront Toronto plan. A dense, populated, mixed-use neighbourhood is incredibly valuable, certainly more so than the collection of commercial novelty businesses and mall retail we’re looking at as an alternative.

Doug Ford speaks as if he has a grand vision, but what this proposal really amounts to is selling control of one of Toronto’s most potentially valuable real estate assets to fund a few years of budgetary tricks and to hold the line on property taxes. It’s a bad trade, a bad deal, and an immeasurable loss for Toronto’s future.

May 11

Jim Flaherty praises “boondoggle” waterfront development

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was put in a bit of an akwkward position yesterday, as he attended the official groundbreaking for Waterfront Toronto’s anticipated Underpass Park. Flaherty, a long-time family friend of the Fords, expressed his support for the project, which is part of a larger plan by Waterfront Toronto that the Fords and their council allies have been highly critical of in recent times.

The Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume:

“This is transformative,” declared federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. “It’s important not just for Toronto, but for Canada.”

On hand for the ceremonial shovelling of the earth Thursday, Flaherty joined a gaggle of dignitaries that included provincial Minister of Research and Innovation, Glen Murray, and local municipal councillor Pam McConnell.

Conspicuous in his absence was Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, whose doppelganger, Doug Ford, has been happy to share his thoughts about the waterfront, as half-baked as they may be.

via Hume: Underpass Park will change the city forever –

If even someone like Jim Flaherty can understand the importance of public investment along the waterfront, why can’t Rob and Doug Ford?

May 11

Burning bridges at Fort York

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale:

Despite the support of developers, history buffs and hundreds of local residents, Councillor Mike Layton’s effort to save the Fort York pedestrian and cyclist bridge was rejected by council Wednesday.

City staff will now try to find a lower-cost alternative to the $23 million bridge that had been scheduled for completion in 2012, the bicentennial of the War of 1812. But a different bridge could not be built until 2015, and Layton said he considers the project dead.

via Fort York bridge dead, councillor says –

So it’s dead. They killed it, following a 22-23 vote. (It wasn’t as close as it might seem — a two-thirds majority was required to save the item.) It was obvious that, despite near-heroic efforts, Councillor Mike Layton wouldn’t be able to command the votes after Councillor Michelle Berardinetti twittered the following:

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Berardinetti, along with Councillor Jaye Robinson, has served as a good indicator of the strength of the mayor’s whip on any given item. With her on side, it was clear that this was going to come down to the same old left-versus-right divide.

Very disappointing, and not a good sign at all for those of us who value the innovative and ambitious work going on across the city’s waterfront.

May 11

Private sector waterfront development is short-sighted, says private sector

This weekend saw architect Jack Diamond take to the Globe & Mail to absolutely tear into recent comments made by Doug and Rob Ford, wherein they referred to Waterfront Toronto as a boondoggle:

To call such wise public-sector investment a boondoggle is, at best, to exhibit a profound lack of understanding of the role that government should play. At worst, it is a result of the myopia caused by an ideological disease. It demonstrates a total lack of appreciation of the different roles that should be performed by government and the private sector. That the two can operate to mutual advantage is the ethos of Canada at its best. To act contrary to that precept is to diminish our political patrimony. To complete an often incompletely quoted aphorism – history repeats itself if we don’t learn from it.

via Ford’s short-sighted vision of Toronto’s waterfront – The Globe and Mail.

Damn. Remember, too, that Diamond works primarily with private sector developers. He very much is the private sector.

Still, though, I’m sure there’s someone out there in the private sector — someone who probably doesn’t use as many big, complicated words — who shares the dream of turning a heritage generating station into a football stadium.

May 11

What has Waterfront Toronto done for us anyway?

Last week, John Lorinc interviewed David Crombie about Toronto’s Waterfront, in the wake of all the stupid debate we’ve heard over the last month.. Here’s what the former mayor had to say:

When I hear people say they’re impatient about development on the waterfront, I don’t want to be unkind, but they are people who don’t go there. If you start at Mimico Creek and go straight across to Victoria Park and the Bluffers, the change is enormous. No, I’m not impatient with it. I’m impatient with those whose impatience is going to rush us to judgment.

It’s going now. Does it need to be done better? Anything can be done better. But, boy, this is a ship that is going. Want to improve it? Do that. But don’t blow it up.

via Crombie still sees magic in Toronto’s waterfront – The Globe and Mail.

But blowing it up might solve our short-term budget problems!

To add to that, a poster on the Urban Toronto forums (EnviroTO) put together a quick list of all the projects recently completed or currently under development projects undertaken by Waterfront Toronto:

– Flood prevention landform that allows development on most of the land to occur is complete.
– Sewer system through West Don Lands complete.
– HtO Park complete.
– Port Union Waterfront Park complete.
– Marilyn Bell Park and Western Beaches Watercourse complete.
– Mimico Waterfront Park Phase I complete.
– Sherbourne Common south complete.
– Waterfront Edge at Harbourfront complete.
– Three wave decks complete.
– Sugar Beach complete.
– Corus Quay complete.
– Cherry Beach renovation complete.

Under Development
– Union Station second platform project under construction.
– George Brown college under construction.
– Canada Square under construction.
– Bayside Development contract signed.
– Parkside Development contract signed.
– Queens Quay LRT and street makeover EA complete.
– Cherry LRT EA complete.
– West Don Lands neighbourhood study and EA complete.
– River City Development contract signed.
– Pan Am Games development in advanced planning.
– Don River Park under construction.
– Underpass Park design complete.
– Keating Channel precinct plan complete.
– Mouth of Don design competition and EA complete.
– Lake Ontario Park master plan complete.

via Waterfront: East Bayfront – Sherbourne Common & Sugar Beach |

All this and Doug Ford still calls it “the biggest boondoggle the feds, the province and the city has ever done.” Go figure.

Apr 11

Our new city-building strategy: sell downtown

Let’s start with this: At the Toronto Standard, Ivor Tossell writes about the recent hullabaloo surrounding Team Ford’s comments on waterfront development:

There are a few undercurrents beneath this goofiness. One is the distinction between the city as a place that people visit, and a place that people live. Urbanists want to turn the Port Lands into a breathable (and maybe even breedable) habitat for those who enjoy city living. The middle of a city is a pretty good place to do that. The Fords seem to want downtown to be a fun destination for weekend visits.

via Castles in the Sand | Toronto News, Media, Art, Business, Technology, Fashion, Events.

Downtown as a place to visit versus a place to live. That’s a critical distinction. It brings to mind some of the arguments made by G20 apologists after the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. “Why would anyone go downtown on G20 weekend?” they asked, ignoring that for a hell of a lot of people — a growing number — they don’t go downtown, they live downtown.

Mayor Ford, himself an apologist for all things G20-related, echoed the argument in the immediate aftermath: “Personally, if you didn’t want to be down there, then you shouldn’t have been down there. I didn’t take my family out when there is a riot downtown.”

A place to visit versus a place to live.

Then there’s this: this week, the city’s public works committee voted to essentially kill an ambitious plan to build a pedestrian and cyclist bridge over the rail tracks at Fort York. This was a critically important piece of infrastructure for the thousands who have recently moved into the area. It also would have looked very cool.

Why kill it? Nominally, it’s because the bids for the project came in about four million dollars above the allocated budget. But Councillor David Shiner made his real reasoning known in a comment he made following the vote, as reported by the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat:

Building the bridge eliminates two future sources of cash, Shiner said.

He estimated 10 Ordnance St. — the property where the bridge’s centre columns would be placed — could fetch more than $50 million if sold, while the Wellington St. city-owned property where the bridge would start is worth around $20 million to $25 million.

via Pedestrian bridge to Fort York latest casualty of war on waste | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

Translation: why invest in public space and infrastructure when we could just sell it?

You would think that city politicians would have moved past the belief that Toronto’s downtown is little more than a destination. There’s more to our city centre than various weekend attractions and athletic events, things that you load up the car and take the kids to, stopping for dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory.

Downtown is neighbourhoods. Downtown is homes and families and community. Different from the suburbs, sure, but not so different that it should be tossed aside as some rogue other.

With the debate over the waterfront and now this recent killing of the Fort York bridge, we’re starting to see a political climate where the mayor and his allies can’t or won’t look beyond the immediate dollar signs that downtown property represents. They’ll skip out on public spaces in favour of private ones — canyons of condos.

And if those private developments end up choking all the life and character out of downtown neighbourhoods? No big deal. They’ll just find somewhere else to take the family on the weekend.

Apr 11

No Waterfront Gravy

John Lorinc has done a hell of a job staying on top of the Waterfront Toronto story since the mayor and his pals started their assault last week. His latest column at Spacing serves as an incredibly well-researched defence for the agency and its work:

The remarkable point about all this back channel maneuvering is that the target of their opprobrium, Waterfront Toronto, has been scrupulously, and sometimes frustratingly, transparent about the way it has gone about its business.

They consult relentlessly, follow regulatory procedures to the letter, expose their plans to extensive public and professional scrutiny, and rely on a meticulous approach to procurement, which is how they’ve attracted, in the past three years, developers with very deep pockets, including Houston-based Hines, one of the world’s largest real estate firms, with $23 billion in property assets.

Despite the mayor’s wearying rhetoric about sole-sourcing and respect for taxpayers, the brothers’ boundless contempt for public process and transparency continues to astonish, and stands in stark contrast to the way WT operates.

via LORINC: Let’s Play Ball with the Waterfront (Again)! « Spacing Toronto.

So well said.

Apr 11

The mayor wants to sell the waterfront

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On Friday, in a scrum following another community clean-up photo op, the mayor confirmed that the city was looking at pulling out of Waterfront Toronto. “I have a problem with the money we’re spending and the results we’re getting from them,” he said.

Here’s the short version of what I believe is going on with this story: there is an attempt to ignite a debate about the speed and relative quality of Waterfront Toronto projects. The hope is that this debate will inspire a populist desire for reform which will, in turn, lead to an opportunity to sell off city-owned assets and use the proceeds to balance the city’s operating budget.

How else to explain the all-out assault we’ve seen toward Waterfront Toronto this week from the mayor, his brother, and their assorted hangers-on? Why did Denzil Minnan-Wong take to his Twitter account (seen above) to publicly bash communications staff at Waterfront Toronto for having the gall to defend their work?

The narrative we’re starting to see here is actually very similar to the one that marked the TCHC story: demonize an agency as wasteful, whip up populist support for reform — without actually conducting an investigation or working through the necessary processes — and, finally, enact policy that makes it easier to sell-off or privatize things.

The difference, of course, is that the TCHC narrative began with an actual scandal.

Doug Ford’s conversation with the Globe & Mail’s Marcus Gee about his “vision” for the waterfront is worth reading, as it’s completely off-the-wall ridiculous:

Doug Ford has a vision: a football stadium on the waterfront. He says the NFL stadium might be built on the site of the abandoned Hearn generating plant in the underdeveloped Portlands.

The stadium would be the anchor for a massive redevelopment of the Portlands that would “turn this dump site into a wow factor.” It would include dramatically designed residential buildings and high-end retailers such as Macy’s department store. A monorail elevated transit system would link it to downtown.

via Doug Ford sees stadium in waterfront’s future – The Globe and Mail.

He also proposes a giant Ferris wheel. Because how better to define our city on the world stage than to steal that thing that London has?

Any discussion of the relative quality or progress of Waterfront Toronto’s projects only serves to distract from the real intent. If the Fords wanted to put their own stamp on the future of these projects, they would have at least attempted to meet with Waterfront Toronto. To talk about their issues with timeline and scope. Instead, Rob Ford has missed every meeting the agency has held.

Worse, the conversations we’ve had this week have spooked the private sector developers who are involved.

The big not-so-secret about development in areas currently controlled by Waterfront Toronto is that these are former industrial sites, in many cases built on landfill. The soil is contaminated. Flooding is hugely problematic. Engineering and construction work are challenging in the best of cases.

Without public sector involvement and support, the private sector is not going to build the kinds of things we’d like to see in these areas.

Anyone who looks at the history of these sites knows as much. In the 1980s, the provincial government had a plan to take the land they owned in the West Don Lands — a very similar area to the Port Lands — and build an affordable housing neighbourhood modelled after the successful one in the St. Lawrence area. They called it Ataratiri, because vowels are great. The money required to clean up the area never materialized. The Bob Rae government put the land up for sale to the private sector. (For about 30 million — a far cry from the hundreds of millions we’ve heard the private sector would pay.) No buyers materialized; no one wanted to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the land and making it developable.

In 1997, the Mike Harris government got desperate and did find a buyer. Without any consultation, negotiations began to sell the land to a developer who would use it for a horse racing track. Only after a wave of opposition was this sale halted.

This is the kind of thing the private sector is willing to do if we sell this land on the open market: build cheap, achievable projects that can turn a quick profit. We can help them do that, or we can continue on the sensible track we’re on, which is already beginning to pay dividends. Using public investment to make these lands more appropriate for neighbourhood development and working with the private sector to design and build world-class projects will see a return on investment that could define this city for decades to come.

The alternative, I suppose, is to go with the private sector and bet it all on the horses.

You can read this 2006 story from The Bulletin for a decent summation of the history of the West Don Lands and the provincial government’s attempt to sell the land to the private sector. Resident Cynthia Wilkey was one of the leaders in opposing the development, and it was her message to the Corktown Residents Google Group that partly inspired me to research and write this story.

Apr 11

The budget knives come out for waterfront development

Natalie Alcoba and Peter Kuitenbrouwer, in what I have to imagine is a story being pushed by someone  at City Hall:

Frustration with the pace and pricey bureaucracy of redeveloping Toronto’s port lands has got Mayor Rob Ford’s administration wondering if the city can sell off some of its own parcels separate from the agency that has been guiding transformation on the lake shore.

The federal, Ontario and city governments created Waterfront Toronto in 2001 as the “master planner and lead developer” on 52 hectares of prime real estate that had historically been the domain of industry. Of that land, Toronto owns 56%, the Toronto Port Authority 24%, and 20% is in the hands of the private sector.

via Waterfront Toronto is moving too slowly: critics | Posted Toronto | National Post.

Selling off parcels of land — removing them from the purview of Waterfront Toronto — is an insane suggestion, likely driven by a need to find saleable assets that can help bring down next year’s budget gap. While progress on the waterfront is not visible to those who don’t, you know, visit the waterfront, those who have actually gone down to look at the progress have to acknowledge that significant headway has been made.

Simply selling off land to the private sector without following an integrated plan for development will lead to the same mistakes that were made with the central and western waterfront — soulless condo towers with no neighbourhood feel.

In an interview with the Globe & Mail’s Lisa Rochon this weekend, architect Moshe Safdie was asked about the mistakes Toronto made with its initial waterfront development. He said:  “Back in the 1980s, Toronto’s waterfront was developed intensely and generated extraordinary taxes but it wasn’t invested into infrastructure that could make a difference.”

Someone in the mayor’s office must have only read as far as “extraordinary taxes” before stopping.

Damn near the entire cast of characters is quoted in the Post article. Peter Milczyn posits that selling off city-owned land will help to “accelerate” the project. Through magic. Denzil Minnan-Wong rages about “squandered money on consultants” and “sole-sourced” arrangements and projects. Which seems like a hell of an accusation to make unless you’ve got evidence to back it up.

Doug Holyday, meanwhile, is mad because too many of the planners who work on the project make more than $100,000 per year. Because if there’s one place you want to cheap out on talent, it’s the planning and execution of billion-dollar waterfront redevelopment. Just hire a bunch of students to do it!

Even the mayor’s press secretary, Adrienne Batra, piles on, showing just how big a target they’ve made these projects. “I think there is certainly a good opportunity for development in the area, and absolutely we want to see the private sector involved,” she says, presumably ignoring that private sector companies are already involved at many levels, including planning, architecture and construction.

The article notes that despite asking to retain a seat on the Waterfront Toronto board, Ford has skipped every meeting. During the election, Ford told the Post editorial board that the city could not afford to spend any money on Waterfront development.

This reads like the first shot in a concentrated attempt to vilify an organization before gutting their support and funding. Disgusting and sad.


Mar 11

Waterfront ‘gem’ is no hologram

The National Post’s Chris Selley takes a look at the eastern part of Toronto’s Waterfront, which is way better than most people realize:

The next leading contender for Mr. Miller’s primary legacy is probably that Holy Grail of municipal improvement — waterfront redevelopment. It wasn’t Mr. Miller’s baby like Transit City was, but it did start to pick up steam in his second term. I don’t think many people have really noticed. I didn’t really notice myself until a waterfront-themed debate during the mayoral campaign, when George Smitherman suggested things were looking pretty darn good on the urban shore of Lake Ontario. I took a skeptical walk in the rain and ended up both wet and rather impressed.

via Chris Selley: Miller’s waterfront development more impressive than you think | Posted Toronto | National Post.

The work being done by Waterfront Toronto really is impressive. The proposed underpass park for the West Don Lands, set to begin construction soon, is the kind of big-sort-of-crazy thinking we could use more of in this city. Even through this period of budgetary challenges, we have to keep building this city.

Rob Ford has continuously voted against waterfront development. At a Waterfront debate held last year, his only concrete idea for the area was the removal of the Queen’s Quay streetcar, to be replaced with buses. Also more parking.