Toronto’s election is now in full swing. Testy candidates fling mud and announce what passes for platforms.
On the transit front, the three big debates seem to be how many subways can fit within a single announcement, and how much transit service will remain after a review of the so-called fiscal irresponsibility at the TTC. And, o yes, what to do about our streetcars.
One big topic everyone has missed in all of the debates and counter-claims is transit to the waterfront. Consider the land from east of the Don to the west end of Exhibition Place, not to mention the long-term potential of southern Etobicoke and Scarborough. The room for development dwarfs what is now “downtown” Toronto. What will we build there? How will people move around? Will we have downtown densities with suburban transit? Will we invest in the waterfront and show that “Transit First” is more than a slogan?
Toronto is a “city of neighbourhoods”, a fine motto, and with luck the new waterfront communities will extend the fine-grained street life we see in the “old” city including its already redeveloped areas like the “two Kings” and the St. Lawrence. Waterfront Toronto’s plans for the water’s edge and for a totally redesigned, transit, cyclist and pedestrian focussed Queen’s Quay will be wonderful if we pull it off, if the money doesn’t run out, if the will to build streets for people, not for cars, survives the coming election.
So far, there are few stirring speeches, visions for our future lakefront, commitments to see beyond individual developments to an overall design. A review of the waterfront lands is a worthwhile topic for a new article and, no doubt, a robust discussion.
West Don Lands, East Bayfront and Lower Don Lands
The eastern waterfront plans lie within the realm of Waterfront Toronto and their site is full of information on what may happen. The single biggest problem is money. Once upon a time, the governments who fund Waterfront Toronto (Ottawa, Queen’s Park, City of Toronto) hoped that ongoing development would be self-sustaining. New developments would bring new revenues to pay for new infrastructure. With the economic downturn, things have not quite worked out that way (a salutary lesson for those who see development as the golden goose for transit and infrastructure spending elsewhere).
On the waterfront, the City has a “Transit First” policy that approves high densities on the assumption that good transit will be in place to serve the new offices and residents. Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen. Investing in the city is challenging, especially when two or three separate governments have to agree on what will be done.
First up is the West Don Lands bounded by the Don River, King Street, Parliament and the rail corridor. Work is already underway on the first development in this area, River City, and much more is to come. This area will also house the Pan Am Games Athletes’ Village, a future residential community for Toronto. Transit service will initially be provided by a branch off of the King streetcar line running south on Cherry to the railway with a temporary loop just north of the Cherry Street Tower and opposite the east end of the Distillery District.
A tentative construction schedule for this area is:
- October 2010 to June 2011: relocation of utilities to the west side of Cherry Street to avoid conflict with the new transit corridor on the east side
- April to December 2011: roadwork from King to Eastern
- July 2011 to August 2012: roadwork from Eastern to Mill
- April 2011 to August 2012: roadwork from Mill to the rail corridor
Streetcar operation will begin in fall 2012. All of this is subject to change as plans are finalized.
The East Bayfront lies south of Lake Shore Blvd from Jarvis to Parliament, at least from the point of view of project naming. The Central Waterfront extends west from Jarvis all the way to Bathurst, but from a transit and development point of view, the major work is east of Bay Street. When people think about the “east” side of the waterfront, Yonge Street is the natural divider.
Much of the land here is slated for redevelopment, some of which is underway such as the Corus building and George Brown College. Redpath Sugar will remain as a reminder of the old industrial waterfront, but it will be surrounded by new commercial, residential and park spaces.
The proposed Harbourfront East streetcar/LRT will extend from the existing Queen’s Quay station a short distance underground and then rise through a new portal between Yonge and Freeland Streets. With the new design of Queen’s Quay, it will run between a narrowed roadway to the north of the streetcar, and a pedestrian and cycling area to the south. In the short term, the line will end at a loop near Parliament Street.
The status of this line is unclear thanks to funding problems. A recent City planning report states a requirement only that Waterfront Toronto have transit in place sufficient for development by July 2013. That will almost certainly be buses.
Waterfront Toronto has $150-million earmarked for this line, but the remainder will come from the TTC who are working on design and will manage the construction. A further $137-million from Waterfront Toronto is reserved for the Union Station loop expansion (see below). We may have a better sense of proposed TTC scheduling when their capital budget comes out in late September, but everything is subject to overall funding challenges and the whims/prejudices of the new Council and Mayor.
The vital link missing from these plans is a connection between Cherry Street and Queen’s Quay so that a single streetcar/LRT could operate between the two neighbourhoods. That link depends on the Lower Don Lands scheme which is not yet funded. Here is Waterfront Toronto’s feedback on this matter:
There is no capital funding currently for implementing the Lower Don Lands plan. However, Waterfront Toronto expects to allocate additional funds so that planning and design work can continue with the goal of having a “shovel ready” project with which to seek additional government funding. Waterfront Toronto is also preparing a business and implementation plan over the next one to two years that will study alternative models of financing the project.
It is expected that it will be developed in phases over a period of 10-25 years. Details of the phasing will be developed as part of the business and implementation plan. The Queens Quay and Cherry Street extensions are expected to be implemented before the Lower Don Lands.
In the first phase, the Queens Quay line will extend to Parliament Street, and the Cherry Street line down to Mill Street. Connecting the two lines and extending them will take place at a later time, as this will require modifications to the Cherry Street underpass, the realignment of Cherry Street, the filling of the end of Parliament Slip to allow the road and transit to continue east, and funding that is not currently in place.
Therefore connecting the two new legs will take place when the Lower Don Lands work begins.
Union Station Loop
Union Station Loop was built for the Harbourfront 509 car (once known as the 604). The loop has been inadequate since it opened, but remains as a monument to the stubbornness of TTC engineering who grossly overestimated its capacity and underestimated demand at this location. Among the shortcomings:
- In calculating platform capacity, the TTC included a substantial area that is unavailable or of marginal safety due to swingout of cars going around the tight loop.
- In calculating capacity of the passageway between the loop and the Union Station mezzanine, the TTC made no allowance for bidirectional flow, nor for the fact that the queue of waiting passengers regularly backs up into the corridor. The barrier in the middle of the corridor was added to channel the flows, but the capacity crunch remains.
In the revised loop, new tracks and platforms are added outside of the existing structure although the loop at the north end remains. The passageway is widened, and it connects directly to the new south platform at Union subway station as well as the new lower concourse within the railway station. Passengers will now board and alight from streetcars on straight sections of platform, and moving cars will no longer conflict with pedestrians.
The timing of this loop’s reconstruction is uncertain and is affected both by the date when a Harbourfront East line would open as well as the construction projects at Union rail and subway stations.
The Port Lands
The Port Lands are an immense area south and east of those portions of the waterfront most people see regularly. At 400 hectares (988 acres) these lands are roughly equivalent to a block bounded by Yonge, Bloor, Bathurst and Queen. However, they are oddly shaped and much harder to reach.
Eventually, rail transit will cross into this area (again, this work depends in part on the Lower Don Lands scheme to realign roads at the Cherry, Lake Shore, Parliament, Queen’s Quay junction), but in the medium term we won’t see anything more than a bus. The 72A Pape route now serves the northwestern part of these lands with a summer extension south to Cherry Beach, but transit service to these lands is rather sparse.
The proposed hockey arena would be located here, and will no doubt spur some debate about transit access. Although hockey players tend to come by car at odd hours and be burdened with equipment, other uses for this arena may require better transit service. However, the buildout of development in the Port Lands is so far off, compared with lands closer to downtown, that nobody is really thinking seriously about transit for this area.
The Gardiner Expressway
Waterfront Toronto is conducting an Environmental Assessment of a proposal to replace the Gardiner Expressway between Jarvis and the Don River with an at-grade road or with an alternative form of elevated or underground expressway. This is a major issue for political candidates and is viewed by some as the most striking element of the “war on the car”. What is often lost in this discussion are some basic facts that led to the proposal in the first place.
- This is not about demolishing the entire expressway, only the portion east of Jarvis. This structure is much wider than is necessary to handle current traffic as it was built for the combined demands of the Don Valley Parkway and the never-build Scarborough Expressway.
- The Gardiner runs close to the rail corridor and is part of the same physical barrier between the main part of the city and the waterfront. Bringing it down to grade level from the Don to Jarvis would eliminate the need to maintain the structure and would lessen its effect on lands further south that are slated for development.
- Other options include putting the Gardiner underground, or rebuilding the elevated structure at a scale appropriate to the capacity required to serve the DVP/Gardiner link.
An at-grade Gardiner would have to mesh with the planned local road changes in the Lower Don Lands (see above) and would interact with traffic on north-south streets such as Sherbourne. At this point, it is unclear which arrangement, all things considered, would be ideal. Although the proposal has come under much fire, I believe that the EA should continue if only to get all of the options and implications of various designs on the table to allow informed debate.
Out at the east end of the Port Lands, the TTC’s proposed Ashbridge Carhouse at the southeast corner of Leslie and Lake Shore stirred up a hornet’s nest with local residents and Councillors. This project is an essential part of the new streetcar order, but there is no indication of any funding to build it beyond what might be found within the TTC’s capital budget. That, as I wrote elsewhere, is constrained by the peculiarities of capital transit financing and support from all levels of government.
Through the discussion of both the site and the access to it via Leslie from Queen, it became clear that the ideal location would have been the Lever property just east of the Don south of Eastern Avenue, but the TTC had gone too far down the road with Ashbridge and timelines for getting the new carhouse built were very tight.
This project will be one of the critical items to watch when the new Council debates about the TTC’s 10-year capital planning.
The Central Waterfront and Railway Lands
Once upon a time, the land south of Front (indeed south of King west of Simcoe) and the waterfront was filled with rail yards, the remnants of Toronto’s port and a lot of vacant land. Now it looks as if some passing deity scattered a bag of condo seeds over the neighbourhood.
Transit is still trying to catch up, and city designers are all too aware that the original version of the waterfront left much to be desired. The Harbourfront streetcar line opened in 1990, a shuttle from Union Station to Spadina & Queen’s Quay, joined in 1997 by the Spadina car and the Harbourfront extension west to Bathurst in 2000. Waterfront Toronto’s design competition brought us many beautiful pictures with Queen’s Quay transformed into an oasis of pedestrians, cyclists, transit and a few lanes for cars. A wonderful vision, but as usual one compromised by funding.
The Harbourfront line, Toronto’s first attempt at “LRT” since the decision to keep streetcars back in 1972, is less than ideal. Union Loop (see above) has always been an undersized, unpleasant place to connect with what should be a shiny, new, attractive line. TTC’s line management on Spadina treats Queen’s Quay as a place streetcars might go now and then, provided they don’t have to short turn, and service can be rather spotty. Years after the line opened, the combination of frequent stops, crossings and traffic lights don’t give the fastest ride on the system, and at major locations such as the crossings with Lake Shore, road traffic still dominates transit.
Waterfront Toronto’s Queen’s Quay project will completely change the look and feel of that street and pull together the many islands of good, but hidden design along the water’s edge. Alas, like so much else in Toronto, this project has funding problems. The money available will not allow completion of the full first phase from Bathurst to Bay. Design work is now underway to determine which 800-metre stretch would be most appropriate. Construction will begin early in 2011.
While the TTC’s streetcar tracks are rebuilt and, in some cases, relocated, the Harbourfront line will be shut down and replaced with buses. This work will replace some of the last “thunder track” left on the streetcar system from the era when rails were laid in concrete, welding was an afterthought, and noisy, disintegrating trackbeds the norm.
The area from York through to Yonge is a problem on Queen’s Quay visually and for transit service. The street is surrounded by dull buildings giving little care to pedestrian traffic with the Harbour Castle hotel being a particularly offensive example. To the degree possible within the built-up framework, this will change as the south side of Queen’s Quay is pedestrianized. York Street will see a new design, possibly including the replacement of the spiral off-ramp from the Gardiner by a park.
At Bay Street, a scheme to move the streetcars, including the junction for the Harbourfront East line, up to the surface was discussed but rejected because of technical difficulties in placing a new ramp on Bay Street north of Harbour Street, and because of concerns for the interaction of frequent streetcar service with pedestrians just north of the Island Ferry docks.
Bremner and Fort York
West of Spadina, the railway lands are quickly filling with condos and new buildings on Fleet Street strain the Harbourfront car’s abilities during peak periods. The entire area along Bremner and Fort York Boulevards, Bathurst and Fleet has seen much ad-hoc planning and a poor integration of transit with a fast-developing residential community.
This all began with the 1990 proposal for the Waterfront West LRT line. What we have to date is the Harbourfront extension from Spadina to Bathurst, and the reconfigured Fleet Street west to Strachan. However, once that was in place, the TTC realized that they had build a local streetcar line, not an LRT, and traffic signal problems, especially at Bathurst, Fleet and Lake Shore, would constrain the route’s capacity.
A parallel scheme using Bremner and Fort York Boulevards has floated around in the background rarely showing up on maps and almost never discussed when larger transit schemes and funding are at issue. A staff report and Commission approval were hurriedly pushed through in June 2008 to get this idea “on the table” as part of the MoveOntario2020 scheme.
The line would begin at Union Station (provision for it is shown on the station plan linked above), would run underground through the north edge of the Air Canada Centre and then swing south at Simcoe to reach Bremner. At this point things get tricky.
The line could emerge in a portal to run on the surface, but this would be through the area just south of the Dome where pedestrian traffic can be quite intense. A grade crossing with the Spadina car would make that intersection even busier and more challenging for transit, and the right-of-way kept on Fort York Boulevard west of Spadina is barely wide enough for the streetcar tracks let alone any platforms.
When the line reaches Bathurst, the level at which Fort York approaches from the east is lower than the existing bridge structure. A major, as-yet unresolved controversy, involves the Bathurst Street bridge where the TTC wants two new lanes as part of a new transit right-of-way on the wider south end of Bathurst.
West from Bathurst, the TTC wants to continue the Bremner line along Fort York Boulevard, a street that was originally designed as the auto traffic bypass for the Lake Shore intersection, through a parking lot behind the Armoury at Strachan Avenue and into Exhibition Loop from the northeast. This arrangement interferes with Fort York’s planned redevelopment including a new visitor centre and parking relocated from the fort site itself to the land behind the Armoury. In the long term, the Fort hopes to integrate all of the lands down to Fleet Street including the Armoury building itself once the Department of National Defence decamps sometime in the next decade.
Exhibition Place and Ontario Place
The CNE and its comparatively upstart neighbour, Ontario Place, don’t have the greatest history of support for transit. The original Exhibition Loop (seen here in a 1933 photo from the City Archives) stood on lands now occupied by the National Trade Centre (now known as the Direct Energy Centre). A scheme to put the loop in the Centre’s basement was rejected as too costly, and transit service was relegated to the north end of the site under the Gardiner Expressway.
In its original form, the WWLRT would have created a major transit terminal at Ontario Place. This scheme ran aground on the combined opposition to the use of Lake Shore as a transit corridor and Ontario Place’s desire to preserve their parking lot. The right-of-way we now have on Fleet Street is a remnant of this plan, shifted north to serve the new Exhibition Loop, but of little use to lands further south. Putting transit where people actually wanted to go was not a high priority.
By the time of the most recent review of alignments, the WWLRT was firmly entrenched on the north edge of the CNE site, well out of the way. Option 1 in blue on the linked map is the preferred route. It is direct, presuming that the goal is to get through the CNE as fast as possible, but it is remote from the more attractive south end of the site.
In the past year, Exhibition Place has started to rethink itself with a proposed hotel on the Lake Shore frontage. This is the obvious place for any redevelopment being the most attractive land. Meanwhile, Ontario Place also contemplates a redesign. Where is the transit planning? Nowhere to be found.
The City, TTC and Queen’s Park need to rethink the role of transit to Exhibition Place and Ontario Place with a view to making them truly accessible, especially along the waterfront. Those who would visit the new developments, attend events for which the sites exist, should not have to pick their way through whatever maze blocks the path from Exhibition Loop to the lake, or brave the weather for a trek longer than we would expect of riders anywhere else in the city.
The Western Waterfront
The City of Toronto approved the Western Waterfront Master Plan in August 2009, but like so many wonderful ideas, it lacks funding. Transit plans for the area ran headlong into the TTC’s scheme for the Waterfront West LRT.
In the TTC version, the line would link into The Queensway just west of Roncesvalles making this an even more complex intersection than today. The City (at least the version of it under David Miller) prefers that the line run via a redesigned Lake Shore Boulevard and link with The Queensway at Colborne Lodge Road (the stop in the centre of High Park).
Neither of these is likely to see construction soon as the WWLRT is not high on anyone’s priority list. Sadly, the TTC may bull ahead with the connection at Roncesvalles even though it is inferior and will no doubt worsen already difficult traffic conditions there.
Meanwhile, the long-standing battle for good transit service to southern Etobicoke will continue as the TTC refuses to entertain alternatives to the shoddy service now provided by the 501 Queen car, and the local Councillor is more interested in supporting an express bus to downtown than runs almost empty.
The long term issue here is the future of development on Lake Shore west of the Humber River and the nature of transit demand this will produce. Competing GO service in the same corridor attracts some riding by commuters to downtown, but local demand is left with the 501 for east-west travel. The TTC fixates on obtaining a private right-of-way from Humber to Long Branch even though the road is not wide enough over the entire distance, and the service quality makes the idea of “LRT” an open joke.
Toronto is beset by politicians who think one project at a time. They look at one ward, one development, one zinger-of-a-comment in a debate, but they don’t look at the larger issues of planning the city. For decades, the waterfront suffered from planning that treated much of the land as a road corridor and fitted in new developments as political and fiscal capital came available. The past decade brought a glut of new housing, a noble part of the goal of increased downtown densities, but transit did not keep pace.
Toronto risks making the same mistake as many suburbs — creating residential density beyond what the local road system can handle — right in the heart of the city. The true irony is that the cost of many transit proposals on the waterfront is a fraction of various subway or LRT proposals. The distance to be covered is short compared to Eglinton, Sheppard or Finch and the passenger demands will be well within the capability of LRT.
The “Transit City” brand is notable for its absence on much of the waterfront, and Metrolinx’ regional plan focuses on the GO rail corridor leaving Waterfront Toronto to handle the local planning. Much work has been done to show what the waterfront can become, and this must be continued by whoever takes over from the Miller administration. We need the will to build good transit service, to see the waterfront not just as the playground of pampered city folk, but as a vital part of Toronto.