Redevelopment of Toronto’s eastern waterfront, notably the “Port Lands” area southeast of Lake Shore and Parliament, was the first of many issues on which the Ford brothers’ vision for our future ran headlong into voters and Councillors. A fantasy of malls, Ferris wheels and a monorail did not fit with previous schemes for a naturalized river mouth at the Don and a well-designed residential/commercial neighbourhood. That battle ended with Council voting to send the whole design question off for review, a process now nearing its completion.
Waterfront Toronto has a separate website for the public consultation process behind this review.
From a transit perspective, plans for the eastern waterfront are a mess.
Development of Queen’s Quay east is well underway and the area’s population is just starting to grow.
South of Queen’s Quay along the water’s edge:
- The Corus Quay building east of Jarvis is now occupied. It begins a strip of develoment reaching east to the Don.
- George Brown College sits in the next block over to Lower Sherbourne Street. It will open for students in fall 2012, and the TTC plans improved service on 6 Bay and, to a lesser extent, 75 Sherbourne to handle demand to this site. (Scroll down to the end of this article for details.)
- Next to the east lies Sherbourne Common park.
- East of the Common stretching to Parliament is the Bayside development now in design.
North of Queen’s Quay:
- A very large block of land from Yonge to Jarvis is now in the preliminary stages of planning. The parking lot north of the Toronto Star building (east side of Yonge) will be redeveloped, and the large block of land owned by the LCBO will become available when they move their warehouse out of this prime downtown property. The Loblaws site at Jarvis makes a logical completion of the block. Given the densities approved west of Yonge, this superblock is likely to see very tall buildings at least on its western side.
- The Monde condominium project lies east of Sherbourne Common.
- Additional developments are likely in the future replacing older low-rise buildings.
This just gets us to Parliament Street where a first leg of a proposed Waterfront east LRT line would have its temporary terminal. The line is beset by problems notably a lack of funding and a complete absence of any sense of urgency to provide “transit first” to a rapidly developing area. “Transit” will be little more than a bus, although with luck it will have its own right-of-way, one that should be built for easy conversion to LRT in the future.
The estimated cost of this LRT is $250-million, small change beside the billions in rapid transit projects elsewhere, but the line is snarled in the politics of waterfront funding — a tangle of federal, provincial, city and private sector income. Work should be underway to expand Union Station Loop as part of the overall station expansion program, but instead this will be done as a separate future project thanks to a lack of co-ordination and no sense of the work’s importance. The situation long precedes the Ford era at City Hall, although the current anti-transit climate offers little improvement.
Construction in the West Don Lands (Parliament to the Don, south of King to the rail corridor) is well underway with many private and public sector projects. A large segment of this is the Athletes’ Village for the 2015 Pan Am Games. These buildings will convert to residential use after the games.
On Cherry Street, we will eventually see a spur line off of the King streetcar running in its own transit lanes on the east side of the street. However, this will not begin operation until after the games. Physical construction is already underway, and the transit way should start taking shape later in 2012, at least south from Eastern Avenue to the temporary terminal loop north of the rail corridor. When the segment from Eastern north connecting into King Street will be built is unclear.
Connecting the Cherry and East Bayfront lines together looks simple on a map (they are only short blocks apart), but this is tangled in the future of the mouth of the Don River and funding for the Port Lands redevelopment. The original plan for the Lower Don Lands include a realignment of the streets at Cherry, Queen’s Quay and Lake Shore, but as this is to be funded out of the Port Lands scheme, when the two LRT lines might hook up is anyone’s guess.
Despite the barrier formed by the rail and road corridors, this is one big neighbourhood, not two, and good transit service to the rest of the city is essential. A good analogy would be to remember how remote the western waterfront community felt until the Spadina and Harbourfront services began operating.
The Port Lands cover a huge site (400 hectares, 988 acres) that is not even part of most Torontonians’ mental maps of their city. Stretching south from Lake Shore Boulevard from the eastern harbour to Ashbridges Bay (Leslie Street), it covers the equivalent of a block bounded by Yonge, Queen, Bathurst and Bloor.
Much of the Ford vs Council debate last fall (and the rejigging of Waterfront Toronto’s plans this spring) turned on the premise that the Port Lands should be developed quickly to maximize revenue to the City of Toronto which owns, one way or another, much of the land. This tactic follows the Ford style of selling off whatever assets may be available for short-term gain rather than investing in the site for long-term benefit to the City.
A revised design for the mouth of the Don replaces a large chunk of parkland with development parcels. The tradeoff is to reduce the cost of realigning the river through a simplified design while also freeing up more prime land for sale. Community reaction to this has not been positive, but the real question for Council will be how to finance the larger scale of parkland in the original plan.
From a transit point of view, the important issues are the location and rate of build-out of development. At least three types of neighbourhood — residential, commercial and entertainment — are likely, but these each will generate different types of transit demand. If the Port Lands are developed piecemeal and transit is not in place before people move in, the transit habit will be harder to develop after the fact. This is not a place for the typical TTC approach of providing barely enough service as and when a would-be rider shows up.
The contrast between the waterfront and hopes for and development of the Sheppard subway corridor could not be more striking. On Sheppard, many are prepared to invest billions on a “build it and they will come” premise, while on the waterfront, Toronto cannot find a few hundred millions to serve a real and massive new development already underway.
An analysis by Waterfront Toronto of the size, scope and timing for development of the Port Lands gives a good overview of the situation at this site. (The consultation website contains other presentations worth reviewing for background on various aspects of the Port Lands history and future development.)
The analysis begins with various maps showing the relative size of major development areas in Toronto and other cities. It is important to understand that this is not a small site on an international scale. This affects both the timeframe for development and the complexity of transportation requirements.
Broadly speaking, the proposed land use places the residential component on the west side of the Port Lands taking advantage of the inner harbour and using a realigned Cherry Street as the main north-south road and transit spine. To the northeast, the land use would be primarily commercial and would reinforce the Film Studio district already in place. The lands to the south would be primarily parkland and recreational uses.
From a transit point of view, concentrating residential development around Cherry Street will support the proposed LRT line, provided that the TTC actually builds and operates it in anticipation of the development rather than as an afterthought. However, this brings transit only to the northwest portion of the site, and begs the question of how service will be provided to commercial and recreational lands far from the Cherry Street LRT.
The TTC may be coaxed into building trackage east along Commissioners from Cherry to serve the commercial developments and, as a convenient add on, provide an alternate route to Ashbridge Carhouse at Leslie Street. However, a line running down to, say, the existing Hearn Generating Station site is quite another matter. The best this can hope for in the short to medium term is a bus service.
Overall, the likely demand for new development (based on absorption rates into the Toronto real estate market) would at best consume 1/5 of the Port Lands area over the next two decades.
Almost two thirds (60%) of the residential demand can be handled by parcels north of the Keating Channel at the extreme northwest corner of the site. The corresponding percentages for other land uses are 50% for commercial space and 150% for retail space. These lands are not even formally part of the Port Lands.
Similarly, development of the lands closest to the eastern harbour would satisfy more than 100% of the residential and retail demand for 20 years. The next blocks to the east (still west of the Don River itself) would add to the excess. At this point, the scale of development would still be below 25% of the total Port Lands site.
A related question is whether all of the lands shown as residential blocks in the most recent plan should, in fact, remain in that state. Originally, a more complex Don River mouth and an extensive park system occupied some of this land. Given that the Port Lands are huge, why are we giving away the best sites to condos rather than public space on the waterfront? Any transit plans will have to adjust to the land use scheme Council adopts later this year.
Missing from the Waterfront Toronto analysis is any sense of the demand buildup on transit (and roads) that will be triggered by various stages of development on Queen’s Quay East and in the Port Lands. We know the end-state requirements, but not the timing for each phase of the build-out. What infrastructure should be built today, in advance of development, for transit rather than appearing as an afterthought? Will the TTC plan for enough buses and streetcars? What are the limitations on buses and streetcars to handle demand from the eastern waterfront and deliver riders to the core area and the subway system?
Already, developers on Queen’s Quay who expected an LRT to be in place for their new buildings are complaining that the City and Waterfront Toronto have short-changed them. People buy condos on the premise of living close to downtown with good transit, but that’s not what they can see simply by looking at the street and the ongoing debates between various agencies on transit and traffic operations.
For far too long, waterfront transit has escaped being part of the mainstream of debate at Council and the TTC. Both Toronto’s Transit City and Metrolinx’ The Big Move ignored the eastern waterfront. The “subways vs LRT” battle focused on suburban routes and neighbourhoods.
Recent experience shows us that Toronto Council can have mature, well-informed debates about transit. This quality and detail must now turn to the long-ignored problems of waterfront development.