Are We Losing the Eastern Waterfront?

Most Torontonians know we have a lake and its better-known attractions such as Harbourfront, the stadium, Exhibition Place, and of course the wall of condos stretching from Yonge to beyond Bathurst.  However, the Eastern Waterfront isn’t part of the “mental map” many people in Toronto carry around.

For the past century, the lands east of Yonge, and particularly those south of Lake Shore and east of the Don River, have been industrial properties known only to those who work there, the neighbouring communities, intrepid explorers, and visitors to a few clubs and supermarkets.  The size and potential of the space — as big as the existing downtown — simply don’t register as part of “Toronto”.

Waterfront Toronto has plans to change all of that and, in the process, to undo some of the disastrous choices of the past century.  Developments proceed along Queen’s Quay, and there is much more to come, but even these get us only to the Don River.  The big prize is the Don River mouth and the port lands to the southeast.

Plans to redesign Queen’s Quay, reducing it to a two-lane road with cycling and pedestrians replacing cars where the eastbound roadway now lies, are threatened.  Mayor Ford’s desire to maximize capacity for road users may sabotage a scheme many years in the making.

There was a time when “transit first” was the defining call for waterfront development, and the eastern branch of the Harbourfront streetcar was planned as an integral element in the build-out east from downtown.  As with so many great schemes, this has run aground on funding limitations at Waterfront Toronto and substantial growth in TTC cost estimates.

The proposed line on Cherry Street that was to serve development in the West Don Lands, may not be built for several years because of concern that it might impede Pan Am Games related development, the very development it was intended to serve.

The worst knot in the transit scheme lies at the tangle of roads where Cherry, Lake Shore, Queen’s Quay and Parliament all meet around the mouth of the Don.  Sorting this out was to be part of the plan for creation of parkland and flood control at the Don, but this project has no funding, and no burning interest from any level of government.

From a transit perspective, it’s as if the Spadina car ended at King Street, and there were no Harbourfront car on Queen’s Quay.  This is no way to develop a transit-oriented neighbourhood.

Waterfront Toronto is under attack from some in Mayor Ford’s circle.  Yesterday, John Campbell, president and CEO, appeared on Metro Morning commenting on some criticisms.  He was rather diplomatic in saying that the debate is simply a matter of a new government finding its legs and learning what’s really going on.  The problem with this outlook is that many in Ford’s inner circle have been on Council for some time.  Whether they actually paid attention to Waterfront Toronto, or saw it only as one more Miller legacy to be dismantled, is hard to say.

The real agenda becomes much clearer when one reads Councillor Doug Ford’s musings about waterfront development.  That prize I mentioned earlier, a piece of land roughly equivalent to the block bounded by Yonge, Bathurst, Bloor and Queen, is lusted over by many public agencies and not a few developers.  This is an ideal time, after all, to hope for a municipal fire sale.  The city wants to liquidate its assets, and developers would love to get a free hand to build on the eastern lake shore in the same unfettered manner we have already seen west of Yonge Street.

Ford thinks the city should not be in the development business, but fails to understand that the whole Waterfront Toronto scheme was to provide the infrastructure and the overall design that would increase land values and build the foundation of a new downtown neighbourhood.  That’s not something any private developer, concerned only for the land he develops and the immediate neighbourhood, cares about or will invest in.  A beautiful park would make him money, but he wants the public sector to pay for it.

Another wrinkle comes from the competing agendas of agencies such as Infrastructure Ontario and the Port Lands corporation who would love to elbow Waterfront Toronto aside and develop their lands without the overburden of regional planning and design goals.  The idea of a waterfront park, of wetlands, cycling and pedestrian realms, isn’t embraced by those who see only acreage and more development.  Indeed, some would simply channel the river and build over it rather than exploit what it could be as the focus of public open space.

Worst of all is the City of Toronto’s appetite for money.  Much of the improvement in the waterfront was to be funded from proceeds of development, but if this is scooped by the City to pay down debt, or to fund pet projects like the Sheppard Subway, the ugly, inaccessible waterfront will remain, and the land will be lost to public hands forever.  If we sell quick and cheap, we gain a short term pile of cash, but leave the bulk of future appreciation in private hands.  (I cannot help thinking of another cash-strapped, right-wing government that sold Highway 407 in similar circumstances, a sale many have regretted ever since.)

The waterfront is on the edge of the city, and to many it’s as out of sight as Malvern or Rexdale are to downtowners.  Voters want slogans and quick fixes, and only care about the details when they are personally affected.  Do we want a beautiful waterfront?  Do people even care?  Will we wake up in ten years asking “how did this happen”?