LORINC: Going around and around on new waterfront plans

With Rob Ford’s executive committee set to view brother Doug’s plan to transform the Port Lands into an up-market playground, I’d like to add a pair of counter-narratives to the fractious debate about the latest twist in the waterfront revitalization soap opera.

Counter Narrative 1: Contrary to Doug Ford’s assertions about the ineffectiveness of Waterfront Toronto, the fact that deep-pocketed investors have come ‘a calling confirms the agency has been doing something right. But typically, the brothers are too blinded by partisanship to understand the dynamic that led Westfield to their doorstep.

Had they bothered to do their homework, the brothers would have discovered that in the past two or three years, WT has begun seriously marketing the waterfront to international developers, reeling in the likes of the Hines Company in Texas, a globally-active multi-billion-dollar building conglomerate that has signed on to develop a 1.5 million sq.-ft mixed use on the East Bayfront.

But besides issuing RFPs to the international property market and conducting their own dog and pony shows, WT has consciously put the word out through a far-flung network of architects, planning advisors, economic consultancies and financial advisors. Indeed, if the Fords knew anything at all about development — which they clearly don’t — they’d realize that WT has cleverly exploited Ontario’s cumbersome regulatory approvals process to effectively pre-market the wide array of waterfront opportunities to a lot of very well-connected people.

Want proof? WT’s meticulous work on the West Donlands – precinct planning, soil remediation, flood control protection, public space development – has allowed Infrastructure Ontario to go to the international development industry to find partners capable of building the 10,000-unit PanAm Games athlete’s village. A quick scan of the membership of the three shortlisted groups should confirms that interest in Toronto’s waterfront projects is coming from well beyond Bay Street.

In short, Westfield (the Australian shopping mall developer) and as-yet unnamed office builders are washing up on our shores because of, not despite, WT’s spadework. Broadly speaking, these investors are seizing at opportunities that did not exist previously. More specifically, the mall developer wants to be in the Port Lands because it knows that within a few years, there are going to be an awful lot of people (customers) living very close by. So let’s give credit where credit’s due.

Counter Narrative 2: Contrary to the many critics that have dumped on Doug Ford’s scheme, WT’s development strategy for the Lower Donlands is hardly perfect, even though it offers an ecologically enticing vision for repairing the mouth of the river.

There’s something distinctly Arcadian about the vision developed by Michael Van Valkenberg Associates, which inserts an meandering, bucolic estuary amidst neighbourhoods developed on new promontories on either side of the naturalized river mouth. Besides complaining about the cost – WT estimates that the project would cost $634 million, not including soil remediation expenses – Ford argues that this plan wastes prime real estate that could be put to better use as…a mall. According to the images leaked to The Globe and Mail last week, the new “town centre” would be situated at the east end of the proposed estuary.

The cost issue is something of a red herring: WT will recoup the infrastructure expense with medium density development and elevated real estate values on land in the immediate vicinity of the estuary.

But one can ask legitimate design questions about the Van Valkenberg plan that has formed the basis for the Don mouth environmental assessment, which is currently awaiting approval from the Ontario government.

• Does it promote circulation on the Port Lands or will the proposed configuration create traffic snarls of the sort that now cripple the Concord rail-lands neighbourhood west of Spadina?

• Where are the commercial zones? After all, at-grade retail in condo buildings rarely provide a full range of local amenities.

• And while WT officials always talk in terms of mixed-use, will the plans for the area promote office-type development or other employment uses appropriate to the setting? Let’s not forget that when Robert Fung launched the original vision for the Port Lands in 1999, in the context of an Olympic bid, he saw it as an economic development zone modeled on London’s Canary Wharf.

What’s more, I’d say the sneering counter-reaction to the Ferris wheel proposal is more a function of the Fords’ great talent for polarization than a reasoned response. The waterfront is an absolutely legitimate venue for a high-profile tourist attraction, and always has been – think the CNE, Ontario Place in its heyday, Sunnyside, the original Maple Leaf ballpark at the foot of Bathurst, the islands…. Indeed, a Ferris wheel makes way more sense than the ridiculous Rochester fast ferry scheme advanced when David Miller sat in the mayor’s office.

So is a compromise vision possible?


But what happens next is tremendously important, because if the Fords believe the right thing to do now is to jettison all the work done to date and edit WT out of the process, they’re going to set back the revitalization efforts by a decade.

As I report in this morning’s Globe and Mail, much of the EA – nine years and $19 million in the making – may need to be redone, which won’t happen quickly or inexpensively. Even if the Fords do get their regulatory ducks in a row before the next election, a development application for a big Port Lands mall will almost certainly be challenged at the Ontario Municipal Board. And lest they didn’t know (or weren’t paying attention during the briefing), the OMB nixed a similar plan by Home Depot at the foot of Cherry Street several years ago, which means there’s legal precedent for rejecting low-density-parking intensive uses near the water’s edge.

In other words, the brothers Ford are poised to inadvertently signal to the international development community that political uncertainty continues to batter the long-contested shores of Lake Ontario. Which, of course, means those worldly builders will continue to look elsewhere for opportunities, and nothing will continue to be accomplished.

photo by Wylie Poon


  1. Dear Josh Matlow: THIS is what principled centrism looks like.

    But unfortunately for Mr. Lorinc and the city, it only works when you are dealing with politicians with principles and a willingness to hear thoughts other than the ones in their heads. As John L’s Globe article shows, Doug Ford and presumably the mayor are like bulls in a china shop, charging ahead on gut instinct despite the costly chaos they create. They are the farthest thing from penny-pinching conservatives.

    Until they show the barest respect for transparency and public process, they need a leash, not “engagement.”

  2. The last paragraph sums it up perfectly. A lot will get said, and nothing will happen. Again.

  3. I would agree with a lot of this, but I call out “where are the commercial zones”. Designating a commercial zone will end up encouraging a generic suburban type centre — see Liberty Village.

    Ground-floor retail and provision of local retail services aren’t mutually exclusive — see the FreshCo (Sobey’s) store in the base of one of the new Regent Park buildings, for example. But it may not be what “the market” would necessarily prefer to do on its own, because the planning, design and approvals are more complicated than just designating small-scale generic base floor retail “units”. There must be some sort of framework (whether carrot or stick) to encourage a variety of useful neighbourhood amenities at a local scale.

  4. Brent: Limiting frontage of ground-floor units is a way to encourage that. Instead of one giant Sobeys you’d get a smaller grocery store and other amenities. Even better would be insisting on a dense grid of side-streets with Kensington Market style development rather than super-block condo podiums.

  5. The overall plan may be good – but the process is wrong. Having marketed GTA commercial realty projects and govt lands for over 20 years, I’ve seen great public and private development opportunities rise and fall because of poor marketing or poor process. And I define poor process two ways: either too slow with too many levels of ownership and too many ideas from too many stakeholders; or too fast a process by too few experts. Both a slow or rushed process attracts many enemies -those frustrated by lack of progress or those enraged by back room decision-making and lack of consultative engagement. And let’s remember the real marketers and capital hunters of new developments….our city’s commercial realty brokers. Politicians don’t bring in the visionary investors and big anchor tenants – but the brokers usually do. There’s a lot more tricky port planning yet to do – agree. But at the end of the day, tenants on the arms of their brokers will decide what they want to build and live in since they ultimately are the project cheque writers.

  6. Toronto needs to do something by the waterfront, but what?  Are we going to stick more useless “beaches” long the lake, where you can’t swim, just hang out on sand dumped on cement.

    It would be great if it was one long shoreline that we can put little shops and eateries around, with some sand, and make our own little Venice beach type project, however everyone has their own agenda, and that’s what always messes up city plans..

  7. As someone peripherally involved (stakeholder) in the Mouth-of-the-Don process, let me be clear, I would vociferously oppose any attempt to dumb it down.

    Not only has this city made far too many environmental compromises over he years, the plan that the public now sees is good, but well less than what local eco-minded citizens and groups would have idealized.

    I have no time for a local ‘commercial district’ Its now perfectly clear (whether or not its desirable) than we can, in fact put big box grocery stores and national retailers under condo towers and the like.

    See Longo’s and Sobey’s in Maple Leaf Square and City
    Place respectively. Canadian Tire and Best Buy hide under Ryserson’s business building; and much more is of this sort of development is coming.

    I don’t want to see the Liberty Village mistake with open-air parking and strip-plaza styling, anywhere near my waterfront.


    Finally on the subject of timing, I’m frankly quite happy to let the bulk of the Portlands sit idle a few more years.

    We still need to fund the Queen’s Quay East LRT; and the Queen’s Quay east extension to Cherry Street; and the extension of the yet to built Cherry St, LRT to Queen’s Quay, then further south; and the new Cherry St. GO Station too.

    In other words, we do need to let the infrastructure catch up to the massive building boom now under way.

    The current work will keep the city very busy at least through 2015, if not beyond, the Portlands can wait a year or 2 more, the city will be none the poorer for it.

    As for Giant Ferris Wheels, nothing wrong with those……but I believe we have an underutilized CNE available……

  8. Personally, the developers might end up as landlords leasing out the store fronts. Meaning, chain stores.

  9. To no great surprise, Executive Committee has approved the Port Lands Staff Report. Now to see how Council reacts on Sept 21. To be honest, the Plans look just fine. Its the complete dismissal of public input and following a transparent process that has me so angry about this whole thing.

    I urge anyone who cares about this to write all of the councillors and let them here your voice.

  10. I have the privilege of access to the inside world of New York developers and architects, and let me tell you, the community here in Manhattan knows the Toronto Waterfront, is working on the Toronto Waterfront, and is excited about the Toronto Waterfront.  Make that “was”.  

    The Fords are considered clowns by the professionals here and people are starting to roll their eyes when I mention Toronto.  They know that, much like Rem Koolhaas and Downsview Park, their projects are now going to wither on the vine thanks to the Brothers Ford.  They don’t really care all that much, since they’ve been paid and will now move on to the next city and the next project.  But it’s a very bad turn for Toronto.  

  11. What can one expect in a city where the Planning Department has been used as a tool for councillors for many, many years. All of a sudden, we’re out of the fat and into the fire if the Fords’ plan has no legs. If we had a professionally run Planning Department with some credible leadership things wouldn’t get quite so out of whack. That’s the real difference between all those “world class cities”.

  12. Aside from writing our councilors, how do we oppose the Brother’s Ford handling of the Portlands? Does anyone know if the September 21st meeting will allow public depositions? Are there online petitions? I can’t find any organized opposition group and I know there must be some…

  13. In my dep time yesterday, I converted the thought of Mr. Ford hitting a home run for taxpayers, to actually making the city Homer Run, and then turning it into a Homer Ruin.

    Councillor Vaughan had a good line about not changing horses in mid-stream but having the horse on the other side, and then getting it back to start all over again…

    Yup, Fords in a china shop… and yes, write Councillors, especially the more suburban ones and centrists. And we can hope that this all will make the wheels of the Fords fall off, and it might.

  14. @Miss Kriss – try http://CodeBlueTO.com

    There will be more details about next steps in the coming days.

    CodeBlueTO is “a coalition of individuals, organizations, and groups who have come together in the shared belief that Toronto’s waterfront should be revitalized in the most beautiful, ecologically sensitive, and financially astute ways possible, using processes that are transparent and engage the broader community.”

    On Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/codeblueto

    You can also follow the issue on Twitter with the hash tag: http://twitter.com/#!/search/realtime/%23CodeBlueTO

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