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.