LORINC: I’m feeling crabby about the Ferry Terminal competition

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Maybe it’s the unending winter, but the five short-listed submissions for re-designing the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal/Harbour Square Park site — made public last week on Waterfront Toronto’s blog — left me feeling cold, and I’ve been trying to unpack the sources of my crankiness about the results (so far).

Here’s my first pass at their first pass.

PROCESS

When I look at these elaborate, but admittedly conceptual, proposals, I see a set of ambitious ideas that will easily cost tens of millions of dollars, and probably more. Despite that, neither the City nor Waterfront Toronto have breathed a word about how much might be spent on this ostensibly transformative undertaking.

With all due respect to the more optimistic reviewers who’ve weighed in so far, I don’t accept the premise that brilliant architectural visions will magically unlock the public treasury. Architects may believe they possess that great power, but reality lies elsewhere, and there’s much evidence to confirm my conclusion.

The money question is not incidental, and shouldn’t be treated as such, especially when the waterfront is facing other extremely costly infrastructure outlays. How does the [insert two-to-three-digit number here] million dollar ferry terminal/square plan impact the budgets for the Queen’s Quay LRT ($800 million and counting) or the Don Mouth naturalization ($950 million and counting)? Both will depend heavily on development charges, so does the terminal/square revitalization expenditure come from Section 37 funds, or Section 42 parkland improvement reserves? Or will it compete for dollars with these other undertakings? And if the latter, how will we prioritize? Because we should…

Maybe I’m being simple minded, but no one has explained why we didn’t begin with a number and a time-frame, even rough ones, and then ask interested design firms to develop ideas based on ballpark budgets/phasing schedules.

ENGINEERING

With the exception of one proposal that actually succeeds in diminishing corridor views to the waterfront, the pivotal design assumptions in the rest of these plans is that the tragically-situated tunnel entrance to the two Harbour Square parking lots (one surface, the other a stacked garage) next to the terminal access path be (re)moved, relieving a long-standing obstruction.

Poof! Done. That was easy. Let the crowds flow in unimpeded….

My question is whether anyone at the City or WT has seriously canvassed the engineering/staging/traffic flow problem of relocating the most obdurate feature of that precinct (besides the buildings themselves)? The street wall on the south side of Queen’s Quay along that stretch isn’t exactly awash in alternative locations. And even if there were viable locations, do we know if the property manager/residents will play ball?

The WT fact sheets on the 11.4-acre site reveal little about this point, but I imagine that such an undertaking would involve a lot of cost and disruption. As with the global budget, this isn’t a small problem. It’s a big problem, and it seems to me that WT/City officials should be cautious about raising public expectations without having a reasonably clear sense of what’s logistically possible.

MANDATE

Here’s another fundamental question that should be sorted out in a serious way: is the terminal/square precinct a destination or a portal? As I look at the short-listed plans, it’s clear the design teams want to remake that zone into a destination that happens to contain features that allows people to travel elsewhere (to the island, or along the lake front).

All five teams pack their proposals with new uses. Indeed, they’ve thrown in all manner of features  — hot tubs, floating pools, wetlands, fish habitats, art walks, jazzy terminals full of places for beautiful people to lounge laconically. All the submissions, in my view, drastically over-program this relatively constrained space, and I’m not persuaded the area demands so much additional activity, given its primary function.

At the risk of making an over-literal observation about the Photoshopped images in these submissions, not a single one realistically depicts crowds of hot and harried families en route to the island. It’s a rather staggering oversight.

Crowds aren’t a steady-state issue, of course, but they do represent the maximal use condition, and so whatever we do down there must accommodate big, sweaty clumps of people. And let’s also talk about who’s in those crowds. Not just the sort of hipster avatars that populate flattering renderings. The crowds include large families of newcomers, with children and grandparents lugging armloads of stuff – strollers, picnic gear, bikes etc. What are their needs? Do they need lots of ambient distractions (mist rooms! palm trees! cocktail bars!), or do they need benches and bathrooms?

Point is, if the precinct is to be remade as a destination with lots of activities as well as a ferry terminal, the design must come to terms with the fact that at certain predictable intervals, it will have to accommodate a lot of additional crowding. And I don’t think these submissions have addressed that reality.

MINUTIAE

I’d like to propose a ground rule for all future international design competitions: after one ridiculous waterfront master plan submitted several years ago that featured a man-made maple-leaf shaped island in the harbour, any team that includes maple leafs as design elements of their submissions be permanently barred from bidding on Toronto projects.

Again, maybe this is MY mid-March/mid-life irritation, but I found many elements of the proposals to be tone-deaf. Why is there a vehicle pick-up/drop-off loop leading directly to the ferry terminal entrance in the Diller Scofidio & Renfro-led submission? Why are we trying to (re?)-create wetlands and beaches on a former pier that was made out of landfill, and has never had any relationship to the actual shore line? Why would anyone fund a swing bridge over the Yonge Street slip when the foot bridges over the slips further west have proven to be highly effective for pedestrians? And, do we really need to build a “bluff,” as per one submission, or is this merely a rather literal-minded way for the proponent to signal the eventual jury that they did their (online) homework about Toronto’s waterfront?

I don’t mean to be a complete grouch. Some of the teams (e.g., Quadrangle/aLL Design/Janet Rosenberg) did turn their attention to real design issues that Waterfront Toronto actually needs to address — creating improved pedestrian flow between the Yonge Street slip, the terminal/square precinct, and the Harbourfront area west of the York Street slip. And the plans will evolve in response to feedback provided to WT through its surveys, etc.

Yet it seems to me that we’d end up with a far better result if (i) WT and the City didn’t crank up public expectations in the absence of a clear understanding of resources and achievability; and (ii) if the design teams, on the next pass, be provided with much more explicit instructions about what needs to be done.

But they can’t do that kind of analysis in a vacuum. First, we need to figure out what we want from that space. From where I sit, WT and the City shouldn’t be looking to architectural dream teams to come up with answers. It’s not an outsourcing problem.

photo by Wylie Poon

21 comments

  1. I agree. Cart before horse. Budget must come before the vision. Inspiration and creativity in design must fit the financial parameters. Creativity is not expensive. Only a designer’s ego is. The best ideas rarely come from the best minds….

  2. For me, the KPMB submission is the only one that fulfills the task of creating a new Ferry Terminal, as opposed to the other 4 submissions which create parks that might (MIGHT!) be able to accommodate three ferries and their associated passengers. The KPMB plan creates a new enclosed waiting area, acknowledges the need for new ticketing systems and doesn’t waste much time at all with senseless accouterments.

    KPMB’s is also the only plan that, in my estimation, takes seriously the realities of modern maritime security (or MARSEC), which doesn’t allow for the casual boarding of marine passenger vessels. Failing to take security into account at the design phase means security features will be plopped on top of the design later. And security folk don’t have much time for aesthetics.

    The submissions all, in varying degrees, take a carpet bombing approach to the design, knowing that only some part of what they’ve proposed with be approved. In fact, I’m certain some of the sillier features, the above-mentioned floating wetland, for example, are proposed specifically so they can be sacrificed later, when budget pressures demand concessions from the architects.

    Of course, all of this fails to address the real problem, which is that we’re forced to queue up for ferries to access what should be the city’s premier park. Put all the snazzy dressing you like on a ferry terminal and/or the jazzy parks in its environs, but two key problems will remain:
    1. The park itself is woefully underdeveloped and under-serviced. None of that will change with the new terminal, nor am I aware of any plans to recognize or address the islands’ many issues.
    2. A pedestrian bridge built across the Eastern Channel, accessed by streetcars coming down from Cherry St. is, to me, a far better solution, if not a less expensive one. It improves access and accessibility and makes use of an area (the quickly built and quickly abandoned Rochester ferry terminal) that isn’t likely to see other development for many years.

    For whatever reason, the idea of a bridge doesn’t have any traction in this city, owing in some small part, I suspect, to the island’s privileged and vocal community. It may also owe to a glaringly obvious flaw in the idea, and if you know what that is, I’d be happy to hear it.

    Instead of a real discussion about the park, how people access it and what they find once they’ve arrived, we’ll get a big, expensive, over-designed mess which can’t dramatically change the way we access the islands. But, it has a pool!

  3. @Joshua: An Eastern Gap bridge has severe challenges. First off, this gap is wider than the Western Gap, and any bridge must be high enough for full size ships to clear through it to the eastern harbour. That’s not a trivial footbridge, and probably it would have some interesting accessibility challenges. Second, Cherry Beach isn’t exactly the easiest place to reach. It would force people who now simply walk from Union Station or Queens Quay station to take a bus/LRT the 3-4km trip down to the new bridge. Third, the attractions on the Island are not concentrated at Ward’s because this is the residential community. That’s not Nimbyism, just the simple fact that people would have to trudge a few km back west to the main part of the islands. Finally, just imagine the joy of trying to return home from the island via the new bridge in any kind of bad weather. All that extra mileage would not endear you to people who just want to reach the mainland by a direct route.

  4. There is another cart before horse or dock before boats situation.
    All the proposals contemplate the continuation of the Victorian designed old boats or new boats based on the same design.
    The most time in the ferry trip is loading and unloading; the two level end loading ferries are very inefficient at loading and unloading passengers.
    Anyone who has ridden the ferries in BC will recall that the boats load from the length of the side.
    The big problem with the ferries on busy summer weekends is the time it takes to get on a ferry.
    Even if they get 1300 passengers ferries, if they are end loaders they will still have the logistical problems of the present ferries.
    If there could be a design that would allow simultaneous loading and unloading of passengers the capacity of the system would be increased substantially.
    The kind of dock and flow of passengers would be totally different from any of the designs presented.
    So please get an efficient boat design first because if the docks are built for end loaders.
    They will NEVER be retrofitted for more efficient boats

  5. I tried looking through the proposals but couldn’t stomach it. These designers live on a different planet than the rest of us. All five proposals look like more like EPCOT Center in Disneyland than a ferry ferry terminal to me.

  6. @Steve Thanks for the reply. At 300-350m and with a requirement to clear large lakers, there’s no doubt a bridge across the Eastern Channel is neither simple, nor optimal and probably not cheap. But, isn’t it the only game in town if we want to have a conversation about how to get people to island other than by ferry? (Accepting that we might need to debate the need for alternatives before discussing the alternatives themselves.)

    Above, @Barry makes a good point about pairing an update to the ferries with an update to the terminal. All the fancy modifications to the terminal won’t do anything to make the narrow gangway to the Centre Island ferry any wider. Terminal-side choke points are (maybe) relieved, dockside choke points remain. If there are no viable alternatives for transporting people to the island, then evaluation of the efficiency of the ferry itself ought to go hand in hand with the design of the terminal.

    What’s clearest to me, as I walk past the design submissions every day, is that Waterfront TO wants a great park first, and a slightly improved ferry terminal second, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The islands’ problems aren’t WTO’s problem, neither is improving citizens’ experience on the ferry. Once people step on the boat, they’re in the hands of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation department, who hasn’t the mandate or the cash to improve the islands much beyond their current state.

    The park-centric submissions fulfill WTO’s mandate while allowing the city to pretend like they’re improving the island experience.

  7. Dead on. I cant see the terminal for the add ons.

  8. Thank you for the part of the rant about the misuse of Photoshop in architectural proposals. One of my bugbears. Part of any architectural proposal review process should be an analysis of how people will actually use space as opposed to how random images of happy pedestrians are plunked down.

  9. Glad to know that KPMB understands that the Ferry Terminal is a ferry terminal and not a destination park. There are parks nearby if people want parks, but the real destination is the island and the journey is part of the experience. The focus should be on making the journey pleasant instead of attempting to distract people from the unpleasantness of the wait.

    As for a physical connection to the Island, we now have in the the form of the pedestrian tunnel. The challenge is in finding a way to get access around the airport … perhaps another tunnel or depressed area under a runway to let people cross. Butrealistically the majority of people are going to use the ferry to get to the island now and in the future.

    Cheers, Moaz

  10. I think you’re just off-base on your assumptions as to what competitions accomplish. They are first and foremost about generating ideas about what a space can be. They are not about having completely refined details, and budgets, and engineering problems resolved. They provide vision to the city.

    Once a submission is chosen, all of the kinks will be worked out – large portions removed, and costs put in control. But to critique them so harshly when the design’s were generated over a month or two, and for an assumed minimum amount of money – you’re truly being an old grump.

  11. I am grouchy too. For many reasons.

    – There are too many RFPs that are ill defined, lack budget framework and goals. In the public sector they just remind us that there is a total lack of professionalism when it comes to taking the time and thought to make a decent wish list. Put bluntly, it reeks of a bunch of bureaucrats wasting time on a poorly delivered spec, then billing the taxpayer for the time and the lunch that they ordered in to ‘brainstorm’ it. Disrespectful.

    – Likewise, there is a disrespect to the firms who participated. Creating a proposal takes time and money. Working in a hack of a RFP, is disrespectful of their professionalism. Of course, many firms farm this work to their interns as ‘training’, but that also speaks to “you get what you pay for” in final quality.

    This all reminds me of when “Mr. Tightwallet/Loose Ego” Doug Ford wasted people’s and taxpayer’s time on his stupid ferriswheel.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am excited and hopeful there will be an inspiring new public space and service at the ferry terminal, not to mention a tribute to Mr. Layton. But the way this has started clearly exemplifies how projects quickly balloon tenfold past their budgets. There are a lot of lunches and printing costs to pay for during these presentations that end up going nowhere.

    Anybody else here ever notice the price tags on new parks? Aside from the land cost, I’m seeing projects where we bulldoze a hectare of ground, maybe clean up from previous uses and put in a little paving, trees (or remove them) and a few signs – for into the millions! Really. I know civic spaces have higher building code specifications than private, but still..Really? This is up there with the school board paying the mob for $100 (or something) to install pencil sharpeners. Really? Sad…

  12. re: floating maple leaf
    But that was the winning submission that is becoming, right before our eyes, the beautiful new maple treed central waterfront. Designers must always push us beyond what we would do — it’s the only way to know what we could do.

  13. “Why are we trying to (re?)-create wetlands and beaches on a former pier that was made out of landfill, and has never had any relationship to the actual shore line? ”

    Really? Though, I agreed with most of what was said I strongly disagree with treating wetlands trivially. Granted, the shoreline is man made but the lake is still an ecosystem with fish in it. Wetlands are not only high in biodiversity and provide habitats for a wide array of species — they also help purify the water. Polluted runoff and combined-sewer-overflows are damaging the lake and wetlands are natural filtration processes. How effective will the proposed wetland be depends on size and various design criteria. But, to say that it isn’t needed outright?!

    Yes, prioritizing the space for public use (esp. families is important) but we should not forget that we are talking about the waterfront here!

  14. It is a real shame that no front-line ferry dock and ferry staff were consulted on any of the designs. Having worked there myself and speaking to current staff, I have heard many good ideas from the people who know better than anyone where improvements might be made. And to echo other comments here, no new ferry terminal can address the most pressing problem of all; actually moving passengers more quickly and efficiently.

  15. I must admit that I’m not familiar with all the details of these proposals. But, what came to mind in reading of the proposed ‘naturalization’ of the Don River shoreline is the fact that the Don River contents (i.e. water, garbage and raw sewage from outdated sanitary sewers) needs to be fixed ahead of ‘shoreline naturalization’…but this situation has existed and been a problem for MANY years without resolution…so why would one think (sigh) that anything might be done about it?

  16. I’m a grouch too. When I reviewed the proposals I was concerned by the same questions and doubts as John Lorinc. Building projects aren’t fine art. They need to serve a purpose. But that doesn’t mean there’s no creativity required. Getting a client to really express what they need is a difficult thing but it seems these creative suppliers (architects, designers, etc.), through vague RFPs, are designing by “thinking big” or “stabbing in the dark.” Ultimately budgets come into play and then it’s hard to be happy with the result. I’m thinking about the ROM. Remember when the crystal was glass?

    I appreciate the smart comments here about how to improve the ferry experience by getting people on and off more efficiently. And the wisdom of asking people who work there for their ideas. But the City and WT seem to want to throw away the insights of the ferry’s own employees (as is happening with the Leslie Street Barn). There are real issues with the ferry terminal. Crowding. Bathrooms. Shelter in summer AND winter. All are important but a good concept only comes about when there’s an insightful and identified challenge. Maybe it can come later… but why waste effort on things that won’t get built.

  17. Seems like there is a few main things that any design needs to take into account:

    1. Cool in summer, warm in winter – I’d be fine with an open concept in summer with shading, but in winter it needs to be fully enclosed and heated. If new boats are purchased it would be great if in winter there could be an enclosed loading system as well.

    2. Bathroom capacity – and obviously lots of kids

    3. Ticketing simplification (Presto, online, passes, guaranteed place on specific boats, discounts if you came via TTC/Go etc)

    4. Food, seating, rentals (all rentals should happen on the island for simplification), lockers/storage

    5. Improved BIXI, TTC and Path integration (PATH is really close, it would be amazing if it could connect directly)

    6. Improved parking, TAXI and pickup/dropoff

  18. Dear Natalija, It is nonsense to suggest that any wetland in this location could provide even a token benefit with respect to any of the issue raise. You seem to want to educate yourself, so educate yourself. If you want to treat storm water, treat storm water just don’t do it in a park. These are fine thinks to worry about but some perspective is required.

  19. Got to agree with Josh, I think you’re severely missing the purpose of an international design competition. It’s not a functional planning exercise, or a feasibility study, or even a conceptual design; it’s a visioning exercise and I can assure that all of the teams thought about all of the issues you brought up (and more), but at a certain point the artistry has to take over to allow the vision to be seen.

    The stuff you’re asking the teams to respond to – and provide solutions to – is what the winning team will be PAID to do when the competition is awarded, but if you think that that’s all going to happen for the nominal fee the shortlisted teams are given then you’re way out of touch with how these things work.

    Saying all this as a massive fan of your writing.

    Matt

  20. sadly the designs don’t create the comfort and convenience necessary for an improved experience. The architects should start with a user experience discovery process. Take the subway with a picnic cooler, stroller and two kids from yonge and bloor and try and get to the island. Take note of all the barriers in your way and create a design that eliminates and reduces them. For instance, a tunnel from the LRT station under the street (nice and cool or warm) and then come above ground once tickets etc are dealt with. Double decker loading ramps (no stairs) directly into the ferries would be great Time the ferries to coincide with the LRT would be a good idea too. A swing bridge for cyclists from Cherry Street also makes sense and likely be cheaper in the long run than running as many ferry trips. Instead of tasking traditional architects to create buildings (every solution is building) we need city experience architects that create the best way to accomplish the task i.e. get me to the islands.
    And – while at it, we should look at the architect companies histories and see what else they are proposing in the city. We should not hire anyone of them that isn’t following city guidelines. One of the 5 shortlisted wants to build an 8 story building in an area that designated for 6 stories. Why keep them on the list at all? If they don’t consider the city guidelines why should the city consider them at all?

  21. Re: ticketing – it baffles me how Parks and Wreck were permitted to proceed with a new system (which I believe is not yet in service) when it could have been offloaded to Metrolinx as a pretty simple Presto implementation

    @Chris Williams – there could be an issue with a tunnel because the streetcar line currently extends beyond the station and then curves westward, and the plan is for a similar line eastward.

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