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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Reality check on the waterfront

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A group of prominent urbanists — Eric Miller (director of the Cities Centre at U of T), Paul Bedford (former chief planner for Toronto), Richard Sommer (dean of U of T’s architecture school), and Richard Florida (director of the Martin Prosperity Institute) — have penned a letter to mayor Rob Ford and Toronto city council urging them to reconisder the recently unveiled “plan” for the Port Lands. The letter has been signed by 148 academics, planners, designers, and activists, and will be formally presented at a press conference at 1:30 today.

You can read their letter on the Scribd web site.

CodeBlue, a local organization opposed to the Ford plan, also released a complimentary “reality check” for city council to consider. Their 24-point report builds on the sentiment

1. Nothing is happening on the waterfront
A carefully coordinated collaborative process is now bearing fruit. Just take a look at Corus Quay, George Brown College, the wave decks, Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, Mimico Waterfront Park, Port Union Waterfront Park, and improvements to the Martin Goodman Trail. Companies like Great Gulf, the Hines Corporation, and Castain are investing. The Athletes’ Village is taking shape on the West Don Lands to be ready for the PanAm Games in 2015. Toronto’s waterfront is currently the largest regeneration operation in North America, with some $2.6 billion of private-sector investment already committed. All of this is possible because of Waterfront Toronto’s detailed advance planning, as well as its investment in necessary infrastructure and spectacular public spaces.

2. Waterfront Toronto has dropped the ball on the Port Lands
Waterfront Toronto has received world-wide recognition for: getting waterfront development moving and on the right track; engaging the public and the development industry and; producing award-winning new waterfront neighbourhoods – not just clusters of condominiums. A multi-year effort has produced a new Official Plan for the Lower Don Lands and zoning for the Keating Channel Precinct, which is ready to go. The Environmental Assessment for naturalization and flood protection along the Lower Don River is complete. It is sitting at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment right now. Until it’s signed, Waterfront Toronto and private-sector developers have to wait. Why the hold- up? Last spring, without Council’s knowledge, Mayor Rob Ford asked that the process be halted. Only he can get it going again.

3. If the City takes over, the Port Lands could be fully developed in 10 years
A significant change to the strategy of providing flood protection through naturalizing the mouth of the Don River would require a new Environmental Assessment and major changes to the Official Plan. This would mean virtually starting over. Given the radical changes in direction that are being proposed, that could take as much as five years. Even if a new EA were not required, the private market can only absorb so much new development at once.

Bringing too many units on the market at the same time could jeopardize projects that are already underway  in the West Don Lands and the East Bayfront. A useful comparison is the 200 acre railway lands from Yonge to Bathurst, approved for development 30 years ago. That land is still only 2/3 completed – despite the strongest real estate market Toronto has ever seen. At 1,000 acres, the Port Lands area is five times the size of the Railway Lands. Expecting that much development to be complete in ten years is entirely unrealistic.

4. A quick sale of the lands to the private sector is a good deal for taxpayers
This would be a case of short-term, minimal gain for long-term pain. Leaving development to the private sector alone risks repeating the disastrous experience with Harbourfront. The Port Lands are on a flood plain, are heavily contaminated, and need significant investment in infrastructure before they are ready for development. In this degraded state, the lands have a much lower value than they would through a managed release of sites over time by Waterfront Toronto. If we sell them now, we’d see pennies on the dollar. And over the long term, Ford’s proposal would generate a fragment of the tax revenue that we’d enjoy if we stick to the existing plan. Isn’t a strong, sustained revenue stream better than a one-time panicked sell-off of some of our best assets? High value returns to the taxpayer will only be achieved through maintaining a strong and sustained public role.

5. A quick sale of the lands will jump start development
Quite the opposite. A quick sale could do untold damage to development in this location and elsewhere on the waterfront. Too many units flooding the market at once will make developers nervous about the risk of investing in Toronto – slowing, rather than speeding up development. At a time when the economy is fragile, Toronto needs to be careful about how much and how quickly new residential, commercial and retail space is brought on stream.  And a quick sale of land combined with removal of Waterfront Toronto as the development lead is likely to  set back the timing of development significantly. There are complex development challenges for the Port Lands – flood protection, soil contamination, lack of services and municipal infrastructure, many levels of regulation – under any development scenario. Even with a clear plan, those technical challenges will take time to address. Waterfront Toronto has spent years developing highly specialized expertise to addressthese challenges. It will be a setback to development to have a new entity start over to build that expertise.

6. There is a cheaper way to flood-proof the Port Lands
The current Environmental Assessment of the Lower Don Lands Plan had top hydrologists from across North America assess a broad range of options. They concluded that one option:

• was the most efficient and cost effective considering all of the impacts
• has the greatest economic benefit in terms of creating prime “waterfront” frontage along 5,200
metres of river’s edge, and results in higher land value

This is the option that was built into the approved plan.

7. A commitment to sustainability on the waterfront is an expendable frill
The Lower Don Lands will be Toronto’s first chance to build a sustainable community from the ground up. With the expertise of the best landscape architects, planners, ecologists, sustainability specialists, and urban designers, the Lower Don Plan includes efficient transportation, a commitment to the use of renewal energy, and the ability to harvest rainwater from building roofs to feed into the wetlands. In this ecologically sensitive and flood-prone area, these elements come together to transform barren industrial land into a jewel in the harbour. If cities are to survive and prosper, these are the things we must learn to do effectively. The Lower Don Lands have been selected as one of 17 founding projects of the global Climate Positive Development Program. The area will also benefit from the technical support of the Clinton Climate Change Foundation and the US Green Building Council.

8. The “naturalization” of the Don River mouth is an expendable frill
Planning for floods is serious business. We need to stop treating rivers as simple conduits for storm water. If Toronto’s own Hurricane Hazel wasn’t enough of a lesson, we only have to look at Manitoba’s Red River and Quebec’s Richelieu River this spring to see what can happen to communities that don’t have an adequate buffer for flood-proofing. Learning to live with the forces of nature – rather than trying to eradicate them – is essential to the future of our cities. A natural meandering river is the most effective way to slow water surges and absorb storm runoff. This improves habitats and water quality. The existing Lower Don Lands Plan will allow us to embrace our river as a living natural system.

9. An urban park at the mouth of the Don River has no economic benefit
Two words: Central Park. Manhattan developers and their counterparts in every major city in the world understand the economic benefit of a spectacular urban park. So does Waterfront Toronto. The unique urban estuary planned for the place where the Don River enters the harbour will be a powerful, defining feature of revitalization and renewal along Toronto’s waterfront. The natural environment combined with the striking views of the downtown skyline will be a huge draw. It will have a major impact on the value of investment in the Lower Don Lands.

10. The approved Waterfront Toronto plan only deals with green space
The existing plan for the Lower Don Lands calls for housing for 19,000 residents, employment for 14,000 workers, along with significant shopping, cultural, recreational, and entertainment uses. It combines urban transit-oriented neighbourhoods with natural settings in a dynamic, exciting community that welcomes visitors. The plan is flexible enough to welcome virtually any compatible new use that may emerge.

11. Toronto needs a mega-mall or lifestyle centre on the waterfront
The retail already planned for the Lower Don Lands will be substantial and varied – but the difference is that it will occur on lively urban streets on the first floors of residential and commercial buildings, emulating the best of the city’s other vibrant neighbourhoods. This relationship of retail to lively sidewalks creates the conditions for a pedestrian-friendly environment and supports the development of efficient transit. An oversized shopping complex on the Port Lands that is highly dependent on car access would eat up valuable land for parking, cause chronic traffic congestion in the surrounding area, and could easily trigger devastating drains to businesses in Leslieville, Corktown, Cabbagetown, Yorkville, The Eaton Centre, Queens Quay Terminal and elsewhere. Do we need this outmoded concept on our Waterfront? No.

12. The private sector could develop these lands on its own with no cost to the taxpayer
It has also been claimed that the Sheppard Subway extension could be built with private money, but so far we had not seen any evidence of that happening. The Port Lands area is comparable in size to the whole of Toronto’s downtown core. In other words, it is huge. The lands need soil decontamination, flood protection, roads, sewers, sidewalks, transit, a power grid, water and the like. Nowhere in the world are all of these obligations at this scale being taken on by the private sector acting on its own. Solving these challenges requires work across government jurisdictions and across many private interests. These elements need to be planned, implemented and maintained in a comprehensive way that ensures the results meet the public interest – which is more than just the cost to the taxpayer.

High-quality private-sector investments in the East Bayfront and the West Don Lands were attracted precisely because Waterfront Toronto’s development strategy is dealing with all these things in advance – through the investments made in comprehensive planning, infrastructure, and the public realm. Neither of these precincts would be anywhere near where they are today without this thoughtful, carefully planned development strategy. Even if these challenges could be met by the private sector, we could not expect them to pick up the tab without deep, deep discounts on the price of the land.

13. The approved plan can be abandoned and the Environmental Assessment and Official Plan “finessed” without starting over
Environmental Assessments on this scale are very complex and very difficult to modify. Both the EA and Toronto’s Official Plan for the waterfront were developed through years of public consultations, professional guidance, and political direction from three levels of government. The new concept placed on the table at the Executive Committee meeting on September 6 is not consistent with the priorities outlined in these two documents. To bring that concept to the same level of readiness as the existing Lower Don Lands Plan will take years of work and millions of dollars in studies.

14. A “monorail” is a viable substitute for the approved transportation plan
A monorail is not a substitute for the kind of high-volume transit that is needed to serve a community the size of the Port Lands. The lack of connectivity to the rest of Toronto’s transit network and the significantly lower capacity as compared to the light rail in the approved plan would leave the Port Lands isolated from the rest of the city – and car dependent. At a time, it’s clear that the City must do more to encourage transit use. And what about our harsh winter conditions? Waterfront monorail projects have been scrapped in the milder climates of Singapore and Seattle. Cancelling light rail for the Port Lands will put the transit plan for the East Bayfront and the West Don Lands in jeopardy, potentially creating liability for the City with respect to developments already underway in those two areas.

15. Waterfront Toronto does not have a way to finance the Lower Don Lands Plan
One year ago, when the Lower Don Lands Plan was unanimously approved by City Council, Waterfront Toronto was asked to develop a Business Plan to demonstrate how the project could be effectively and sustainably phased and financed. Waterfront Toronto has been working on the Business Plan since then, and is expected to release it this month. It is unfair for the City to claim that there is no financing plan when it knows that one is imminent.

16. Waterfront Toronto does not have what it takes to bring in private sector investment
Simply put, the successful projects on the East Bayfront and the West Don Lands indicate otherwise. Waterfront Toronto already has public- and private-sector development deals valued at $1.475 billion, effectively recouping the initial public investment of $1.5 billion. Because of its innovative approach and award-winning planning, Waterfront Toronto is attracting high-calibre international and local private investors who are anxious to be associated with cutting-edge urban development. With the go-ahead from Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, the same expertise will show positive results for the Lower Don Lands. An independent evaluation of the economic impact of the approved Lower Don Lands Plan estimates the market value of development to exceed $6 billion by 2030.

17. It’s OK to ignore six years of public engagement that helped to create the plan approved by council last year
Toronto prides itself on its strong tradition of public participation. Brushing aside the decade of public engagement that resulted in the Lower Don Lands Plan would be an affront to that tradition. Thousands of Torontonians have responded to the invitation to be part of shaping the future of Toronto’s waterfront. It has not been difficult to attract hundreds of people to public meetings. Torontonians are passionate about their waterfront and Waterfront Toronto has built a strong relationship with the public through the quality of its open and dynamic approach to consultation. Replacing a plan in which the community feels strong ownership with an untested one developed behind closed doors can only create a climate of cynicism and distrust.

18. The Toronto Port Lands Company is best positioned to lead revitalization of the Port Lands
Waterfront Toronto is the lead development organization on the City’s waterfront. It is experienced in dealing with three levels of government to get things done. It has demonstrated competence in all aspects of revitalization work, including:

• community consultation
• precinct planning, precinct plans, urban design guidelines, public-realm design, transit, sustainability guidelines, municipal servicing and community services planning
• predevelopment planning / plans of subdivision working with the City to develop zoning by-laws
• promotion of design excellence including the creation of the Waterfront Design Review Panel and hosting international
competitions to solve complex design problems
• implementation of award-winning parks and public spaces Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, the Water’s Edge Promenade, wave decks, Don River Park, Underpass Park, Cherry Beach, Port Union and Mimico Waterfront Parks
• procurement services, land sales, joint ventures
• creation of municipal infrastructure roads, sewers, and servicing
• development of sustainability standards for the entire waterfront
• working closely with the private-sector development industry through market soundings and consultations

… We could go on. Waterfront Toronto has built a tested team of professionals and is directed by a seasoned board appointed by the three governments. By contrast, the Toronto Port Lands Company has a mandate limited to leasing and environmental management and little experience with public consultation. The projects that are being used to suggest TPLC is up to the task – Corus and Filmport – were actually developed by its larger predecessor, the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO). The Corus project in particular fails to impress as an example of TPLC/TEDCO’s development capability. The Corus development would not have been possible without the development context created by Waterfront Toronto’s East Bayfront Precinct plan and without sustainability funding from Waterfront Toronto. TEDCO’s deal with Corus offered prime waterfront land with no public tender process, and the project required the taxpayers to step up with a construction loan of almost $130 million that is still outstanding. Which organization is the better choice for Toronto?

19. The Fords’ plan is better for the city
None of its features pass muster. There is no financial plan or indication of technical viability. It does not forward the values set out in the Central Waterfront Plan. It fails to capitalize on the unique location, where the Don River and Lake Ontario meet. And it was developed behind closed doors, without transparency and accountability. Abandoning the approved plan just as implementation is starting would be destabilizing and would send all the wrong signals. It would disastrously affect projects in the pipeline and potential investment. It will seriously undermine Toronto’s credibility with investors and Torontonians’ faith in their City government.

20. The City is better off without Provincial and Federal partners
On the contrary, the success of this massive undertaking absolutely benefits from the support and engagement of senior levels of government. Waterfront Toronto was created to overcome the jurisdictional gridlock that had paralyzed waterfront development for decades. Achievements to date demonstrate that Waterfront Toronto’s tripartite structure is a distinct asset. From the joint commitment of $1.5 billion to seed public-realm and infrastructure development, to the fostering of a coordinated rather than compartmentalized approach to addressing layers of regulatory requirements, the City has benefited from having the other governments invested in the success of the waterfront. It is unrealistic to think that the City would speed up waterfront redevelopment by “going it alone.”

21. The Lower Don Lands Plan cannot accommodate new ideas
Based on painfully acquired experience with previous plans that have suffered from being overly rigid and in-adaptable, the Lower Don Lands Plan has built-in flexibility – like Waterfront Toronto’s other Precinct Plans that have already demonstrated their capacity to take on new uses and programs as they have emerged.
For example:

• George Brown College was introduced into the East Bayfront precinct
• build out of the West Don Lands was modified to incorporate the 2015 PanAm Athletes’ Village

22. Newly elected Councils get to change their minds
Large revitalization projects take decades to realize. They require careful stewardship and sustained commitment to basic principles. The great waterfronts of the world have all been developed this way. For example, Battery Park City in New York is just being completed now, after four decades of commitment to a plan. While a new Council certainly has the right to review decisions of previous Council, rejecting the results of a rigorous planning process as far advanced as that for the Lower Don wastes opportunities and resources. We will be unable to make real progress if every change of Council means a dramatic and erratic change of direction. While flexibility is desirable, wholesale change – without valid reasons and public support – is fatal and counterproductive.

23. There is nothing wrong with the way this new proposal was created
There’s plenty wrong with this process.

• Engaging a design team without competitive bids.
• Having backroom discussions with developers.
• No public process or transparency.
• Acting to undermine an approved development plan without Council’s knowledge or authorization.

None of these are acceptable means to an end. Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we have been at pains to avoid both provincially and municipally? Isn’t this an abuse of public trust and clear evidence of disrespect for citizens / taxpayers? The ends simply don’t justify these means.

24. Council has seen enough information to justify adopting this new direction
The Staff Report explaining this direction provides a disturbingly thin rationale for such a drastic measure. Council would be making a leap into the unknown on faith, with no hard evidence or reason.

photo by Wylie Poon



  1. Nice.

    Where were these assholes when transit city got cancelled?

  2. Absolutely stunning letter.  Thank god there are still smart people left in this city.

  3. Excellent work, Matthew! Thank you so much. 

  4. Just to be clear, I did not write this. It was the people behind CodeBlue. But, I will say that I agree with it 100%.

  5. TransitCity isn’t dead yet. The mayor’s agreement with the province to move the funding to an all underground Eglinton line requires him to get approval from council. He hasn’t done that, yet.

    I expect he is waiting for the private sector funding for Sheppard to come through to get the votes he needs. Since that is unlikely to happen TransitCity may be back.

  6. @Ben: they were waiting for the honeymoon to be over. It is over.

  7. Excellent assessment of the situation!

  8. I read the letter, noted Richard Florida’s name and thought “the Fords are going to give a crap what he thinks?”

    They don’t value the opinions of planners or academics, who in the main are employed in the public sector – no doubt Adrienne Batra will be wheeled out (except to the Toronto Star) and phrases like “ivory towers” will be employed. The employers of these signatories will likely be disparaged if the organisations receive substantial public funding. The Fords fear chill winds from the Board of Trade and the developer lobby and such – not these people.

  9. What you say is true, Mark, but I wouldn’t underestimate how much these people influence A> other councillors (we hope) B> those BOT and developer types….some of them.

    Also, Florida — no part of U of T runs as rich with rivers of private money than Rotmans. Hardly public sector these days…..

  10. While I agree with most of the points listed, some of them are questionable.

    1. Almost all of what is happening is either publicly funded or more condos.
    7. Sustainability also included economics.

    11. Toronto has enough empty ground floor retail already. It is unrealistic to expect that GFR will be any more viable here than elsewhere in the city.

    12. It may be more profitable to give the land away for free. If the cost of remediation, etc. is not recovered. Revenue figures are used as political points because you can ignore expenses. It is revenue-expenses that we should be looking at.

  11. People are going to live in the those condos — they’ll want to shop in ground floor retail. Condos means people.

  12. That’s a really great summary of the situation -thank you. I am interested that the Ministry of the Environment would stop work on assessing the EA just because they got a letter from the Ford(s). Surely if the EA was sent to them, as it was, ahing been approved by Council only Council can ask them to stop work.

  13. Absolutely the most comprehensive piece I have seen to date on this issue. Amazingly fine work; I just hope that enough councillors will listen. Every day I look out my window right behind City Hall and wonder what the final straw will be, what will be destroyed before a tipping point is reached and the twin mayors are stopped in their tracks.

  14. Not that we should put much energy into converting the Fords – the aim is to shift votes in council. However, if some are looking for voices outside of the ivory towers and on the commercial strip, just look at the letter from the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood BIA, below. Hopefully the first of several.

    Toronto Port Lands The businesses and property owners of the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA are very concerned about the recommendations of the city Executive Committee to back out of the City’s partnership with Waterfront Toronto in the Port Lands. This new direction is a threat to small and independent businesses in Toronto and represents a shift towards back room dealing, which is in contempt of the democratic process. We have been among the thousands of stakeholders that have worked with Waterfront Toronto and other government agencies to help shape a forward looking plan for Toronto’s Waterfront from the Humber to the Don and beyond. Council is now being asked to throw out years of effort and millions of dollars in investment in favour of “a collection of ideas” that include a mega-mall on the Port Lands. Changing course at this late date would set back development of this land for years. Selling out to multi-national mall developers is nothing less than a slap in the face to BIAs across Toronto. It is telling that key proponent Councillor Doug Ford has been quoted as saying that the only place to shop in downtown Toronto is the Eaton’s Centre. This kind of thinking is not only wrong but is dangerous to the health of the local economy. The kind of mixed-use development that is envisioned by the public process in the Port Lands will support small business development and provide greater ongoing tax revenue to Toronto than a fire sale to foreign interests. We are at a critical point in our local governance. We can either re-affirm that public participation is valuable or leave it to the “friends” of those in power to shape our future. We urge our elected representatives to stay the course and reaffirm their support for the award winning Waterfront Toronto plan for the Port Lands that was unanimously approved by city council just last year. Thank you for your consideration, George MilbrandtChairSt. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA The St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA represents all businesses and commercial property owners in the area roughly bounded by Yonge St., Richmond St., Parliament St., and the railway corridor. Our members are assessed at over $1.5 billion in property value.

  15. Fantastic letter by the St. Lawrence BIA. What about TABIA? QQHBIA? Whatever it is in Leslieville, Beach, etc.? Hopefully they will stand up and be counted as well.

  16. I wrote to TABIA the other week baray, asking if they had a response to DoFo’s comments, and they didn’t reply.

  17. @Jude: Trust me, I hold no illusions regarding the impenetrability of the Fords’ brand of ignorance; it’s not that they will cease and desist, but whether Council will be the voice of reason (at long last).

    As an undergrad in civil engineering, I get physically ill when I think of what Toronto could become were the Ford agenda to prevail.