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Fantasy Planning: Foot of Yonge Street
Dreaming of demolishing the Westin Harbour Castle and un-hiding the ferry docks

You shouldn’t need a sign to find the ferries from where this photo was taken. (All photos by Michael Kolberg)

Toronto is in the middle of a major building boom. Hundreds of new residential, commercial and infrastructure projects currently underway will drastically change the look and feel of the city over the next decade. Despite all the coming change, there are still pockets of the city that fail to live up to their potential. Fantasy Planning examines Toronto’s misused spaces and dream about solutions to these urban tragedies.

When thousands of people crashed Toronto’s ferry docks last week to bask in the sunny weather on our beautiful island oasis, I remember feeling sorry for all the poor souls stuck in line. Not only were they subjected to unreasonable wait times, but they would have to spend their time lingering in the shadows of one of the city’s most oppressively ugly buildings: The Westin Harbour Castle.

Taking into account its very prominent location, unfortunate weathered concrete facade and overwhelming brutalist archictecture, The Westin Harbour Castle ranks as the greatest urban planning failure in the city. While other buildings may be uglier or less engaged with the pedestrian realm, the Harbour Castle edges out the competition due to the tremendous missed opportunity it represents. It’s a mishapen concrete slab that hides the gateway to one of our cities most desirable destinations. This spot deserves something better and we ought to knock it down.

Those towers almost make you thankful the for the overhead wires obstructing the view.

Is this a waterfront hotel in a major city or a plutonium storage facility?

Built in 1975 by the now-defunct Campeau Corporation as the Harbour Castle Hilton (the hotel changed hands in 1987), the 34-storey towers were part of the first wave of residential and commercial development on Toronto’s formerly industrial waterfront. Since a renovation in 2007 the hotel offers 977 rooms and two restaurants. The one located in the rooftop hockey puck is called Toula and it hasn’t rotated since 2001. By most accounts (ie online customer reviews) the hotel is above average with comfortable beds and impressive views of Lake Ontario, though some reviewers felt the place felt “dated” and one commenter even said it felt “slightly shabby on the whole.” But what goes on inside this four-star hotel isn’t my concern.

Located at the foot of Yonge St. – Toronto’s main drag – the Harbour Castle stands on what should be a focal point of any tour of the city. Instead of a landmark or meeting place, the Longest Street In The World* ends with an eyesore. The historic significance of Yonge St. in the development of Upper Canada should not be understated and the lakefront terminus is the best place to celebrate that history. The foot of Yonge should be a destination, but in fact the environment makes you want to get away as fast as possible.

 “Please do not enter through the Hotel Entrance.”

For a building maintained by the hospitality industry, the Westin Harbour Castle is surprisingly inhospitable to pedestrians. The front entrance is dominated by a driveway. If you want to enter by foot, you have to dodge moving vehicles on your way up the ramp or climb an inconspicuous  concrete staircase. This layout is very convenient if you’re being dropped off from the airport and never plan on leaving your room, but if – god forbid – you actually wanted to venture outside your hotel and walk to some of the nearby attractions like the Air Canada Centre, CN Tower or Harbourfront Centre, you’ll encounter a very hostile environment, especially for those with mobility issues.

The conference centre is where ideas go to die

If you needed any more proof that the architects of this monstrosity despised pedestrians, look no further than the attached Conference Centre across the street. There is no discernible entrance from the street save fire exits. The conference centre is only accessible by a bridge from the hotel that runs over the street because, evidently, busy business people are too busy with business to cross the street like the rest of us plebes. Or perhaps the designers were afraid that meeting attendees would try to escape if they were allowed to see the light of day. This squat bunker has all the charm of a turd. It’s only redeeming quality is that it’s existence provides us with a way out of this mess (more on that later).

The only reason Torontonians aren’t more outraged by this assault on urbanity is because for decades the rest of the neighbourhood has been just as unwelcoming. Until now.

Oh no, not new buildings. Now people may actually want to walk around in the area!

The new development rising in the  surrounding area is going to make Westin Harbour Castle look that much worse. Waterlink at Pier 27, new condominiums under construction directly east of the hotel, will include a waterfront promenade accessible to the public. A small chunk of the land on that block currently used as a parking lot is owned by WATERFRONToronto who have plans to turn it into a park. Further along, construction of George Brown’s new campus is nearing completion. Just down the road, RBC is building a handsome new headquarters that addresses the street nicely. Queen’s Quay is due to get a major facelift with construction on beautified pedestrian walkways to begin this spring. Plus, the owners of the Toronto Star’s headquarters at One Yonge Street have recently parceled off their parking lot and probably intend on selling it for development. What was once a wasteland of surface parking lots is on it’s way to becoming a dense, urban destination. When that future arrives, the Harbour Castle’s suburban sensibilities will stick out like a sore thumb. It’s only a matter of time before the people of Toronto rise up and demand it be torn down to liberate our cloistered ferry docks.

Can you spot the entrance to one of Toronto’s most popular destinations?

Toronto’s islands are one of our greatest civic assets but an unfamiliar visitor would be hard-pressed to find the docks that lead there on their own. The bottleneck created by the hotel walls and yet another driveway, this one for the neighbouring Harbour Square condos, is not befitting of this important gateway. If the Westin Harbour Castle was demolished, the entire park would open up to the street and invite people to stroll down to the water. You would have room to rebuild the ferry docks into a landmark that would be unmistakable from the water and the street; something you could put on a postcard. Something daring like the Batumi Aquarium in Georgia or this border checkpoint in Sarpi, Georgia (Georgia has some great buildings, you guys). As it stands, this park is begging not to be visited and the docks are hidden from view. It’s as if the city does not want you to go to the island.

A park on the waterfront is the ideal location to put some cars doing absolutely nothing

Meanwhile, if you do find you way into the park, you’re fighting for space with about two dozen parked cars. Why this space is needed when there is extensive underground parking on hand is beyond me. That this prime real estate is designated for vehicles is downright insulting. This is where we should build a statue of someone we love and admire (picking that person would be a whole other discussion), or a sculpture that speaks to something deeper about us as a people. You’d be forgiven if you saw this lot and thought that Torontonians worshiped at the altar of the automobile. This space should occupy a place in all of our hearts and minds as a quintessential piece of the city. Instead it’s just occupied by the personal transportation of a few lucky people.

If there is a redeeming quality in this photo, I can’t see it

The good news is that there is a relatively easy fix: Knock down the conference centre and build a new hotel with meeting facilities all on the north side of the street. Suddenly, in the world of hotels, there’s a lot of competition in town, but the location on Lake Ontario would put the Westin Harbour Castle on top of any traveller’s list. Once it’s open for business, dynamite the towers and leave ’em down. Build a beautiful park with a statue and an iconic ferry dock that will bring more people to the islands than ever.

Now, of course this won’t be free or even cheap. Money will have to change hands, especially if the City wants to take over the lands upon which the Westin currently sits. Perhaps there are some incentives we could offer the good folks as Westin in exchange for going along with this dream? Tax breaks? Free ferry rides for life? Are we allowed to just expropriate the land? I’ll admit, I am not the one to crunch those numbers, I’m more of an ideas guy. But certainly we can all agree that one cannot put a price on civic pride. Or am I just living in a fantasy world?


Michael Kolberg is Section Editor for The Sprawl at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter for jokes at @mikeykolberg

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