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Take A Deep Breath: The Port Lands Will Be Great
Revitalization will take thirty years and $1.9 bil of infrastructure, but it will be worth it

Don Roadway view south toward the Greenway. All images courtesy of WATERFRONToronto.

If you tend to get anxious about how the city is going to look in the coming years, you can divert your attention away from Toronto’s Port Lands. The updated plans released by WATERFRONToronto yesterday are near perfect and have literally laid the groundwork for a decades-long building project.

The designs have been massaged. The development plots have been rationalized. The plan, as it always should have been, is a series of compromises.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect who lead the Don River re-naturalization design process said it best: “Planning of a city is not like the design of a building or park, in the sense that it evolves.”

At this point in the Port Lands, we’re pretty much standing upright.

If you like maps and things, you should look through the plan yourself [PDF]. A re-naturalized mouth for the Don River remains the centerpiece of this urban neighbourhood-to-be, now aligned with Commissioners Street as the area’s main drag. No mega-malls or monorails in sight.

The Port Lands

Perhaps the most noteworthy change from the previous iteration is the loss of about four hectares of parkland on the promontory park, which was cut down so that large tankers could still navigate that part of the harbour. In fact, the new layout means that visitors will be able to get up close and personal with moored Redpath sugar tankers in the wintertime, a bonus for fans of that genre of “urban theatre.”

Worried that the site lacks the pizzazz of something like, I don’t know, say, a ferris wheel? Fear not. Planners have earmarked two high profile locations for “catalytic waterfront sites and cultural buildings.” In plain English? “The Guggenheim of Toronto,” as WATERFRONToronto CEO John Campbell suggested offhand. What form these eye-popping, tourist-attracting landmarks will take remains to be seen, but room has been made for them to wow us in the future.

The financials seem to be ironed out as well. Infrastructure costs, pegged at $1.9 bil over thirty years, will be covered by a wide array of public and private revenue sources to be approved by city council, including area specific development charges, something the private sector has indicated they are willing to pay, according to WATERFRONToronto. Interestingly, Campbell and Co. flatly rejected borrowing against future property taxes (Tax Increment Financing) on the premise that if we use those revenues now, they won’t be available in the future when they’ll be needed to pay for services like emergency services, road, park and sewer maintenance, and garbage collection. Any costs that come out of the city’s coffers will represent a wise and necessary investment.

Trinity Street Bridge, view west toward mouth of Keating Channel

Nominally the latest draft, facilitated by Doug Ford’s failed waterfront coup, is the Port Lands Acceleration Initiative. But that’s a misnomer, because the updated plan cements the idea that this utterly huge chunk of land — almost as big as the land from Dundas to the Lake, Bathurst to Parliament — is going to take thirty years to develop. That this might surprise or upset someone speaks to their complete ignorance on the scope and complexity of the process. Complaining that you won’t see any of this is your lifetime misses the point — this is one of, if not the biggest urban renovation projects in North America – and excludes you from participating in this conversation. You will not be listened to.

Phasing the development over decades is necessary for a number of reasons. The market can’t absorb all that real estate at once. There are existing businesses and institutions that will continue to use the area during and after the revitalization. The flood protections have to be put in place so that land parcels can actually be developed. Once that land is sold, that money can be used to pay for more flood protections opening up additional space for building.

The result is an intelligent blueprint for the future growth of our city that balances the concerns of all the stakeholders involved. By my estimation, everyone should be happy. Developers will get a chance to profit from some the country’s most valuable real estate. Visitors and Torontonians alike will have beautiful new public spaces to enjoy. Urbanists get a well-designed, walkable neighbourhood. The port remains operational. Taxpayers – that fickle group – will see a return on their investment in the form of increased property tax revenue and the economic stimulus from an injection of new business. This plan is good.

Hand wringers ought to turn their attention elsewhere. There are plenty of urban planning challenges coming down the pipeline for Toronto’s waterfront, namely, how do we make the rest of it look more like the Port Lands?

More renderings:

Promontory Park Plaza, view north toward Keating Channel precinct Don River mouth, view west toward inner harbour River Park North, view west toward cherry street Commisioner’s Street, view east toward Ashbridges Bay Promontory Park, view west toward inner harbour River Park South, view west toward Cherry Street


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

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