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cityscape

Your Guide to the New New Port Lands Plan

After feedback from both council and the public, Waterfront Toronto releases a revised plan for the Port Lands.

Detail of the revised plan for developing the Port Lands, showing the area targeted for development over the next 30 years, north of the shipping channel. Click on the image for a larger view.

EDITOR’S NOTE: September 4, 12:49 PM The agenda for the next meeting of the City’s Executive Committee has been released. As expected, the revised plan for the Port Lands will be considered at that meeting, on September 10.


First, there was a plan for the Port Lands. It came after years of public consultation, detailed studies conducted by Waterfront Toronto, public design competitions, and extensive analysis of what it would take to re-naturalize the mouth of the Don River. The plan was lauded widely, and endorsed by city council in 2010.

Then came Doug Ford, with his dream of a Ferris wheel and a monorail and a whole new approach to planning that would see the private sector play a much more active role in shaping the future of our waterfront. Then came the compromise: those amusement park fantasies were squelched in favour of a request by city council that Waterfront Toronto develop an “accelerated” plan for the Port Lands that would put less pressure on the public purse and see development happen more quickly. Waterfront Toronto issued a revised plan a few months later, solicited feedback, dealt with some criticism of that plan, and took all that information back to process. Yesterday: the result of that long journey, a tweaked plan for the Port Lands that largely retains the shape of the original concept but includes changes in timing, funding, and design. (The full plan is available online [PDF]).

If all of the above has your head swimming, here’s a summary of what those key changes are.

DESIGN

Comparison of land allocated for various uses in the original Port Lands plan (left) versus the revised plan (right).

Ferris wheel aspirations are well and firmly dead: the plan released yesterday sticks to the broad strokes of a mixed-use development model that would create a new community in Toronto rather than a new photo op for glossy tourist brochures. There are, however, some notable revisions:

  • Less green space. The original plan called for 14.4 hectares of parkland and a 29.3 hectare naturalized floodplain. The new plan calls for 10.8 hectares of parkland and a floodplain that’s 23.1 hectares. Part of this is due to the elimination of the original planned Promontory Park: an addition that would have jutted out on the western edge of the area, and which raised navigation concerns among port users. (The new plan still calls for a park of that name; the difference is that it will be built on the existing land rather than including some new landfill that would extend west.)
  • More development space. Unsurprisingly, the decrease in green space is also to accommodate an increase in land that will be used for development: that’s gone up from 36.2 hectares to 41.6 hectares. Some of that includes an accounting of existing facilities—specifically the Lafarge concrete plant and the docking wall used by Redpath Sugar—plus some reallocated space for new development. The road right-of-way allocation has also gone up slightly from 4.8 to 5.1 hectares.
  • Layout changes. A planned area for development at the eastern edge of the Port Lands has been re-designated for green space and a corresponding amount of development land has been added to other parts of the Port Lands—in effect creating more consolidated (rather than distributed) development areas.
  • “Catalytic” sites and cultural buildings. The new plan calls for two venues that help program the area—not the Ferris wheel Doug Ford dreamed of, but “potential museum sites or cultural institutions,” said Waterfront Toronto officials yesterday at a media briefing. (The Guggeneheim was cited as an example of the kind of thing they had in mind.)

IMPLEMENTATION

The phased plan for implementing development. Click on the image for a larger view.

The biggest change in the new plan is an outline for phased stages of development. This will allow for revenue from earlier phases to help pay for costs in later phases. It was always inevitable that the process of developing the Port Lands—remediating soil, naturalizing the mouth of the Don, building necessary infrastructure (roads, sewers, water mains, transit), and releasing land for sale at a rate that the market can absorb comfortably (without causing a precipitous drop in sale prices)—was always going to take decades. Now Waterfront Toronto has spelled out a five-stage process that it predicts will take thirty years.

What’s most notable about this phased plan is that the naturalization of the mouth of the Don has been pushed to the end of the process—phases 4 and 5—when it was originally going to happen much earlier in the development cycle.


FINANCING

Concept drawing showing the view looking eastward towards Ashbridges Bay, as it would appear from the intersection of Commissioners Street and the Don Roadway.

Of course, the biggest outstanding question with all this is how we are going to pay for it. Though this plan is, according to Waterfront Toronto estimates, $130 million cheaper than the previous incarnation, that’s a relatively small cut to what is inevitably a huge undertaking. The total investment needed to create infrastructure, transit, and flood protection is estimated at $1.9 billion. (The size of the area in question is roughly equal to downtown Toronto from Dundas to the lake and from Parliament to Bathurst—approximately 1,000 acres.)

A great deal of the money will come from land sale revenues—but much of the infrastructure needs to be built before the land sales can proceed. That won’t get us all the way there no matter what though, so Waterfront Toronto has analysed a list of other potential revenue sources to assess whether they would be useful in the context of developing the Port Lands.

  • Worth considering. At the top of Waterfront Toronto’s list are local improvement charges and a property tax surcharge in the area. They also think the government will need to use some money from its city-wide development charge, and think that the Port Lands should get some funds from whatever transit funding tools the City and Metrolinx develop in the coming years. Cost-sharing with the private sector is also on the list, though it is unclear how much this could bring in. (Though it wasn’t mentioned at the media briefing, asking developers to bear some infrastructure-creation costs tends to depress the prices they are willing to pay for the land they want to buy; others on council have warned of the dangers of relying too much on this.)
  • Rejected. One of Rob Ford’s favourite revenue tools is Tax Increment Financing—essentially, borrowing against the projected tax revenues the City will get once the infrastructure is completed and development takes place. Waterfront Toronto rejects this as an option. As explained by Waterfront Toronto’s chief operating officer David Kusturin yesterday, this is because “future tax revenues are actually required to fund the city’s operations…if we borrow against them today those revenues aren’t available to fund services in the future.”

FIRST REACTIONS

Concept drawing showing the mouth of the Don River as it would appear after it was naturalized, facing west and looking towards downtown.

More than 150 people attended a public consultation on the new plan last night, at a session held at the Toronto Reference Library. On a show of hands most of the attendees had been to at least one of the three previous public consultations, and the group’s interest in the plan was apparent.

Most of the questions focused on the business-plan portion of the plan, with people asking for clarification regarding the proposed revenue tools as well as rhetorically inquiring why more public funding options were not on the table (in place of the proposed reliance on development revenue). Others were more curious about technical details of the re-zoning—questions such as when the Official Plan will be amended and what the maximum building height will be. Officials were hesitant to give firm answers on those questions, but did cite the island airport as a potentially mitigating factor for tall buildings in the area.

Concept drawing showing the view looking west towards downtown from the redesigned Promontory Park, at the western edge of the Port Lands.

When it came to the feedback, concerns ranged from making the Don River naturalization a dedicated priority apart from the private development to whether the development plans were capitalizing enough on the potential value of the land.

Many concerns revolved around not repeating the perceived mistakes in the condo development to the west, in areas like CityPlace. People mentioned that they would like to see neighbourhood services like schools, hospitals, and libraries included in the zoning plans. There were pushes for more affordable housing options in the new neighbourhood. Some wanted to see more dedicated bicycle transit options in the area, apart from the recreational trails proposed to link to the existing trail system in the Don Valley, to take pressure off revamping public transit in the area.

Deputy City Manager John Livey told us he wasn’t surprised by any of the feedback. “We’ve given people a lot of information tonight and so it’s expected they’ll have lots of questions like they did. And most of the questions are ones we have answers for and are reasonable. I didn’t find anything discordant or problematic. I thought the comments were quite good.”


NEXT STEPS

  • August 17: The deadline for the public to provide feedback on the plan to Waterfront Toronto. If you missed last night’s meeting, you can do this online.
  • September 10: The new Port Lands proposal is slated to be discussed at the next Executive Committee meeting. Torontonians who want to share their views on the plan with their elected officials will be able to give deputations at that time.
  • October 3: Should the plan, in some form or another, make it through the Executive Committee, it will come for consideration before a full meeting of city council.

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