Life Ain't Nothing But Beaches and Bureaucracy
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Life Ain’t Nothing But Beaches and Bureaucracy

Photo by matthewpiers from the Torontoist Flickr pool.
One week ago today apparently marked the opening of HtO, Toronto’s new “urban beach,” on a parcel of land south of Queens Quay West, between Rees Street and Lower Spadina Avenue. We say “apparently” because we’ll believe it when we’re standing on the sand with our own two feet; the relatively modest (yet nevertheless impressive) project having already been delayed multiple times over several years, we long ago lost any hope of it being completed within the decade.
Taking our inspiration from Joe Clark’s history of the ROM Crystal, Torontoist charts the development (or lack thereof) of HtO through three years’ worth of Christopher Hume columns.

“Bringing the beach downtown,” July 26, 2004

“Welcome to HtO, which will be under construction in October on the waterfront at Maple Leaf Quay.”
“HtO… will be ready for use late next year…”
“…HtO has been carefully designed to encourage natural processes, if not to resemble them. The best example is a 15- to 20-metre-wide floating island that will occupy space in the quay. Other than to look good, its purpose is to act as a water purifier. It accomplishes that because it will be filled with hundreds of wetland plants that clean the aquatic environment.
“According to project manager Pete North, once the island is operational, the water in the quay will be so clean it will become transparent. Considering that raw sewage is still being dumped into Lake Ontario, that’s no mean feat.”
“For the city’s long-neglected waterfront, the advent of HtO will be the best thing to have happened in years.
“After all the talk, finally a place to walk.”

“Waterfront gets a tangible sign,” August 12, 2004

“Sometime next spring, construction of the innovative HtO beach park will begin at Maple Leaf Quay…”

“Landscapers masters of their terrain,” February 17, 2005

“One of [landscape architect Janet] Rosenberg’s most ambitious schemes, HtO, expected to begin construction this spring, is an attempt to reconcile Toronto and Lake Ontario.”

“Not always a shore thing,” August 22, 2005

“First the good news: Toronto’s much-delayed urban beach park, the fabulous HtO, will definitely be built.
“The bad news: By the time it finally opens late next year, HtO will be more than a year behind schedule.
“But better late than never, as they say, and especially when it comes to HtO.”
“But the uniqueness of the concept, and its site on the lakeshore, meant that getting the necessary approvals involved countless agencies and nine months. Everyone from the City of Toronto to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans was involved, and bureaucratic wheels grind with agonizing slowness.”
“…Toronto’s style of civic governance hampers good design, urban or architectural.”

“It has taken time, but waterfront comes of age with urban beach,” December 5, 2005

“It’s too late to go swimming this year, but work on Toronto’s first urban beach has just started.
“HtO, as the 1.86-hectare facility is called, should be ready next fall. Though construction was supposed to have begun nearly two years ago, the wheels of government grind slowly on Toronto’s waterfront.
“Regardless, Mayor David Miller was excited enough about the project to call a waterfront news conference recently.
“‘We’re far closer than we’ve been to a revitalized waterfront,’ he told a shivering crowd gathered at the foot of Simcoe St. on the muddy shore of Lake Ontario. ‘We’re at the point where we can leave behind the petty squabbles and red tape. All the organizations work better when they work together.'”
“Better late than never, especially in Toronto. Though the public is understandably cynical about waterfront redevelopment, the advent of HtO is further proof that it has started. True, we’re still years, even decades, away from completion, but in this city, that’s a mere blink of the civic eye.”

“It could soon be life in the grass lane on Queens Quay,” July 27, 2006

“Toronto’s new ‘urban beach,’ HtO, will open at the foot of John St. this fall.”

“Trial run marks big shift for waterfront,” August 14, 2006

“The other complaint is that the changes on the central waterfront don’t go far enough. They don’t. But starting next summer, when trees are put in the ground, when slips are bridged, when HtO, Toronto’s urban beach, is complete, when the sidewalks are paved, they will.”

“Mayor’s big waterfront push mostly smoke, not much fire,” October 14, 2006

“The one [waterfront park project] actually organized by the city, HtO, the urban beach at Maple Leaf Quay, is nearly two years behind schedule, delayed by seemingly endless regulatory hurdles. Still, when it opens next April or May, the $9.6 million facility will be spectacular.”

“A vision beyond the urban beach,” November 16, 2006

“[HtO] is underway and slated to open next spring, finally, only two years behind schedule.
“Much of that time has been spent jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Dealing with the various agencies alone was enough to slow construction to a crawl.”
“Though HtO remains a construction site, its final form and even some details are visible. It will be a spectacular, and desperately needed, addition to the water’s edge. Despite widespread cynicism, the reclamation and transformation of the waterfront has started. No, it’s not moving fast enough and the process will take years, even decades, but it has begun.”

“So far, Toronto’s waterfront has been the biggest thing that never happened to this city,” January 6, 2007

“The opening is tentatively set for May 7.”

“On the waterfront Toronto’s reinvention,” January 26, 2007

“Don’t forget the funding for HtO, the ‘urban beach’ that will open next spring on the waterfront, dates back to the creation of Harbourfront more than 30 years ago.”

“Waterfront revival at a turning point,” May 17, 2007 [link]

“For better or worse, the revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront has begun.
“The process has been underway for a while, but this is the year we will see results. The first will be the much-delayed opening in early June of HtO, the city’s brilliant new ‘urban beach’ designed by Janet Rosenberg, Claude Cormier and Siamak Hariri.”

“Reclaiming the lake with new HtO waterfront park,” June 7, 2007 [link]

“Except for the fact that Lake Ontario is too dirty for swimming, HtO, Toronto’s new ‘urban beach’ is the best thing to happen to the waterfront in decades.”
“The new space, which opens tomorrow morning at 10, was conceived as an amphitheatre; on one side is the water, on the other, the city. The views of both are dramatic and endlessly fascinating.”

“Against all odds, a beach!” June 9, 2007 [link]

“Are we really as dumb as they think? Are we really so stupid that we can’t be trusted with a beach?
“Maybe, but certainly the designers of HtO, Toronto’s marvellous new lakeside park, had to fight like mad to keep their scheme from being watered down to the point where it barely made sense.
“That’s why yesterday’s opening was two years late. Just getting permission to build the ‘urban beach’ involved a marathon of bureaucracy. Approval had to be gained from city, provincial and federal governments as well as myriad agencies.”
“In the original scheme, a series of terraces led down to the water unencumbered by any restraints. In the finished version, however, the terraces are gone, and a low railing – a ‘toe roll’ – runs along the edge.
“And what about the sand pit that extends almost the full length of the beach? Several years ago, city officials decided it had to be eliminated after razor blades were discovered at another Toronto beach.
“That same sand pit is also permanently chained off along its northern perimeter, against the designers’ wishes. Though the chain serves no apparent purpose, except to limit access, it has been welded in place by nervous local authorities from the parks and recreation department – just in case.
“Among HtO’s highlights is a cluster of bright yellow umbrellas that invite visitors to sit down and enjoy themselves. One can’t help but notice, however, that they are a little too high. Why? Well, of course, if they were any lower people would be climbing all over them, hurting themselves and damaging the umbrellas.”
“Who would have thought governments could erect so many barriers to the creation of something as benign, positive and healthy as public space?”
“…we have bred a public sector that sees initiatives like HtO as incursions into what rightfully belongs to it, not us. The knee-jerk response is not to enable, say, the building of innovative beaches such as this, but to figure out ways of killing the project. The preferred method is death by a thousand cuts.”
“The most remarkable aspect of this story is the happy ending; against all odds, HtO survived the bureaucratic onslaught to become the best thing to happen on the waterfront in years.”
So not only has HtO taken years longer than planned, but the vision has been tremendously compromised, in all of the aspects described above and also in one other way that Hume seems to have overlooked: the most exciting element of the original proposal&#8212the water-purifying island&#8212has been unceremoniously dropped from the design. In fact, we haven’t been able to find any reference to it since Hume’s original July 2004 article.
Torontoist gave a call to Janet Rosenberg + Associates and spoke to Senior Designer Glenn Herman. While he wasn’t sure of the specific reason for the island not being built, he said it was most likely due to budgetary concerns and pointed out that most elements of the design had significantly “evolved” since JRA won the competition in June of 2003.
“We’re hoping that maybe someone will sponsor the bio-island as a separate thing,” he sighed.
So perhaps one day it will indeed be possible to venture into the water at the “beach.” Just don’t hold your breath.
UPDATE (June 18): The Spacing Wire reports that HtO’s “western half is still under construction” and that, in addition to the water pollution being a deterrent, “swimming in the inner harbour is both illegal and dangerous with all the boaters.”
Postcard-perfect shot just above and photo of the beach chairs by jim.vanmeggelen; photos of the long bench by monkeyridingdog. All from the the Torontoist Flickr pool.