The current and future development of Toronto’s waterfront is the single most significant omission from this year’s municipal election. Consisting of roughly eight hundred hectares and one million square feet of employment space, our waterfront is the largest urban renewal project in North America. The redevelopment is an unprecedented, unparalleled opportunity to build, literally from the ground up, a giant swath of the city. Entire new neighbourhoods going up wholesale: it’s remarkable, and how well or poorly this goes will have a huge impact on the course of Toronto’s future. Our economy, built form, ability to integrate across geographic areas (cf. amalgamation), and sense of ourselves as a maturing, increasingly vibrant and dynamic city (or not)—all will be shaped by how the waterfront grows up. Not to mention, of course, the quality of life for the area’s forty thousand new residents and forty thousand new job holders.
Think about those numbers for a minute. Eight hundred hectares. As Waterfront Toronto points out, this is larger than the entire downtown core—Bathurst to Sherbourne, Front to Bloor. A whole new set of neighbourhoods is going to be added to Toronto over the next two decades, and not nearly enough people are talking about it. Not our mayoral contenders, anyway.
They did, finally, at a debate on waterfront issues convened by the York Quay and Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood Associations on Monday. The debate was helpful in allowing the candidates to articulate their views of waterfront development, but we shouldn’t have had to wait for that occasion to learn these things. George Smitherman is perhaps the candidate who has mentioned the waterfront most frequently—usually in connection with the Pan Am Games—but none of the men who would be mayor have done anything so ambitious as put the waterfront anywhere near the centre of their platforms. Aversions to spending and to the downtown are infectious this election cycle, and it simply wouldn’t do.
The mood on the campaign trail is changing a bit, fortunately. Over the past few weeks, as the anyone-but-Ford momentum builds, it has become okay to express optimism and propose investing in the city again. Both Rocco Rossi and George Smitherman are speaking more of Toronto’s promise than they were in earlier months, which is all to the good.
Unsurprisingly, at Monday’s debate candidates lined up, as is generally the case these days, with Rob Ford on one side and Smitherman, Rossi, and Joe Pantalone all together on the other. The latter three disagreed on many points, but shared a commitment to the importance of the waterfront, and a belief that it would reap benefits—fiscal and otherwise—that would help bolster the city as a whole. Ford maintained his “in a perfect world we would __________, but let’s be real, we just can’t afford it” stance (fill in the blank with anything other than filling potholes), failing to distinguish between spending and investment yet again.
One of the major flashpoints at the debate was, also predictably, transit in the area. With varying degrees of fervour, the three candidates on one side backed plans for an LRT, though they lacked fully articulated strategies for building one, while Ford said that since streetcars cause congestion he’d be looking at using buses instead. (This elicited many boos.) The issue of transit is especially urgent because other kinds of development are already underway, and will only intensify over the next few years. As summarized by transit activist Steve Munro: “We risk getting the area established by default as car-oriented because of funding delays and design wars between Waterfront Toronto and TTC (among others)…The opportunity cost is the congestion and damage caused by a buildout of new offices and homes before there is proper transit. We are building a downtown suburb.”
Mayors and city councils do many things. They regulate businesses and ensure parks are maintained, spearhead local programs, and yes, see to the filling of potholes. But these are not the only tasks our municipal government is charged with, and they are not the most important. More basic and more essential is building the city itself: guiding development and creating infrastructure to ensure that healthy communities—ones that are accessible, safe, and full of life—can take root and flourish.
The waterfront is our next major moment of city building, one which (unlike assorted plans for transit expansion) is coming no matter what anyone’s platforms say. Until now our mayoral contenders have, by and large, shied away from ambitious agendas which envision Toronto taking a leap forward rather than merely getting its proverbial house in order—this campaign has been short on big ideas. But the waterfront will be built whether our mayor takes a serious interest in it or not, and so we’d be far better off with one who does.
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