A River Runs Through It
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A River Runs Through It

In the midst of uncertainty over the development of Toronto's waterfront, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh explains the approved Lower Don Lands plan.

A rendering of the approved Lower Don Lands plan from {a href="http://www.waterfrontoronto.ca/image_galleries/lower_don_lands/?9631#9650"}Waterfront Toronto{/a}.

To listen to Toronto city councillor Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh speak about the development of Toronto’s Lower Don Lands is to listen to two very different things. One speaks of Ferris wheels and monorails and megamalls, while the other uses words like “carefully considered” and “metrical analysis” and “multiple interrelationships.” Can you guess who is who?

Today at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Society of Architects brought Michael Van Valkenburgh of MVVA Inc., the architectural landscape team that won the 2007 international Waterfront Toronto design competition to develop a plan for the Lower Don Lands, to speak about the specifics of that plan. It was a strategically placed talk, as city council meets this week to discuss the alternate plan put forward by Doug Ford that was revealed with much fanfare and promises of dropping jaws just a few weeks ago.

Jaws have dropped, but not quite in the way Doug Ford had hoped.

Since Ford’s announcement, concerned citizens, in the form of a campaign called CodeBlueTO, have organized and petitioned for council to stick with the plan it unanimously approved in 2010.

That plan, as explained by Van Valkenburgh, consists of an extremely intricate and thoughtful design that was developed over an extensive public consultation period. The plan centres around what Van Valkenburgh characterized as the “three legs of a stool” of flood protection, re-naturalization, and city building. Not only does the re-naturalization of the mouth of the Don River, which was artificially redirected into the Keating Channel in the early 20th century, help with flood control for the area, but it will create a sustainable and beautiful natural attraction that will run right through the heart of the new neighbourhood. “This is a careful piece of science, which has been folded into the design,” Van Valkenburgh said.

For those concerned about a preference for parkland over development in the plan, Van Valkenburgh said that the structure of their plan raises the linear metres of frontage onto open space from 4,400 metres to 5,200 metres. The new river, he said, has helped structure the urban form. Basically, what this means is that more developments will front directly onto open space, thus raising real estate values in the area. Well-designed parkland and open space isn’t just a “nice to have,” as Mayor Ford might say, but a “need to have” if you are looking to raise real estate values as well as create a livable neighbourhood.

What was clear from watching the presentation was that the current approved plan for the Lower Don Lands, if built out according to the design, will be one of the most ecologically sensitive and intelligently designed dense neighbourhoods in Canada. Himy Syed, once a mayoral candidate, asked in the question period afterward, “How many cities have walked away from something like this and what the hell do they look like now?”

To be sure, the timeline for building the site is a source of frustration, as evidenced by one woman in the audience who expressed this very concern. Paul Bedford, former chief planner for the City of Toronto, attempted to minimize concerns over timelines, suggesting that full build-out could happen in 10 to 15 years, but that this really depended on the market.

It would be a travesty to scrap these approved plans, starting the process of waterfront development over with the goal of maximizing profit and speed, likely to the detriment of public consultation. As Sugar Beach and Sherbourne Common show, Waterfront Toronto is moving forward and producing results. Van Valkenburgh showed an image of Don River Park, currently under construction. Even without the trees and grass, it looked impressive.

Sometimes good things really do come to those who wait.