What Do Torontonians Want From Their Waterfront?
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What Do Torontonians Want From Their Waterfront?

Last night: a public consultation to discuss the accelerated development of the Port Lands.

Rendering of the Keating Channel Precinct plan done by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.; image courtesy of {a href=”http://www.waterfrontoronto.ca/image_galleries/lower_don_lands/?9631#9635”}Waterfront Toronto{/a}

It’s not every day that there’s a line up to get into a public consultation. But it’s not every day that there’s a consultation on such a contentious issue as the future development of a major chunk of Toronto’s waterfront. Hosted by Lura Consulting (listen, understand, relate, advance) and SWERHUN, the event was an introduction to the forthcoming public consultation process about accelerating development in the Port Lands, as well as a chance for residents to express their goals and ideas for the area.

The consultation is a result of a consensus deal reached by city council back in September after several weeks of handwringing over the fate of these waterfront lands. Said handwringing was the result of Councillor Doug Ford’s (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) attempt to wrest control of the project from Waterfront Toronto and promote an alternate “vision” of the waterfront. This vision included, among other things, the world’s largest Ferris wheel and a megamall.

The consensus plan kept the development in the hands of Waterfront Toronto, but urged the organization to look at ways in which development could be be sped up, and as well as at alternate funding models. It also directed a round of public consultations be convened to discuss these matters.

Hence, on a Monday night during the busy holiday season, several hundred people packed themselves around tables in the Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library, ready to discuss plans for the waterfront.

There already is, however, a plan for these lands [PDF]. The result of a 2007 international design competition, that plan comes courtesy of the New York–based architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., responsible for such stunning projects as Brooklyn Bridge Park. Their plan focused on connecting the area to the surrounding city with a mixed-use community with plenty of public access, and, crucially, re-naturalizing the mouth of the Don River. As the consensus plan reports, these plans, among other council-adopted plans for the area, “will be used as a base line in the financial analysis of the impacts of any additional density and/or mix of uses for the remainder of the Port Land” [PDF].

As a consultation process involving hundreds of people, the night was well-designed. After initial presentations by John Campbell, president and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, and John Livey, deputy city manager at the City of Toronto, participants—who were broken up across discussion tables—were given 15 minutes to come up with some questions of clarification, which were then asked directly to “the Johns” (as a member of Lura Consulting awkwardly put it). This was followed by a further round of brainstorming on ideas for the Port Lands, and an opportunity to share them with them room.

The 988-acre Port Lands area, a former wetlands infilled in the early 20th century to create industrial lands, presents both major opportunities and major challenges. It needs extensive soil remediation and infrastructure to support development. But it is also mostly publicly owned, close to the downtown, and allows for what could be amazing waterfront amenities for a city sorely in need of amazing waterfront amenities.

Among the concerns most often expressed last night was the fate of a re-naturalized mouth of the Don River, a key component in the current plans for the area. John Campbell assured the crowd that a re-naturalized Don River was very much a part of any new, accelerated plans for the area as this is contained in the terms of reference for the Environmental Assessment, within which any new plans will work.

One woman prefaced her comment by saying that this was under the assumption that plans should be accelerated at all, which, she said, “should be its own conversation.” Many expressed similar trepidation over what an acceleration might mean for the quality of development in the lands, arguing against hastily made decisions based on the current economic climate.

Campbell responded that the current rethink was “not to lower quality or demean results” and was “not a tradeoff exercise between doing something cheaper,” but instead “tweaking” the project. Such tweaking could include a different phasing of development and market absorption model, as well as reconfigured blocks to allow for more private-sector investment.

A few people also came up with some financial ideas, such as issuing bonds to pay for the development (which would allow Waterfront Toronto to borrow money), and tax increment financing, a tool that is used extensively in the United States that sees property taxes from raised land values plugged back into further revitalization efforts in that same area.

Also on the public’s mind: the need for transit access, affordable housing, sustainable building practices, and the importance of parklands, as well as the future of specific sites like the potential adaptive reuse of the Hearn generating station.

One woman near the end of the night spoke about having “idea fatigue,” noting that extensive public consultations had already taken place for these lands. Whether or not others in the audience, or those following the online webcast and Twitter conversation, also had idea fatigue, it’s clear that Torontonians are committed to ensuring they get the best waterfront they can, even if that means coming to an almost three-hour public consultation on a mid-December Monday evening.

The next round of public consultations will take place in February and March of 2012.

CORRECTION: December 13, 3:55 p.m. This article originally stated that the consultation was hosted by Lura Consulting, but omitted the fact that it was co-hosted by SWERHUN. We regret the error.

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