October 10, 2015
In 2007 when I wrote Greening Waterfront Development: Toronto, I was highly impressed with official plans for greening Toronto’s waterfront. Our two day tour with Greater Portland Inc, had Waterfront Revitalization on the agenda, but we didn’t get to the area that I wanted to see–the re-naturalizing of the mouth of the Don River.
So after our debriefing on Sept. 30, I rented a bike at HI Toronto and headed towards the Waterfront Trail then east towards the Don River. I wanted to document the progress Toronto had made in their plans to transform the mouth of this highly channelized river that I had written about in my 2007 article. I soon ran out of separated bike trail and plush new development and came to a channel with a short bridge over it. With a bit of incredulity in my voice, I asked “Is THIS the mouth of the Don River?” of the fellow who turned out to be the drawbridge operator.
He assured me that it was. Then I asked “What about the re-naturalization they were going to be doing?” He told me that volunteers had been doing some planting in the park down the way so I headed into the industrial area along Villers Street making a first stop at a small public pier to capture the drawbridge opening. I was crestfallen to see the mouth of the river was still in its concrete channel and brown from sediment. Active dredging was still taking place. In fact, the drawbridge was opening for a barge carrying dredge material upriver in what is called the Keating Channel.
I did find some native species and a sign corroborating what the drawbridge operator had told me. But the scale of the ecological restoration that needs to be done there came nowhere close to the scale of the earth moving and skyscraper building that is taking place nearby. In fact, it seemed to be the proverbial drop in the bucket.
I found it disappointing that any city with 180 towering cranes in its core area alone was not making equally fast progress with the ecological restoration of one of its major rivers. It leads me to ask what kind of public benefit is the City extracting from each of these developments?
Recommendations to re-naturalize the mouth of the Don River have been in existence since 1991. According to a Wikipedia article on the Don: In 2007, the Toronto Waterfront Development Corporation (now WaterfrontToronto) held a design competition that looked at four different configurations for the mouth of the Don. The winning bid was made by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The environmental assessment is expected to be complete in 2008 and construction is scheduled to begin in 2010. That Environmental Assessment was only passed by the province January 26, 2015–a 7 year lag! This was not because of the economic “recession.” We were told that did not phase Toronto.
When I reviewed the plans by Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, I was reminded that Instead of creating naturalized banks along the straight course of the existing channel connecting the Don River with the lake, as was originally suggested in the project brief, MVVA’s design keeps the Keating Channel as an urban artifact and neighborhood amenity and creates a new mouth for the river that flows logically from the upstream source, bypassing the abrupt right turn created by the channel. A large new meandering riverfront park becomes the centerpiece of a new mixed-use neighborhood.
October 12, 2015
An interesting explanation for the delay of the re-naturalization of the Don River that I was expecting to see can be found in Planning Nature and the City: Toronto’s Lower Don River and Port Lands by Gene Desfor and Jennifer Bonnell:
. . . in the fall of 2011 Mayor Rob Ford, his brother Councillor Doug Ford, their right-wing allies, and competing development agencies, attempted to hijack current waterfront planning processes and radically alter plans for the Port Lands. Those sympathetic to Mayor Ford’s vision see these lands primarily as a way to ease budget woes by selling prime waterfront property to international developers. As the Toronto Star editorialized, “The Fords’ ludicrous vision for the future – complete with a megamall, monorail and giant Ferris wheel – was so abysmal that a tide of Torontonians rose up in protest. Most city councillors broke with the mayor’s program and quashed the takeover [of Waterfront Toronto].”31 At the time of writing [no date provided], a political solution is being sought in which Waterfront Toronto, the City, and various special purpose government organizations are working to design a compromise between Ford’s “ludicrous vision” and the plan based on the MVVA proposal.
According to Waterfront Toronto website, construction of the Lower Don Lands Plan and the Port Lands Plan is yet to come. There is no mention of the above controversy on their site.
A Waterfront Toronto newsroom article announced that on July 14, 2015 it, along with federal, provincial and city government partners, came up with $5M to take the next steps on the proposal to naturalize the Don River:
The due diligence work being primarily undertaken by Waterfront Toronto will provide governments with additional assurance on the estimated $975 million cost of this project, which includes rerouting the Don River to the middle of the Port Lands between the Ship Channel and the Keating Channel, remediating the area’s contaminated soil, creating new parks, wetlands and resilient urban infrastructure that will remove the flooding risk, unlock a vast area for revitalization and development – including the creation of a new community called Villiers Island – and create billions of dollars of economic development opportunities.
The first phase of this due diligence work is scheduled to be completed by November of this year , and “will enable government funding of the project by providing confirmation of the cost of the project, strategies to mitigate the risks associated with the project, and an implementation strategy.”
The project would be ready to start by 2017 and take approximately seven years to complete. An independent study by PwC done for Waterfront Toronto in 2014 estimates that “the project will generate $3.6 billion in value to the Canadian economy, 7,672 person years of employment and $346 million in tax revenues to all levels of government.”
So, to answer the question my title asks, “Where is Toronto’s Green Waterfront in 2015?”–LOOK FOR IT IN 2024! That estimate, of course, will depend upon continued economic progress–progress that seems a bit uncertain right now.