You could be forgiven if you missed it, but an announcement of what is likely to be a transformative civic project was made in Toronto this week. A bigger deal than a rail deck park, or a new subway extension, or any of the other things that typically occupy front pages. The kind of thing that, when Torontonians look back in 50 years, they will realize defined the Toronto they know, shaped it, allowed it to be built.
These kinds of things, when they’re happening in real time, can almost fly under the radar, at least as much as an announcement where the prime minister, premier and mayor share a stage can ever be unnoticed. Indeed, when those three leaders joined Waterfront Toronto CEO Will Fleissig for their press conference, the topics and language they used might have lulled some listeners into boredom: “flood protection,” “clean-up,” “river re-naturalization.” Worthy-sounding topics, certainly. But the language masked the monumental implications.
But it will be monumental, city-defining: The $1.25 billion project will allow, at long last, one of the largest downtown redevelopment projects in any major city in the world.
“By doing this work, we’re unlocking the potential of this amazing piece of land to build a community where people will live, where they’ll work, where they’ll shop, where they’ll play and where the land will be healthier,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne, summing up the implications.
There is an area adjacent to downtown, the port lands, that is partly vacant, mostly underused industrial space, that is also massive. Seven hundred and fifteen acres of developable lakefront land on the waterfront. That’s an area that would stretch roughly from Bathurst St. to Jarvis St. and from Front St. almost to College St. —the size, that is, of the existing downtown core.
For decades, officials have talked about and developed plans for redevelopment into a new community where people live and work — home to maybe 25,000 new residences and 30,000 jobs — filled with waterfront parkland and recreation space.
But because of a century-old decision to re-route the mouth of the Don River abruptly into a channel, the land is in serious need of flood protection, and the river and its surroundings are heavily polluted. Transforming that land into urban space — a part of the living city — hinges on the remediation and flood protection plan announced this week.
There’s more than that: the plan by a private developer to develop office space for 50,000 jobs on the former Unilever site east of the Don River — a site central to the city’s SmartTrack and relief subway transit plans — also hinges on this flood protection.
And the newly re-naturalized river mouth will define the natural setting in which all of that will occur, creating a new valley of waterfront parkland flowing through the new neighbourhoods to meet the lake.
Mayor John Tory has often compared this potential redevelopment in the port area as our version of Canary Wharf, referring to the industrial redevelopment into a new office core in London, England, but it is much larger than that. Much larger that Hudson Yards in New York City. Bigger than the Docklands in Melbourne, Australia.
It is the construction of a whole new downtown area, connected to the existing one.
For as long as I’ve been following city politics, people have been talking about the port lands — what to do there, how to do it, why the hell it’s all taking so long to do it. And for a long time, more than a decade now, the plan to get it done has been pretty much in place, waiting to get started. Waiting on politicians to stop meddling and commit to the expensive years of long work of getting the flood protection and remediation done first.
And here we are. The day has come. It will be decades before it is finished, but with a simple announcement this week, the work has finally begun.
Edward Keenan writes on city issues firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow: @thekeenanwire
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