'I told you so,' says councillor Ford about new Port Lands plan

The Globe and Mail

Toronto City Councillor Doug Ford in his office at the family business in Etobicoke (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

There is no mention of a Ferris wheel or a monorail, but a new look at kick-starting development of Toronto’s Port Lands includes a less pricey option for the mouth of the Don River that allows for more development and less green space.

The study examines when – and how – to develop the Port Lands, which stretch from the inner harbour east to Leslie Street. The interim findings will be released Saturday at a public open house. An advance copy, obtained by The Globe and Mail, identifies areas where development could begin within years instead of decades. But all that depends upon the right market conditions and the city figuring out a way to deliver transit and services to the eastern waterfront.

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Councillor Doug Ford says the study proves his point. It was his musing last summer about fast-tracking development with a luxury hotel, a megamall and a Ferris wheel linked to the downtown by monorail that led to the current re-examination.

“I told you so. You can print that in big letters,” Mr. Ford said. “They are looking at mixed use and one of the critical things is transportation. The only thing they are missing is the Ferris wheel.”

Others have a different take on the findings, which include a study of real estate demand and financing options, as well as alternatives to the award-winning plans to transform the mouth of the Don River from a stagnant channel to a waterfront park.

“He must have a different set of expert reports than I’ve been reading,” said Councillor Paula Fletcher, whose ward includes the Port Lands. “It is not a slam dunk. This is a very complicated, long-term project.”

The Port Lands study is a joint effort by the city and Waterfront Toronto. It’s part of a compromise struck by city councillors after Mr. Ford failed to get the needed support for his plan to take control of developing the lands from Waterfront Toronto. A final report is set to go to the city’s executive committee in June and to council a month later.

A review of office and residential demand commissioned for the study shows that even with services in place it will take decades to build out the entire Port Lands – an area equal in size to the downtown core. It singles out sites such as land at the northern edge of the area that could be developed first under the right conditions.

Mr. Ford – long frustrated by Waterfront Toronto’s lengthy development timeline – dismissed those findings. “I totally disagree with that,” he said. “I’ll get another firm to tell you something totally opposite. The market is there.”

Still, he pledged to continue to work with the agency on its plans. “We are moving it forward,” he said.

One of the most controversial issues the study addresses is the transformation of the Don River mouth. The original plan developed by Waterfront Toronto included a $634-million design to naturalize the river’s banks as it flowed to the lake. The design is the result of years of consultations and part of an environmental assessment. The new study takes a second look at the other options included in the environmental assessment and proposes an alternative to the chosen design. That alternative leaves larger blocks of land for development and includes a more narrow strip of riverside park.

John Campbell, head of Waterfront Toronto, estimates the new design will save between $100-million and $150-million. Its real advantage, he said, is that it can be built in phases, allowing development to begin before all the work is done.

“The dream isn’t quite as big as it was, but it is still a naturalized river and green space,” he said. Building the project in “digestible chunks” means the costs will be spread. First up would be the “spillway,” a stretch of green space that runs south to the shipping channel that he estimates would cost $50-million.

John Wilson, a long-time advocate for the Don River and a member of the advisory group consulted for the study, said he is saddened by the prospect of losing the planned promontory park at the mouth of the river and the spectacular city views it promised. But he says the revised plan is “something that can be built.” The best case, he said, would be to have the original designers work on the new plan. “I’d love to see them put some pizzazz and wow back into it,” he said.

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