Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

On the waterfront: swapping green space for development lands a lousy trade

Six months removed from the political fight that erupted over the port lands – monorails and Ferris wheels, remember? – Toronto's 1,000-acre block of prime developable land is back in the news this week. Waterfront Toronto has a revised plan for the lands that they've been showing off at a series of public events.

The tweaked plan has been savaged by audiences. At the consultation I attended last night at the Westin Habour Castle, nearly every comment from the public panned the notion of changing the plan to accommodate an accelerated development schedule. No one seemed to understand why an accelerated plan was even desirable in the first place – especially if it comes at the expense of 40 acres of planned green space.

In fact, much of the crowd gathered seemed to regard the suggestion of less green space as a personal affront. An insult.

Put plainly, it seems that while Doug Ford failed in his bid to completely transform plans for the port lands last summer, he's succeeded in muddying the process to the point where community stakeholders have been left confused and agitated. Even where small changes to the original plan make sense, community members are eyeing such changes with suspicion. There's an overwhelming concern that these moves on the waterfront are still politically-driven and part of a continued scheme by the Fords and associated hangers-on to sell off vast tracts of the waterfront to private developers.

It's all a little depressing. And it doesn't help that, hiding behind all the politics and lingering outrage, the fundamental truth about waterfront development at the mouth of the Don River has become clear: nothing can happen without a hell of a lot of money.

How we got here

Before Ford: After an extensive consultation process and an international competition, Waterfront Toronto decides on a plan for the Lower Don Lands (a major part of the port lands) that includes extensive naturalization of the Don River and two promontories creating a more natural landscape around the mouth of the river into Lake Ontario. Everyone is pretty happy with this plan, but it comes with a slightly prohibitive price tag: just the river naturalization and flood protection are set to cost more than $600 million.

The Ford Impact: Cue the mayor's brother, who hits the scene with a splash last summer. In one fell swoop, Doug Ford declared Waterfront Toronto to be a “boondoggle” and their plan for the port lands lacking when compared to his own vision: a retail shopping and tourism destination with a megamall, monorail and maybe even the world's largest Ferris wheel.

People react about as well as you'd expect them to. No one seems to think the port lands is the right spot for Doug Ford's Navy Pier. Community members get organized and even Ford-allied councillors start to make some noise about voting against the plan as proposed. Ultimately, the Fords hit the eject button and council forges a consensus where they all agree to ask for a study on options for accelerating port lands development. Councillors stress that Waterfront Toronto will remain the lead on the project and that the original plan remains intact.

And now: The acceleration study concludes that acceleration isn't possible. Over the next twenty years, the best case scenario says only about 20% of the 1000 acres of developable land in the port lands can support residential, commercial or industrial use. And that's after making some pretty optimistic assumptions about Toronto's real estate market.

The study also points out that the infrastructure requirements – water, electricity, transit – would mean significant up-front public investment, especially if the desire is to build a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly waterfront neighbourhood and not, you know, a canyon of condos with no amenities.

The study does conclude, however, that approximately $175 million could be saved off the originally-projected $634 million cost of river naturalization and flood protection with the elimination of 40 acres of greenspace.

This tweak doesn't do much in terms of making the plan more affordable or doable. There's still a huge upfront cost – it's just a little less huge. It doesn't seem to significantly impact the ability to phase development or to kickstart projects in the near-term. And it doesn't bring Toronto any closer to enjoying the vibrant waterfront residents want.

All it really does is trade some green space for some extra land that could, some day, be sold to developers, all in the name of saving a few bucks. Not a great trade – not now and definitely not for the future.

While there are some who worry that the Fords have their fingerprints all over this new plan, I'm skeptical that the mayor's office still maintains any interest in the waterfront file. They've moved on from last summer's lakefront get-rich-quick scheme and on to the idea of a casino as the city's fiscal saviour.

Doug Ford did surface briefly, telling the Globe & Mail's Elizabeth Church that he was both vindicated by the tweaked plan (“I told you so,” he said) and also that he totally disagreed with the report's major conclusion that there was limited development potential over the next two decades. The councillor from Etobicoke has rendered himself irrelevant in this debate.

Far from being influenced by the nefarious Ford brothers, all Waterfront Toronto has done is produce the report council asked for. They've demonstrated that accelerated development is unlikely and that forward movement in the port lands requires significant public investment. And, yeah, they've said they could reduce some of those upfront costs by shrinking some green space and changing the flood protection landform.

When this plan comes back to to the chamber floor in June, it's up to councillors to indicate that they're not interested in that reduction of green space and that the naturalized areas around the realigned river are critical pieces of this plan that shouldn't be sacrificed.

The most important point made about waterfront development in the debate last year is came from John Lorinc. For Spacing, he explained why the prospects for near-term development were nil unless governments moved to give Waterfront Toronto the fundraising tools they need as a major development corporation:

That said, the Fords could actually do something that would shift this ocean liner of a project from first gear into second. And here’s the cherry on the sundae, guys; that little something wouldn’t cost you a dime:My suggestion: call your best bud Jim Flaherty (but not while driving) and ask him to start talks with Queen’s Park on legislation that would allow Waterfront Toronto to debenture, with the feds signing on as guarantors if those loans go south. The city’s piece of the deal: allow Waterfront Toronto to retain real estate revenues.By giving the agency the power to borrow within prescribed limits, Waterfront Toronto can take on the necessary mortgages to build vital infrastructure – the Don Mouth naturalization, public spaces, transit, etc. – in advance of planned development. The improvements to the public realm, in turn, serve to increase property values, thus creating more downstream revenue to the corporation, a portion of which it will use to pay down the aforementioned loans.

It's ridiculous to expect Waterfront Toronto to move forward on the Lower Don Lands when they're stuck waiting around for a government to swoop in with gift funding. Under the current governance model, little is likely to happen without a catalytic event like the Olympics or a major new university campus.

If council really wants to accelerate development along the water's edge, they should make a formal request to the federal government to grant Waterfront Toronto the powers it needs to raise money for infrastructure investment.

This post was originally published at on 2012-04-05T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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