To the south is the Keating Channel, an inlet into Lake Ontario built for the shipping trade. To the north and east curves the Martin Goodman Trail. To the west rise abandoned silos, and beyond them spreads downtown Toronto. Surrounding this 5.5-hectare piece of waterfront land is a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
It looked the exact opposite of a thriving cityscape on Wednesday: a small forest of poplars, reeds, birches, sumachs, willows, burrs and goldenrod and lambs ears, milkweed and pavement and gravel.
Home Depot has owned this land for many years; after it lost a battle with the city at the Ontario Municipal Board in its bid to put a big box hardware store here, homeless people occupied the site in a tent city. Last week Castlepoint Realty, partnered with Citizyn Group, a local developer, and Continental Ventures Realty, which is based in New York, bought the site from Home Depot.
At its last meeting in August, city council rezoned this parcel for “mixed use;” Waterfront Toronto created a Keating Channel Precinct Plan which promises “the interplay between the continuity of the midrise structures and the punctuation of the high-rise structures will allow the precinct to achieve significant density while maintaining a high level of pedestrian comfort.”
The zoning that council approved restricts most buildings to 10 storeys here, which would make this a liveable neighbourhood, à la St. Lawrence or the new Regent Park.
The artist’s renderings cannot touch the natural beauty of the bird-filled thicket on the site right now. Still, as dreams, they are OK: certainly prettier than what we are likely to get.
“We want the waterfront to be a place of good public amenities, and to see that it be a place to work, with vibrant streets lined with active retail,” said Gary Wright, Toronto’s chief planner.
Great. Now we know what he wants. But since August, 16 parties have appealed the zoning to the OMB, an unelected group with a robust record of overturning elected council’s will in favour of lots of tall towers. I fear what we will get is more akin to the sterile strip now nearing completion just east of the Princes’ Gates at the Ex: 35-storey towers with thousands of tiny dwelling units, narrow sidewalks, sporadic public transit and nowhere to buy a cup of coffee.
John Campbell, the chief executive of Waterfront Toronto, created by the three levels of government to transform our lake front, energetically disagrees.
“We’re not in that regime of ‘Let’s do a deal,’ ” Mr. Campbell said when I stopped by his office, at the foot of Bay Street. “They [the developers] have bought into our vision of what we’re delivering for the city.”
Just before my visit, Alfredo Romano of Castlepoint, Jane Grol and Amir Chaluts of Continental Ventures Realty, and Sam Crignano of Citizyn Group had made the trip up to Mr. Campbell’s office, to kiss his ring, as it were, and make an introduction of their New York partner.
Mr. Romano conceded that, behind his friendly smile, he is lawyering up to battle the city at the OMB, a process begun under the seller of the parcel of land.
“Home Depot appealed it to the OMB,” he said. “They have built form issues, road issues, and issues with the affordable housing strategy.”
Even so, Mr. Romano insists, “We are generally supportive of the bylaw. We hope to get in the ground within two or three years and build out a mixed-use development that is consistent with the vision of the city.”
Rob Ford, the future mayor of Toronto, told the National Post editorial board during the election campaign that he would halt city spending on the waterfront, because Toronto is broke. Even so, Mr. Ford climbed a hill at Sugar Beach the day after his big win, to survey his domain — ironically, a mound of earth that will give way to a future development.
We don’t need the city to spend money on the waterfront — the private sector is now lining up to do that. We do need some strong-willed planners who will set guidelines for a beautiful waterfront and stick to their guns. Perhaps Mr. Ford has the strength of character to ensure this.