About a year ago, word leaked that Councillor Doug Ford had a grand plan to wipe out the existing strategy for Toronto’s port lands and replace it with something decidedly chintzy and overhyped. He wanted to build a mall and a monorail and maybe a ferris wheel. He told us this would be great.
It wasn’t. It was terrible.
Councillors rose up and pushed back against the plan. Waterfront Toronto—the agency being threatened by Ford and his pals—drew widespread support from planners, academics, activists and most everyone else who supported sane development on the water’s edge.
Ford’s plan died unceremoniously. In its place, Waterfront Toronto agreed to look at ways to accelerate their existing development plan for the port lands. That process—led by outside consultants—took several months and involved a number of public consultation sessions and reams of reports. For the most part, things went well. The agencies involved were responsive to community members and assorted stakeholders, and care was taken to ensure that almost everybody was reasonably happy with the final outcome.
And yeah, the tweaked plan for the port lands unveiled earlier this month is pretty good. It keeps the essence of the original plan while allowing for more phased development. They made it all a little bit cheaper without ripping out the stuff that made those fancy renders so appealing in the first place.
But here’s the thing: none of this really matters. Almost everything about this process, from the very first moment Doug Ford first imagined a monorail cutting across Lake Ontario to a lakeside Jamba Juice to the final public consultation session, was mostly just a waste of everybody’s time.
Because no one actually wants to pay for any of this.
Like with most major infrastructure projects these days, all levels of government involved in waterfront development are dancing around the fact that you can’t build major infrastructure projects without major public investment. Instead of buckling down and admitting that we need to match revenue to ambition, politicians have started pointing to improbable magic tricks that involve borrowing from future tax revenues or getting the private sector to build stuff for free for some reason.
To their credit, Waterfront Toronto has realized that governments aren’t going to swing in with piles of cash for their plans. They’ve done some financial analysis—based on a total project cost of $1.9 billion—working from the idea that revenue can be raised through land sales and increased development charges.
It’s not an entirely unrealistic strategy but it probably won’t work—not anytime soon, anyway. At the heart of Waterfront Toronto’s financial analysis is the notion that there’s enough developer demand to build almost 10,000 residential condo units in the port lands area.
The condo market in this city is hot, but it’s not that hot, and there are signs that it may slow down in the coming years. Waterfront Toronto is already counting on condo sales to sustain development in the West Don Lands and East Bayfront. And even after those areas are built-out, port land condos will be competing with development in areas of the city that actually have existing infrastructure and amenities.
It’s not that it’s impossible. It’s just that it’ll take a very long time. And almost definitely still require significant public investment.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Smart, sustainable development takes time. Waterfront Toronto is doing great work in the West Don Lands and along Queen’s Quay East, and it’d be a shame to rush toward the port lands before those areas are fully built-out and developed as neighbourhoods.
But acceleration? Not going to happen. It never was. Not at a time when governments are turning toward austerity and shying away from any serious public investment.
You can’t get a good waterfront without paying for it.