Sunday, August 29, 2010

Topic: Toronto is Not a Waterfront City and That’s Ok, Discuss

File this under blunt observations.

So Toronto City Council endorsed Waterfront Toronto’s latest land development this past week, a project known as Bayside. Bayside, located just east of the New Sherbourn Common park, is an $800 million residential, commercial and retail development that will include 1,700 condo units and space for almost 2,400 workers (if of course we can find them in what appears to be a double dip recession). $10 bucks there will also be at least one Starbucks. Any takers?

The entire development will be centered along a newish main street: Bonnycastle Street, which for some reason reminds me of pirates, although I’m not sure why. Bayside is currently the single largest land parcel that Waterfront Toronto has tendered, so far. The 10 acre project is dwarfed by Waterfront Toronto’s grandiose vision for the entire waterfront, which encompasses almost 2,00 acres and is projected to cost around $12 billion, approximate to the nearest billion (or two).

So I actually like the plans for Bayside. The drawings look nice and the rendered people look happy shopping along Bonnycastle Street. Plus I’m secretly hoping that the gay village moves to Bonnycastle Street because the name sounds kind of gay and we can call it Bornercastle.

[Also - I zeroed in on the rendering, but is that Bob Rae on the second floor smirking? Anyone think he’s planning a takeover of the Liberal Party of Canada circa 2014?]

But what I find most amusing about the saga of Bonnycastle Street, Bayside and Waterfront Toronto is how Torontonians become so weirdly passionate about our lack of a pedestrian friendly waterfront. Unlike other issues that wax and wane waterfront paranoia has been pretty constant. Here’s a fun game at your next dinner party; mention Toronto’s waterfront. Chances are at least 5 people will say: “It’s a disgrace.”

As my father is apt to note: “They’ve been talking about fixing up the waterfront since I moved here in the seventies; it still looks like shit.”
Most Torontonians are apoplectic about our shitty waterfront. And various levels of government have been trying to fix it up since the 1970’s when the Federal Liberals threw Toronto a bit of pork called the Harbourfront Centre in order to ensure election victory (classic). Brian Mulroney actually called a Royal Commission on the state of the Toronto waterfront at some point during his later years in office; because nothing says “let’s get things done” like a Royal Commission. Current Waterfront redevelopment began in 1999 when Mel Lastman, JC and Mike Harris announced the creation of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Taskforce, now known as Waterfront Toronto. Still the Waterfront is a mixed bag that Torontonians love to debate and bemoan.

This is where it gets awkward, I think. As Torontonians we need to accept the fact that Toronto is and will never be a waterfront city. Our waterfront obsession is weird and we need to move on.

Why is Toronto a fake waterfront city? Look at its history of urban development as a centre of manufacturing and services. When former Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe laid out Yonge Street and Dundas Street as his two primary military roads, he created a central spine for the city that ran perpendicular to the lake. Yonge street didn’t even go as far as Lake Ontario, when it was laid out, in the late seventeen hundreds, Yonge ended at Bloor. It wasn’t extended south of Queen Street until after 1812. Initially a connector road linked up the muddy city of York to Yonge Street. Eventually Yonge would become the City of Toronto’s main drag and urban development mirrored traffic patterns, which by then weren’t so much about the lake but about Yonge Street. Because Toronto’s main streets were built with zero relationship to the lake as the city grew and developed around these arteries Toronto moved further and further away from being a lake-side city.

Toronto’s poor relationship with Lake Ontario is not because of the Gardiner Expressway or the rail lands, which many presume cut us off from our beloved waterfront, rather its historical.

Unlike Paris, which has grown up along the Seine, or other port city’s that are invariably connected to their water; Toronto actually grew up a couple kilometer’s north of the lake. The building on the Bloor subway cemented the fact that Toronto was no longer a lake-front city.

That being said, however, Toronto has been shaped by its natural environment. Just as Vancouver is shaped by False Creek and mountains, Toronto has had to bend to nature. However, in our case, nature isn’t our lakeside its our inland valleys.

And yet for some reason Torontonians are frantic about our waterfront, or lack there of.  Its another thing on the list of things that supposedly have to get down before our city can officially be declared “World Class”.  Toronto is like the girl who has pretty curly hair and desperately wants straight hair. Dear Toronto, not everyone has to have Frank Gerry designed straight hair along their waterfront, know what I mean? Talk to friends when they come back from Chicago and the first thing they’ll talk about is the waterfront; ditto for Barcelona. “Now that’s a city,” they’re likely to say. “A city with a waterfront.” What Harold Hill sold us the bill of goods that we couldn’t be a top-tier city unless we had a beautiful waterfront?

“You Got Trouble Toronto. And that starts with G and that rhymes with T and that stands for Gardiner.” (Stay tuned as I endeavor to re-write the entire lyrics of the Music Man about Toronto and its relationship to the lakefront!)

This is not to say that beautifying our waterfront should not be a priority for both Torontonians, and our elected officials (and by elected officials I’m talking about Mayor and by talking about anyone but Ford). Beautification should be important to us. And god bless any federal monies that actually flow into Toronto.  But a waterfront is not a panacea to Toronto’s ills; it isn’t some sort of steroid injection that will ultimately make Toronto be a better place for all of us.

Sadly our waterfront is a chimera for a city that is still trying to define itself. It is also a sad lament on the fact that in Toronto and in Canada we can talk about city-building initiatives for 40 years and still diddle about. What I find most disappointing about Toronto’s obsession with our waterfront is that Toronto is blessed with a unique geographic feature that you can’t find in most other cities; Toronto isn’t a waterfront city - it’s a ravine city. We may not have the Seine, but we have reams of emerald jewels that connect our disparate parts of urbanity together. It is this geography which has undoubtedly shaped Toronto and it is this topographical feature that we should in fact celebrate, protect and show off.

So just as we’re likely to deplane from our Porter Flight from Chicago and revel about Chicago’s Waterfront, why can’t Chicagonians return to Chicago and extol the virtues of Toronto’s ravines?

As with anything else in this world, Toronto just needs to shake what her mama gave her.

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