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Fords seek to revise waterfront plan that was years in the making

Waterfront Toronto is defending its plan for the Port Lands – which involved years of consultations – following the revelation that the Ford administration has a plan of its own, and is seeking to put control of the development solely in the hands of the city.

The existing plans for the 1,000-acre site, which received unanimous approval last year from the former city council, took years to hammer out, along with investment from three levels of government, said Marisa Piattelli, spokeswoman for Waterfront Toronto, the agency created by the federal, provincial and city governments to oversee revitalization of the eastern harbour and Lower Don Lands.

"We have had furious, rigorous and detailed public consultations – five years' worth," she said Monday. "There is an important integrity of that process that we all need to keep in mind."

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Members of Mayor Rob Ford's inner circle, especially his brother, Etobicoke councillor Doug Ford, have made no secret of their desire to kick-start development on the city's eastern waterfront, the former home of a generating station and industrial land. A staff report released late last week recommends that a city agency – the Toronto Port Lands Co.– take the lead on future revitalization of the area, a role filled by Waterfront Toronto since it was created in 2001.

The change in governance, to be considered at the Executive Committee's Sept. 6 meeting, would establish a new board that includes two members of council to oversee development, giving the mayor a direct line to shape the plans.

"It's the city's. This is what we need to do. We have to take ownership," Councillor Ford said on Friday.

The councillor said the site south of Lake Shore Boulevard and west of Leslie Street has some of the best views of the city, but looks like a "dump yard." A big and costly venture such as the Port Lands development needs a single authority to make the decisions rather than an arrangement that requires the city, the province and Ottawa to reach agreement, he said. He predicted development will attract badly needed cash and jobs to the city from international private investors who are on the hunt for stable investments.

The city report also recommends modifications to plans for the mouth of the Don River, a move Councillor Ford said is necessary to add land for development. He expects that with the proposed new arrangement, the revitalization can be completed in five or six years, compared to the 25-year horizon in the current plans.

The existing plan, which has no funding, has an estimated price tag of $634-million.

The multi-use development he envisions would include impressive shopping malls, waterfront hotels, bike paths and possibly the world's largest Ferris wheel. A stadium for a National Football League team – long an ambition of the councillor – would not be included, he said.

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"We've got to get this city booming and tell the rest of the world about it," he said. "This will be the most spectacular development in all of Canada. Your jaw will drop when you see this."

The existing board of the Toronto Port Lands Co. already has given the green light for spending $550,000 for a consultant's report on future development of the area, the staff report says.

Area councillor Paula Fletcher said the city needs to be cautious about jumping from one model for development to another. "There is a desire to go faster. Is that possible? I don't know," she said. "We have great expectations for the waterfront. It belongs to Toronto. It doesn't belong to one councillor."

She said the transformation of the mouth of the Don River, which now ends in a stagnant, litter-filled channel, is key to any plan. "You can't build a new community around a ditch."

Those who have worked for more than a decade to shepherd the existing plan are dismayed that the city would step in without any consultation.

"This is a huge slap in the face that this would come forward, snuck in as a staff report at the end of the summer," said Cynthia Wilkey, chair of the West Don Lands Committee, a coalition of community groups that has worked for 14 years on the waterfront development.

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The action, Ms. Wilkey said, calls into question the city's credibility as a partner. "It is up to citizens now to raise the alarm bells."

Councillor Ford said the new deal would not mean the city is severing its ties with Waterfront Toronto. "We are going to be working hand-in-hand with Waterfront," he said.

Councillor Fletcher said the city needs to be cautious as it moves forward. "You only get to do it once, so you have to do it right," she said.

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