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New Toronto Port Lands strategy involved private talks with mall operator

The Gardiner Expressway by the Port Lands area in Toronto.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Councillor Doug Ford held private talks with real estate and business leaders and one of the world's largest mall operators to produce a proposal that will fundamentally change the publicly approved strategy for the eastern Port Lands and put a large retail centre where the mouth of the Don River was supposed to flow.

Councillor Ford, the brother of Mayor Rob Ford and his closest adviser, has spent the week promoting a fast-track revitalization for the roughly 180 hectares of city-owned land at the mouth of the Don River that would include a Ferris wheel, ice rinks at a former power plant, a waterfront hotel and what he describes as a "mega-mall." The Etobicoke councillor says he has met with a long line of local and international investors about the Toronto waterfront, including Australian-based Westfield Group, which operates 124 shopping centres worldwide, but says his notions are not based on any one company's plans.

The concept, which will be unveiled to city council's executive committee on Tuesday, further raises concerns about foreign developers' plans for the coveted waterfront real estate overtaking the public's interest – replacing the already approved expanse of urban green space on the lakefront with retail. The privacy of the talks, derided this week as "backroom planning," has also angered critics.

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Drawings of the new designs have not been made public, but a copy of a "preliminary structure plan" prepared for the Toronto Port Lands Co. and obtained by The Globe and Mail shows a wider mouth for the Don River following the path of the existing Keating Channel, the stagnant waterway where the river now ends. A finger of parkland would also run south along the west side of the Don Roadway to provide flood control into the shipping channel for the river.

That's a dramatic change from the existing proposal for the site. That plan, prepared by a three-government agency – Waterfront Toronto – and backed by the former city council, would see the creation of a new urban park along the banks of a newly created river mouth that would flow in a wide curve through the Port Lands before emptying into the city's inner harbour.

Councillor Ford says the alternative plan adds an additional 36 hectares of valuable land for development. It is a starting point, he said, and is not cast in stone.

"We are open to great ideas – any great ideas," he told The Globe and Mail. "We are going to do consultations out our ying-yang."

The process will be "all transparent," with requests for proposals for all projects, he said. Suggestions that one developer is behind the plans are "absolute nonsense," he added.

A spokeswomen for Westfield said the company is "always looking for opportunities," but would not comment on talks with Toronto councillors.

Councillor Ford is frustrated with the pace of development on the eastern harbour site, handled for the past decade by Waterfront Toronto, a partnership between the city, provincial and federal governments. He wants to give the job to Toronto Port Lands Co. and is hoping to alter an existing environmental assessment, now with the province, in order to get construction going in a few years.

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Mark Sterling, one of two architects hired by Toronto Port Lands to provide advice and preliminary planning, said he was asked to consider a list of potential land uses, including a "large urban retail centre." The other consultant is Eric Kuhne, owner of London-based CivicArts, a firm with projects around the world, including the revitalization of the Belfast shipyards and Cockle Bay Wharf in Sydney. Mr. Kuhne will present more detailed artist's renderings of the new concept for the site at Tuesday's meeting.

The addition of a retail centre, Mr. Sterling said, is designed to trigger development in the area. Offices for high-tech industry also have been added to the plans, he said. "We are speculating about what the future might be to start the public discussion."

City Councillor Adam Vaughan, a frequent critic of the mayor and his brother, said the new plan leaves many questions unanswered – the most important being flood protection. "They haven't solved the flooding problem," said Mr. Vaughan, one of several council members to get a briefing on the plans. "It is all about building a big, huge, honking mall. It is Yorkdale on the waterfront."

Councillor Peter Milczyn, chair of the city's planning and growth committee and a member of the mayor's inner circle, said investors from around the world have been "kicking tires," at city hall. He characterizes the proposals that will be presented Tuesday as "pretty pictures based on real things that have happened all around the world." He called them "reasonable options" that should not be dismissed out of hand.

Councillor Michael Thompson, chair of the economic development committee, said there has been "a parade" of people to city hall to ask about plans for the waterfront, confirming Westfield was one of them. "There have been a lot of folks that have come and said, 'You have a jewel here.' All sorts of people have come forward," he said.

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