As Waterfront Toronto embarks on public consultations as part of Mayor Rob Ford's bid to accelerate Port Lands redevelopment, a senior Ontario cabinet minister has attacked the change in direction, warning that the city risks repeating previous lakeside debacles in its bid to generate cash from land sales.
"This is bad planning and jumping the gun," said Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray, whose riding abuts the Port Lands. As the former mayor of Winnipeg, he is still engaged in urban issues, as well as being Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities. "We want to sell the land after we put transit and parks and schools in there. If you get the sequencing wrong, you'll end up selling the land for cheap."
Mr. Murray's broadside comes at a time when Waterfront Toronto is beginning to scope out options for developing the 700-hectare area south of the Keating Channel, known as the "Lower Donlands."
The Waterfront rethink is the result of a council compromise hammered out in September after widespread public outrage over Councillor Doug Ford's bid to promote a hastily conceived development scheme involving mega-malls, a Ferris wheel and a monorail.
Monday evening, the agency will be hosting an open house at the Toronto Reference Library to propose some ideas for kick-starting development, share experiences of how other waterfront cities promoted "catalytic projects," and listen to citizen feedback.
At the top of the agenda will be a discussion about how to spark investment activity across the Port Lands, according to Waterfront Toronto's vice-president of communications and government relations, Marisa Piattelli.
"What's the intervention here?" said Ms. Piattelli. "Part of the issue is asking the community straight on: What are your goals for these lands?"
Participants will be asked to comment on some preliminary ideas, such as transforming the iconic Hearn generating station – currently owned by Ontario Power Generation but leased to developer Mario Cortellucci – into an R&D accelerator, similar to the MaRS centre.
Councillor Paula Fletcher (Toronto-Danforth) agreed the Hearn could become an "anchor" with ready access to Carlaw Avenue. "It's a landmark. We have to tackle it."
Ms. Piattelli said the agency also wants input on whether a portion of the Port Lands should become the site of new post-secondary educational institutions.
The notion of mixing higher education with brownfields redevelopment has become a hot topic in recent months. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered derelict city land and a $100-million incentive to any university consortium prepared to build a world-class applied sciences facility, something New York's universities lacked. Among those bidding: the University of Toronto's engineering school. A winner will be chosen next year.
Waterfront Toronto convinced George Brown College to build a campus on the East Bayfront. Ms. Piattelli said it has broached the idea with the province of a post-secondary institution being part of the next round of development. "We're going to put it out there and see. Frankly, it would be a tremendous opportunity."
Mr. Murray said he has yet to be convinced of this approach. "The onus would be on the City of Toronto and the university partners to do the research" into whether there's a need for such an expansion.
His main concern is that accelerating Port Lands development may inadvertently reduce land values in the West Donlands, which are being developed for the 2015 Pan Am Games. He also doesn't want to see past development mistakes repeated, such as the wall of 1980s-vintage condos blocking views of the harbour.
According to the agreement negotiated between Waterfront Toronto and the city, the agency will spend the next few months developing a plan for jump-starting development, with a full-scale council debate set for June.
Behind the scenes, city officials are exploring ways to boost revenues through the use of development charges and tax increment financing as a way to pay for large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the proposed naturalization of the mouth of the Don, which is estimated to cost $634-million.
Ms. Fletcher said city officials should also be asking the province to consider giving Waterfront Toronto the power to debenture. "People are talking about that. I think it's pretty logical." Indeed, the former Toronto Harbour Commission was able to build the Port Land – a massive lake-filling/dredging project – in the early decades of the 20th century because Ottawa in 1912 had given the agency the authority to issue bonds.