For the past several years, Toronto real-estate developer Peter Freed has been watching the revitalization of the city's inner harbour inch slowly forward, and he has not liked much that's happening by the water's edge. "It's a typical, boring, Canadian version of what could be," he told me. "There's nothing earth-shattering about it, nothing globally impressive about it."
But unlike most Torontonians who dislike the painstaking handiwork of Waterfront Toronto - that's the Crown corporation overseeing the renewal of the industrial harbour lands - Mr. Freed has taken the time to contribute something new to the discussion of the inner shoreline's redesign.
His idea, unveiled last week, is grandiose. It's more extravagant than anything proposed so far by the urban planners and architects working for Waterfront Toronto. And it's certainly the most unusual harbourfront scheme anybody's come up with since local people began to think about uniting the city and Lake Ontario 200 years ago.
Mr. Freed suggests throwing a linear green park over the railway corridor that runs across inner-city Toronto (not a bad notion, in my view). This park, with its biking, jogging and rollerblading paths, would then connect, probably at the foot of Bathurst Street - this is where the proposal gets interesting - with an immense boardwalk jutting out into the harbour just east of the island airport. The boardwalk, perhaps 50 feet wide, would bend around the harbour in a great arc, meeting the linear park again somewhere on the east side of downtown. (Mr. Freed hasn't decided where this eastern connection might take place.)
In this vision, the pedestrian walkway out into the water is supplied with restaurants, cafés and places for picnicking. At the point where the arc swings closest to the Toronto Islands and farthest from the mainland, Mr. Freed foresees "a huge entertainment space ... for symphonies, concerts."
"Statue-of-Liberty-size statues of people from all races and cultures, from Toronto's past or whatever" stand in the water near the concert podium. "This is the only way for Toronto to take full ownership of its waterfront, by putting you right in the bay," Mr. Freed said. "It doesn't have to be overwhelmed with programming. It could be nice places to eat, walk, run, sit down and enjoy the view."
Also in this scenario, the Toronto Islands would no longer be accessible only by the ferry and water taxis that run from the foot of Yonge Street. The boardwalk, Mr. Freed said, could touch the islands at various points, opening foot and cycling traffic from the mainland for the first time in more than a century.
Mr. Freed has not presented his idea to city officials or to anyone at Waterfront Toronto, nor has he sat through any of the intense public planning sessions that have been going on throughout most of the past decade. "This is a fresh concept that has been in my head," he said, "and I thought we could throw it out there for some debate, to see if it can catch wind with the forces that be."
The developer has anticipated some immediate objections to his plan - the way it would seem to block the passage of the island ferry, for example, and interfere with the free manoeuvring of pleasure craft in and out of the harbour and commercial shipping to the Redpath Sugar refinery. His reply: The boardwalk would rise at its western and eastern extremities to allow boats to pass unobstructed, and other accommodations would be made for Great Lakes ships. "There is nothing that could not be worked out here. People flew to the moon in a space ship, so I'm sure we could figure out how to get a ship or two in and out of the sugar plant. If we can't we should all be embarrassed."
My own problems with this controversial scheme include all the ones I just mentioned, plus an aesthetic consideration. The small lagoon framed by the archipelago of islands and the dense fabric of the downtown towers is, as it stands, one of Toronto's most attractive natural features. I can't see how filling it with an enormous boardwalk and with towering statues would enhance the beauty of this expanse of water or the already fine views of the city from the islands.
Logistics and aesthetics aside, however, the notable thing about Mr. Freed's proposal is that a private citizen, on his own initiative, took the trouble to make it. We should hope that other people in the city will follow his lead, and launch similarly ambitious waterfront ideas into the public debate about what's to become of Toronto's Lake Ontario edge.