A year after Doug Ford set off a big fight over the future of the Port Lands by musing about Ferris wheels and monorails, all was sunshine and butterflies again at city hall on Monday when a revised plan for the huge tract at the east end of the harbour came forward for approval at city council's executive committee. You might even call it a kumbaya moment.
Councillors of the political left, still exultant over the defeat of Mr. Ford’s madcap plan, praised Waterfront Toronto and city staff for coming up with such a thorough and thoughtful look at prospects for development. Councillors of the right, leery of stirring up memories of their waterfront Waterloo, limited themselves to a few polite questions about where all the money – $1.9-billion in total – was going to come from. “I think we have a piece of work the city can be very proud of,” Etobicoke councillor Peter Milczyn said, recalling “the angst that gripped the city unnecessarily” a year back.
He's right to a point. There is some good news in the pithily named Port Lands Acceleration Initiative. First, by taking a hard look at the plan to control flooding in the Don River by renaturalizing its concrete-channeled mouth, planners shaved $130-million off its estimated cost – no small saving in straitened times. Second, by breaking the development into phases, they identified two areas where developers could get going fairly promptly, at least in waterfront terms: the Cousins and Polson quays on the western side of the Port Lands facing the water; and the film studio district farther inland.
But big questions still hang over the whole plan. One is what to do about private land sprinkled around the 880-acre site. At least one owner, Lafarge cement, says it has no intention of vacating. Another issue is how to accommodate the remaining functions of the harbour as a working port. Planners have had to scale back their plans for a new harbour park and keep a mooring wall for freighters from the Redpath sugar terminal.
Yet another question is transit. There was general agreement at Monday's meeting that “higher-order” transit to the Port Lands is necessary to make it attractive for residents and businesses. But so far, there is no funded plan to extend a light-rail line even to the East Bayfront area of the waterfront, much less run it through the Port Lands.
The biggest issue – for transit and the whole plan – is cost. Waterfront Toronto, the overseeing agency, does not actually have any money set aside to develop the Port Lands. It is counting on developers to finance roads, bridges, parks, flood protection and other infrastructure. It estimates it could get nearly a billion from land sales over 30 years and another $200-million from local charges on developers.
That still leaves the plan far short of what is needed, and the report suggests considering installing a city-wide development charge, tapping tax revenue from governments and even turning to philanthropy – as if some generous billionaire were going to help pay for it all.
You can charge developers only so much before they decide to build somewhere else.
Glass-half-full types will see this report as promising. Downtown councillor Pam McConnell pointed out that the city has been talking for decades about developing the area of the downtown west of the Don River. Now, in the West Don Lands area, it is finally taking shape. One day, it will happen in the Port Lands, too. But acceleration initiatives notwithstanding, it is going to take a lot more time and a lot more money.