Few Torontonians have a closer or more enduring connection to Toronto's controversy-plagued waterfront than former mayor David Crombie, who grew up in Swansea and still likes to explore the trails, boardwalks and construction sites abutting Lake Ontario. Along the way, he headed a royal commission on the waterfront established by the Mulroney government in the late 1980s in response to public outrage about severely botched development around Harbourfront.
In his massive final report, Mr. Crombie underscored the complex, but poorly understood, social and ecological links between the lakeshore and the city's ravines and rivers. For his next act, he launched an ill-fated Olympic bid that yielded a $1.5-billion pledge for waterfront revitalization from the three orders of government, as well as a development agency with a mandate to avoid the missteps of the past.
Now, almost 30 years after that first mistake by the lake, Mr. Crombie is highly optimistic about the latest development projects, although he admits that Waterfront Toronto faces turbulent financial and political times. With shovels in the ground, his advice to Mayor Rob Ford: Don't throw the baby out with the lake water.
Is the waterfront in play again?
The waterfront is always in play. Toronto's basic geophysical bone structure is its river valleys and its waterfront, and its waterfront has always had a major role in determining its economy, its social life, its politics. It's always in play.
Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug have raised questions about the progress of waterfront redevelopment and talked about a football stadium and big box retail for the Hearn Generating Station. What's your take on the progress so far?
For roughly the last decade, I think we've been clearly on the right track. The Olympic bid was the thing that gave birth to the tri-government approach. That's the right approach. People have forgotten the great difficulties before the waterfront corporation was put in place. You had many governments and agencies who were determining the destiny of the waterfront. It was very difficult for the city of Toronto to play a role.
Secondly, there was a legacy of problems to be dealt with, so [Waterfront Toronto]didn't start with a clean sheet - environmental, land title questions, older missions by government. Those all had to be ironed out.
Whether or not they've spent more money than they ought to, I don't know that. Every agency has to pass muster on public finances. But if there are [problems] let's deal with that. The city of Toronto can bring to bear a lot of influence if it wishes to, but it should do so within the context of Waterfront Toronto.
Is there any reason we shouldn't sell off a lot of that land down there and let the market do its thing?
A couple of things: Throughout the whole history of Toronto's waterfront, there was a public authority that had responsibility for it. Within that public framework, there was lots of activity by the private sector and by the community sector. The idea that you should have private investment is a good thing. The idea that it should only be private investment is totally antithetical to any part of our history or indeed any rational understanding of how [redevelopment]should proceed.
I noticed recently even some private developers said, "No, no, no, you need to have that public framework." It is an extraordinary waterfront. I have no doubt it will be one of the top three in North America. But it needs a public framework and vigorous private and community involvement. That's the basic formula.
Are there sufficient public funds to make all this happen?
The fact that there was $1.5-billion [from the three orders of government]was a bit mythical. It was never that amount. They subtracted their current expenses. Getting the money [for Waterfront Toronto]was a major piece of work and still is. Perhaps more importantly, the federal government and the provincial government are trying to figure out how they'll pay their bills in the future. And so there will be less money. The Waterfront Toronto people probably understand that. Therefore, we'll have to be more imaginative within the city and its communities.
I think that can be done. There's enormous talent and money in this city. The magic is to bring the public and private community together. But it's harder work than simply saying, please send the money in the mail.
Any thoughts about an NFL football stadium for the Hearn site?
Should there be recreation facilities? Yes. Should there be hockey rinks? Yes. Should there be playing fields? I think all of those things are good for the waterfront and they're part of the plans. The idea of putting in a major stadium, which requires lots of parking, would fly in the face of the work that's been done for many years.
It seems to me that the amount of investment that would be required for it would be much better spent in terms of developing the waterfront according to plans already existing that offer jobs to people, recreation or simply enjoyment of the waterfront. I fail to see the importance of [a football stadium]
What about transit? The Ford administration is not keen on light rail. But five years from now, we'll have 8,000 to 10,000 condo units in the West Donlands for the Pan Am Games athletes village. What does the transit picture look like to you?
For the waterfront to reach its promise, there clearly has to be more public transit, not less. It seems to me the waterfront is perfect for surface transit.
What about a monorail?
I'm always afraid of monorails because they create dead space underneath them.
When the mayor shows his frustration at the pace of change on the waterfront, he expresses the concerns many Torontonians share. Are you impatient at this point?
When I hear people say they're impatient about development on the waterfront, I don't want to be unkind, but they are people who don't go there. If you start at Mimico Creek and go straight across to Victoria Park and the Bluffers, the change is enormous. No, I'm not impatient with it. I'm impatient with those whose impatience is going to rush us to judgment.
It's going now. Does it need to be done better? Anything can be done better. But, boy, this is a ship that is going. Want to improve it? Do that. But don't blow it up.
Special to The Globe and Mail