It makes perfect sense to rename the Toronto Island ferry terminal after Jack Layton. The late NDP leader and former city councillor fought for the right of island residents to stay in their homes. He married Olivia Chow on the islands, bicycled on their car-free paths and took his kids on island excursions. The islands held such a special meaning for him that some of his ashes were scattered there last summer.
Councillor Pam McConnell, who was part of the group that chose the terminal to be named after Mr. Layton, says the ferries were “a bridge between the busy urban living that Jack loved and the tranquillity and peacefulness of the islands. For us it was a perfect a-ha moment because it embraced those two diversities that Jack loved.”
The trouble is that the ferry terminal is a rather awful place. I’ve been going through it for decades on trips to the islands to picnic, swim or sail and it has always struck me as dingy and depressing.
The terminal is wedged behind the Westin Harbour Castle hotel and the residential Harbour Square towers. These ugly concrete slabs, constructed by developer Robert Campeau before the collapse of his real estate empire, are a blot on the Toronto waterfront.
They block all view of the water. Standing at Bay and Queens Quay, the approach to the ferry docks, you could just as easily be at Portage and Main. Cars charge out of the underground parking lot and over the sidewalk on the south side, while, on the northeast corner, the squat bunker of the conference centre looms over the intersection. A less friendly environment for pedestrians approaching the docks is hard to imagine.
The ferry terminal itself is an asphalt slab surrounded by concrete walls and barred gates that make it feel like a cattle pen. With no roof over most of it, you stand exposed to the sun on a hot summer day, crammed together with the rest of the hordes heading to Centre, Ward’s or Hanlan’s. Getting to the lovely islands through this grim portal is like travelling to Narnia through a public washroom. What a way to welcome tourists to one of the city’s main attractions.
To its credit, the city made some improvements to the terminal last year, adding new ticket booths, a canopy for shade and some new fencing. It also did over the washrooms inside. More improvements are on the way this year and next, including new benches, better lighting and a canopy for the Centre Island dock.
But, in the end, these are Band-Aids on what is a disappointing and inadequate facility, a perfect example of the sort of “good-enough” attitude that has often led to mediocrity in the city’s public spaces.
The terminal looks especially bad considering all the great changes going on all around it. Two brilliantly designed new waterfront spaces, Sugar Beach and Sherbourne Common, lie just to the east. To the west, Waterfront Toronto is redoing York Quay near the foot of York Street by replacing a surface-level parking lot with an underground one, freeing up valuable public space. Waterfront Toronto is also about to embark on a massive redesign of Queens Quay from Spadina to Bay. Sadly, the agency says that while a better ferry terminal is on its “wish list,” it doesn’t have the money.
But Councillor McConnell believes that naming the terminal after Mr. Layton will be a catalyst for change. “I think this is just the beginning of a great transformation of the ferry docks, and that’s exactly what Jack would want,” she says.
Let’s hope so. The islands are one of the city’s glories. They deserve a better gateway.