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The Port Lands area in Toronto. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)
The Port Lands area in Toronto. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Petty Toronto politics mustn't sink chance to do something great with the waterfront Add to ...

The new year promises to be a busy one for Waterfront Toronto. The agency is in the midst of reappraising its plans for the Port Lands, the tract of underused land on the east flank of Toronto harbour that Doug Ford made famous earlier this year with his musings about Ferris wheels and monorails. “The handcuffs are off,” Waterfront’s chief executive, John Campbell, told reporters in November.

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The agency is conducting a sweeping public consultation. It has set up “technical working groups” to look at everything from the real-estate potential of the area to development financing. It is hiring expert consultants to help out. A report will go to city council in June.

“Our intent is to take a fresh and wide-ranging look at the challenges and opportunities of developing the Port Lands,” Mr. Campbell says on the agency’s website. It is only fair to take him at his word, but what will actually come from all this is far from clear.

At the Dec. 12 consultation, many speakers seemed to want simply to stop any accelerated development and make sure the city sticks with the original plan for the Port Lands, which envisions parkland and mixed low-rise development with a renaturalized Don River mouth running through it. That would be a mistake.

The existing plan is uninspired. It makes poor use of the best chunk of real estate in the city, a prime development site with spectacular views of the downtown skyline and a doorstep right on the harbour. Digging a new channel for the Don through the middle of it would squander that opportunity and wipe out a fortune in commercial value. The plan is unaffordable to boot. No one has a notion of where to find the $634-million that it would cost for a massive engineering project like creating a new river mouth.

What is called for is a really open-minded approach to the future of the Port Lands. Why not put a top-rank hotel down there, as Doug Ford suggested? Why not a high-end shopping area? How about some kind of tourist attraction – if not a Ferris wheel then some other draw for out-of-towners?

As Mr. Campbell himself suggests, there are all sorts of possibilities. The area could potentially become a hub for research-and-development like the MaRS Centre near Queen’s Park. Or it could become a new office district like London’s Canary Wharf. It goes without saying that whatever shape development takes, plenty of public space would be included, from parks to boardwalks. Think of Hong Kong’s Kowloon waterfront, with a broad promenade overlooking the glittering skyline across the harbour.

As for the Don, there may be alternatives to the costly renaturalization plan. An environmental assessment studied several options for controlling the river’s floods. Officials are scrutinizing them again.

One idea, promoted by community activist Brian Graff, is to run the river straight south to the Ship Channel, a broad water course with cement walls, and use that as a flood spillway. That would cut down on earth-moving costs. Because the river would not curve west into the harbour, as laid out in the existing plan, it would leave far more of the best Port Lands property intact.

It would be a shame to see the Port Lands push get talked to death in a series of pro forma consultations and technical reports, as so often happens with a postconflict compromise such as this. It would be equally unfortunate if opponents of Mayor Rob Ford fought all change there just to score points.

Ford opponents cheered when the mayor and his brother were forced to drop their plan to seize the Port Lands from Waterfront Toronto and sell parts of it off for development. But as clumsy as it was, the Fords’ waterfront foray got people talking about the Port Lands and woke up the city to their enormous potential. Waterfront Toronto’s review is a rare chance to shake things up and reimagine what could happen down there. Let’s not allow it to slip away in a quicksand of politics and process.

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