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Sugar Beach and its ‘umbrellas’ have been criticized as extravagant; but in fact the park sets an example. (NICOLA BETTS/WATERFRONT TORONTO)
Sugar Beach and its ‘umbrellas’ have been criticized as extravagant; but in fact the park sets an example. (NICOLA BETTS/WATERFRONT TORONTO)

CITY-BUILDING

Shored up: How Toronto's waterfront redevelopment is going right Add to ...

On Unwin Avenue in Toronto’s port lands, the ground looks like a blank canvas: it’s largely a scrubland of asphalt and sumacs, punctuated by a power plant. The skyline of downtown shimmers like a mirage, but it’s just four kilometres away.

From here, it’s clear why governments see this area of the waterfront as ripe for development, and why the public agency Waterfront Toronto was created in 2001 to make that happen. But as the agency’s CEO John Campbell explains, it’s not as simple as it looks. “All the land south of Front Street is landfill,” said Mr. Campbell in an interview this week. “It’s all brownfield” – former industrial land, often contaminated – “and it shifts. The costs of building down here are exorbitantly high. That’s why nothing much has happened here for so long.”

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Yet Waterfront Toronto is responsible for revitalizing about 2,000 acres of this waterfront land, an area roughly equal to the entire downtown core, while reporting to three levels of government.

Seen as a whole, this is the biggest project of its kind in the world. So far, the agency has spent nearly $1.5-billion on infrastructure, cleaning polluted soil, and creating new parks and places of extremely high design quality. It has brought in profitable and attractive private development with a serious green- building agenda.

And it has been largely free of controversy – until this month, when it faced claims of overspending from Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong and Mayor Rob Ford, and the mayor called for Mr. Campbell’s resignation. These attacks come just as it seeks $1.65-billion in funding for the next 10 years of its work.

Those deciding whether or not it gets that vote of confidence need to look at its record. Working quietly, the agency has become the great success story of Toronto urbanism in the 21st century.

Because the agency was created by all three levels of government, it has been able to pursue its long-term plan, which will take at least 25 years to complete, without being derailed by changes of government. The mayor, who seems to have forgotten that he was appointed to Waterfront Toronto’s board, can’t force Mr. Campbell out; Doug Ford couldn’t overrule years of planning with his ill-conceived pitch for a Ferris wheel and shopping mall.

The agency says that its first $1.26-billion in spending generated $622-million in direct revenue to government, plus $838-million in revenues from the development projects it has made possible. “It’s very close to break-even, plus much more in spinoffs already,” Mr. Campbell argues.

So far, the agency is doing large-scale development the right way. It is creating a series of cohesive new neighbourhoods, extending from Jarvis Street through the port lands, mixing public space, public buildings, and profitable private housing with a component of affordable rentals to create a real community.

The agency takes a long-term approach that sees both beauty and return on investment in building a 21st-century cityscape: vibrant day and night, pedestrian-friendly and focused on the street, and with broadband to support employment and entrepreneurship in tech and related fields. The goal is what Mr. Campbell calls “a pedestrian, high-quality, beautiful environment that has a quality of place that’s second to none.”

Urban beauty is a tool of economic development. “Talent and capital are mobile,” Mr. Campbell says. Keeping them here – attracting educated, entrepreneurial people who increasingly want to be in places that feel like cities – is the goal. Mr. Campbell, a career real estate executive who oversaw the completion of the BCE Place complex in the early 1990s, deeply understands the cultural shift that is drawing some businesses away from Bay Street towers toward hipper precincts. This insight guides waterfront development. “It’s about making the city’s quality of life and quality of place make us competitive in the long run,” he says.

“It’s an economic long game.”

Waterfront Toronto seems caught off-guard by the recent political attacks, particularly Mr. Campbell – a jovial man who’s as lean as a plank and seems boyishly enthusiastic about the agency’s mission. He is too proper a civil servant to argue with the mayor, but also a bit flummoxed. “If you ask my staff, I’m very tight-fisted when it comes to expenses and such,” he says. “It’s the Scottish blood in me.”

To execute its vision, the agency has started with public space: 23 new or improved parks. Following the wisdom that’s driven port lands redevelopments across Europe and the Americas, the agency understands that creating a sense of place is crucial in making new neighbourhoods. They’ve used design competitions to hire some of the best landscape architects in the world to do this.

Take Sugar Beach. The two-acre park opened in 2010 at the foot of Jarvis Street, the point where the busy central waterfront starts to dissolve into a terra incognita of light industry and parking lots.

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