Despite the doom-filled headlines, good things continue to happen in many parts of the world. One of them is the Toronto waterfront. The long-promised, often-delayed revival down there is well under way. The result promises to be quite wonderful.
Toronto has been tantalized for decades by the potential of its waterfront. Once a thriving port, it fell into dereliction when port traffic slowed and industry moved to the suburbs, leaving a dead zone of parking lots and abandoned warehouses. The construction of the hulking Gardiner Expressway worsened the decline by cutting the city off from its outstanding natural feature: a snug harbour enclosed by leafy islands.
As far back as the 1960s, governments began hatching serious plans to remake the waterfront and lure people down to the lake. Politicians made a habit of standing by the water’s edge to unveil grand visions for the future.
For a very long while, not much seemed to come of it. Torontonians grew weary of all the talk and tuned out. Now, at last, a few more of the promises are becoming reality.
If you doubt it – and you have good reason after all this time – join me on a tour of the waterfront from the west to the east. We’ll start at Ontario Place. The futuristic attraction just south of the Canadian National Exhibition opened in 1971 and closed in 2012 after years of declining attendance. The provincial government is considering proposals to redevelop the 155-acre site.
In the meantime, good things have been happening. Trillium Park opened in 2017 on the eastern shore of Ontario Place. It’s part of a new generation of creative parks that go way beyond picnic benches and jungle gyms. Its features include a waterside trail, an outlook hill, fire pits and a granite bluff that kids can climb. Throngs of people have been coming down here during the pandemic to get their steps in and admire the spectacular view of the Toronto skyline.
Now let’s walk 15 minutes north to Garrison Crossing. Two dramatic pedestrian bridges opened here in 2019. Though they are not part of the waterfront as such, they help link bustling Liberty Village and parts north with the lake. People can now walk, run or bike south to a renovated Fort York and its award-winning visitor centre, then on to the harbour.
Which brings us to our next stop: Ireland Park. It stands at the harbour’s west end, next to those towering reminders of the city’s industrial past, the Canada Malting silos. A handsome waterside promenade has opened here, just next to a memorial to victims of the Irish Famine. An adjacent building is being done over as a cultural centre and new headquarters of the Canada Ireland Foundation.
A few steps east take us to one of the most alluring parks in the whole city: the Toronto Music Garden. It was designed two decades back with help of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and its six sections are inspired by the six movements of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. In normal times, it holds summertime concerts and botanical tours.
A few more steps, just past an undulating wood “wave deck” at the foot of Spadina Avenue, and we are at HTO Park, with its sandy beach area shaded by yellow umbrellas. Then comes the familiar Harbourfront Centre, the vibrant cultural hub (sadly closed because of COVID-19) that was one of the first big successes of waterfront renewal.
Just past there, we reach one of the waterfront’s biggest failures. The massive Harbour Square and Harbour Castle buildings at the foot of Yonge Street loom darkly over the streets. What a waste of such a prime site. The ferry terminal in behind them is another embarrassment, a walled concrete fortress that makes a depressing gateway to the lovely Toronto Islands.
Fortunately, there is progress in the offing here, too. After a design competition, the city has selected a group of architects to build a completely new terminal, with a wavy wooden roof covered in grass. New landscaping has already improved the approaches to the ferry docks.
Across the street, on the other side of Queens Quay, another new park is to emerge on the land once occupied by a looping off-ramp from the Gardiner. Love Park, designed by the design firm of Montreal-based Claude Cormier, will feature a big heart-shaped pond.
Now we get to the east end of the harbour. This stretch has changed more than any other along the water. Condos, office buildings and arts spaces are springing up right and left. Critics say they are walling off the waterfront once again, putting real estate development over public space. But it would have been a mistake simply to line the waterfront with a stretch of open parkland. Instead, we are getting a whole new live-work community, with tens of thousands of new residents and workers to keep the area lively – and lots of public spaces for everyone to play in.
A few of them are already up and running. Sugar Beach, another Cormier production, opened in 2010 opposite the Redpath Sugar plant. Sherbourne Common includes a skating rink and a long channel of running water where visitors can cool their feet in summer.
This month, Waterfront Toronto unveiled plans to redo Parliament Slip with a wood-decked pool complex, floating restaurant, amphitheatre and new bridge.
Our tour comes to an end at the least developed and most promising section of the entire waterfront. The vast Port Lands on the east side of the harbour are undergoing a huge transformation. Giant diggers are shifting tons of earth to redirect and naturalize the mouth of the Don River. This will create an oasis of artfully designed parkland with great look-back views of the city. A sleek new bridge sailed into the harbour on a barge last fall, the first of four that are to connect the city to an island in the rerouted river.
Much remains to be done on the waterfront. With all the construction and incomplete plans, it can seem like a bit of a mishmash.
It could still use another destination project to pull it together, like Chicago’s Navy Pier. But there is enough here already to provide a sense of what will be, and it’s exciting as hell.
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