It was beautiful in Central Canada this week, warm and sunny and calm; more like late summer than early fall. Along the Toronto waterfront, the whole world seemed to be out enjoying the weather. Walkers, joggers, cyclists and scooter riders streamed along the waterfront pathway. People lounged in the lovely new park with a heart-shaped pond designed by the late, great landscape architect Claude Cormier. The poplars and willows of Toronto Island glowed in the sunlight.
The bitter debate over the future of Ontario Place seemed light years away. That debate has overshadowed the real news about the waterfront: after half a century of frustration over delayed plans and wasted potential, its renewal is taking shape at last. Tens of thousands of new residents and office workers are moving in. New spaces like Mr. Cormier’s Love Park are filling up. The hope fostered by so many for so long – that Toronto would wake up to the fact that it actually lives next to a lake – is finally being fulfilled.
For anyone who has followed the waterfront saga over the decades, it is quite thrilling. Not so many years ago the area south of Union Station was a blank expanse of parking lots and vacant lands, bisected by a huge elevated expressway: the Gardiner.
Look at it now. Office and residential towers jut into the sky in the South Core, a whole new neighbourhood, just south of Union, that rivals the Bay Street financial hub. A second new neighbourhood, East Bayfront, is rising on the edge of the harbour. Just next to that, a third, on Villiers Island, will soon start to rise, with a rerouted Don River lined with trails and parkland running through it. At the harbour’s western end, construction of yet another creative park, Bathurst Quay Common, just got underway.
The result of all this progress is a vibrant live-work community that renews the city’s connection with the water. That far outweighs the import of what is happening at Ontario Place, where the provincial government is pushing ahead with a redevelopment plan that includes an expanded concert stage and a year-round waterpark and spa.
But for all the good news on the water’s edge, there is something missing. Despite the cool new parks and arts spaces, the new waterfront lacks a big attraction that would announce its arrival to Canada and the world.
Yes, there is Harbourfront, the arts hub, nearing its 50th anniversary, which was the pioneer of waterfront redevelopment. Yes, there is Mr. Cormier’s Sugar Beach, with its pink umbrellas and white sand. But Toronto lacks a singular waterfront destination like Sydney’s Opera House, Chicago’s Navy Pier or London’s Tate Modern, a must-visit draw for both tourists and locals. That is why the plan to redevelop Ontario Place is so welcome. But even that big project, which is outside the central waterfront, over by Exhibition Place, doesn’t do the trick.
Two leading urbanists argue we need to think bigger. Planner Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies told a Toronto Region Board of Trade event this week that the waterfront has lots of pawns but no bishops, castles and knights, let alone kings and queens. “We have to raise the game.” Toronto is welcoming hundreds of thousands of new residents, but we are not telling them the waterfront story. “Now is the time to embrace the future,” he said, with all the imagination and energy we can muster.
Why not build a great modern-art museum on the waterfront? Why not the campus of an international university? Why not wildly creative parks like Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay? Oslo has a dramatic glass-and-steel sculpture floating in the fjord opposite its spectacular waterfront opera house. It rotates with the tide and the wind, mirroring sky and water.
Sitting next to him on the podium, Richard Florida of the University of Toronto agreed. “We need anchors on our waterfront,” he said. “We need anchors” – whether that means a university or a Ferris wheel like London’s or Shenzhen’s.
They are right. Apart from Harbourfront, Toronto lacks even more conventional, visitable stops like New York’s South Street Seaport or North Vancouver’s The Shipyards, bustling places to eat and shop and join the throngs.
So, yes, we should applaud the long-awaited success of Toronto’s long-neglected waterfront. But it needs more wow.