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waterfront toronto

The Don Valley Parkway leading to the Port Lands area in Toronto.

Visions of transforming Toronto's Port Lands with lush parkland, mixed-use developments or even a Ferris wheel are running into the reality of existing land owners and industrial users who depend on the harbour for their business.

The latest proposals for kick-starting development of the massive stretch of eastern waterfront will be rolled out beginning this week. The changes are being made with the help of the original, award-winning designer and take into account objections over the proposed demolition of existing dock walls, as well as the fact that sections of the Port Lands are held by private owners.

That reality has put an end to plans for a promontory park at the new mouth of the Don River –a green space that would have jutted into the harbour, offering sweeping views of the city. That same curving shoreline posed problems for existing users of the harbour – problems expressed more than a year ago in letters to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment as part of an environment assessment. Those objections – and the fact that a large cement facility sits on private land in the midst of the proposed riverside park – were never raised last year when Toronto politicians debated the future of the Port Lands and the viability of Waterfront Toronto's $634-million plan for developing the site.

Those objections also never came up when Councillor Doug Ford laid out his idea for accelerating development on the Port Lands with a luxury hotel, mono-rail, mega-mall and Ferris wheel. That push led to the current efforts by Waterfront Toronto and the city to revitalize the Port Lands faster and at less cost.

"It was a bit of a surprise to me and I think it came as a surprise to a lot of people," said Councillor Paula Fletcher, who represents the ward that includes the Port Lands, and recently discovered the objections to the original Waterfront Toronto plan.

"Did no one notice there was private land in the waterfront park?" she asked. "It is a big plant. Perhaps people didn't notice that they owned it and they have a lease on the dock wall that is forever," Ms. Fletcher said of the facility owned by cement maker Lafarge.

The public had a chance to comment on Waterfront Toronto's plan to naturalize the mouth of the Don River in early 2011 as part of an environmental assessment. "Comments were received from Lafarge related to concerns about economic impacts from the potential loss of dock walls for commercial shipping and the ability to navigate ships within the Toronto harbour. The Toronto Port Authority also expressed similar concerns," ministry spokeswoman Kate Jordan confirmed.

A spokesman for Lafarge could not comment on the details of the case, but said the company works in co-operation with local governments. "We are willing partners in the communities we operate and that includes the City of Toronto," he said.

With the objections to the original plans and the issue of land ownership now on the table, Waterfront Toronto has hired back Michael Van Valkenburgh, the New York landscape architect who created the award-winning design.

"It was his vision, so who better to help modify it, to make it work than the guy who came up with it?" said Waterfront Toronto spokeswoman Michelle Noble. "We are really happy he is back in and helping us figure out how to make it real."

Given the public outcry prompted by Councillor Ford's efforts to alter plans for the Port Lands and take control away from Waterfront Toronto, Ms. Fletcher is hoping critics will understand what is driving these latest changes.

"People might be very disappointed that the original Michael Van Valkenburgh plan – which was gorgeous – has to be changed." she said. "We have to face up to the fact that changes were imposed to the plan through the provincial EA process. There is no nefarious plot to change the original design."

Cynthia Wilkey, chair of the West Don Lands Committee, a coalition of community groups that has worked for 14 years on the waterfront development, said she is "cautiously optimistic" about the revised plans, especially since the original designer is back. Initial revisions, made public this spring, lacked the "pizazz" of his plan with its curving river mouth and riverside park. "It just looked mean," she said.

Councillor Peter Milczyn, chair of the city's planning committee who helped broker the compromise between the city and Waterfront Toronto last year, says most of the original design will be saved.

"It is great to have a bold vision, but you actually have to be able to implement it." he said. " What we have done now is the due diligence. … It's not just a matter of we want to cut a few corners."

The revised plans will allow development to be phased over 20 or 30 years and will shave about $150-million off the original price tag.