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It is remarkable how much difference a small detail can make in the value of something. Consider a semi-detached Victorian for sale in Toronto. Its location may be great, its roof sound, its kitchen counters the best granite, but what catches the eye of house hunters is the small panel of stained glass in the front window, the century-old crown moulding in the dining room or the lovely Japanese garden in the backyard.

Rationally speaking, these details are insignificant when compared with the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the quality of the plumbing and wiring, the availability of parking and so on, yet they can raise the final selling price a lot. Why? Because they add charm, character and individuality to the house and that adds value.

That is worth thinking about as we consider the little sandstorm on the waterfront over Sugar Beach. Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug are making a big noise about the cost of the sandy park across from Redpath Sugar. A city councillor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, discovered that the permanent umbrellas that shade the beach cost nearly $12,000 each and two large outcroppings of rock shipped in from Quebec another half-million dollars. The mayor told city council on Tuesday that people are furious about the waste of public money on "pink umbrellas" and "rocks from Quebec."

But it is features like these that are the magic of Sugar Beach. The fibreglass umbrellas, built to withstand high winds and equipped with lights to illuminate them after dark, help give the park the whimsical feel that makes it such a success. The rocks, with their red-and-white candy striping, are great for kids to clamber on. Together with its splash pad to play in, grassy mounds for reclining on, Muskoka chairs to lounge in and white-sand beach overlooking the harbour, Sugar Beach is a triumph of creative design that draws both locals and tourists to the water's edge.

Just as features like the umbrellas and the rocks boost Sugar Beach, features like Sugar Beach boost the whole waterfront-revival project. It is the stained-glass window of the waterfront – exactly the kind of eye-catching, high-quality detail that generates value. No wonder the two-acre space, which opened in 2010, has won awards for excellence. The roughly $14-million cost is a fraction of the $1.3-billion Waterfront Toronto has invested in redevelopment, yet it is generating reams of positive publicity. Pictures and reviews of Sugar Beach pop up on popular travel websites, spreading the good news about the evolution of the waterfront.

That news does not seem to have reached the mayor. He told city council that when he drives along the Gardiner Expressway "I don't see a waterfront." Instead he sees "condos, condos, condos, condos, condos … congestion and condos." If Sugar Beach claims to be a tourist attraction, he said, it's very hard to find. "Where is this beautiful Sugar Beach?"

But change is under way on the waterfront, and clever, inventive details like Sugar Beach are part of the reason. Waterfront Toronto decided from the beginning that it had to invest in first-class design. As a result we have the waterfront wave decks, the great new park at Corktown Common, the watercourses of Sherbourne Common just east of Sugar Beach and the new streetscaping now being built on Queens Quay on the central waterfront.

Progress has been painfully slow, but, step by step, a new waterfront is taking shape. The result may disappoint those who wanted to see a wide swath of blank parkland along the water. Waterfront Toronto says that no less than 44 development projects are planned or under way, among them, yes, lots of condos, condos, condos. The new waterfront will be a place where people live and work as well as play.

That is all to the good. It would be a mistake to turn the waterfront into a knock-off of the Toronto Island park system across the water or the much-praised parkland of Chicago's lakefront. Toronto's promises to be something more urban and modern, mingling private development with innovative public spaces.

Sugar Beach is just such a space. Its design excellence sets a tone for the rest of the waterfront. It is a perfect example of how a high-quality public amenity can add value to everything around it. Those $12,000 umbrellas are worth every cent.