Plans by the Ford administration to seize control of development in the Port Lands go against a commitment from three levels of government to create a large urban park at the mouth of the Don River, says Glen Murray, the provincial cabinet minister who is MPP for the area.
Calling the move, "abrupt and odd," Mr. Murray pointed out that most of the funds for Waterfront Toronto have come from provincial and federal coffers, with the city's contributions mostly in the form of land.
Mayor Rob Ford signalled last week that he has plans of his own for the 1,000-acre Port Lands site, and wants the city to control the development, rather than Waterfront Toronto, the agency the federal, provincial and municipal governments created 10 years ago to oversee revitalization of the eastern harbour and Lower Don Lands.
The action comes on the cusp of a provincial election campaign and at a time when relations are strained between Toronto's cost-cutting mayor and the provincial Liberal government. Earlier this month, Premier Dalton McGuinty was unmoved by a request from the Toronto mayor to free up provincial funds for an expansion of the Sheppard subway line.
"This is about commitments that all three governments made to Torontonians and to Ontarians and to Canadians to give our largest city – the cultural and economic capital of this country – a waterfront with amenities and resources that would compete with Sydney or Chicago or any of the other great waterfront cities of the world," Mr. Murray said.
Members of the mayor's inner circle, especially his brother, Etobicoke Councillor Doug Ford, have made no secret of their desire to kick-start development on the city's eastern waterfront, once the site of a generating station and industrial land. A staff report released late last week recommends that a city agency – the Toronto Port Lands Co. – take the lead on future revitalization of the area, a role filled by Waterfront Toronto since 2001.
Councillor Ford is critical of a $625-million plan to transform the mouth of the Don River from a stagnant channel to a waterfront community and park, arguing that there are alternatives that would add as much as 90 acres of valuable land for development.
He envisions a multi-use development that includes a major shopping mall that could be completed in five to six years, instead of the decades-long timetable of Waterfront Toronto.
"This will be the most spectacular development in all of Canada," he told The Globe and Mail recently. "Your jaw will drop when you see this."
Urban designer and architect Ken Greenberg, a key player in the winning design to transform the mouth of the Don River, said it would be "foolish" and costly for the city to walk away from decades of planning, especially when the efforts of Waterfront Toronto are bearing fruit.
"The timing is astonishing, given what we're achieving," said Mr. Greenberg, referring to activity in the East Bayfront area including the new Corus building and the planned waterfront campus of George Brown College. "The idea that you are now somehow doing a fire sale at a time when things are working just seems perverse."
Waterfront Toronto defended its plan for the Port Lands – which involved years of consultations and received unanimous approval from city council exactly one year ago. An election in November changed the composition of council and brought in Mr. Ford as mayor.
The Port Lands plan took years to finalize, said Waterfront Toronto spokeswoman Marisa Piattelli.
"We have had furious, rigorous and detailed public consultations – five years worth," she said. "There is an important integrity of that process that we all need to keep in mind."
Area Councillor Pam McConnell warned that any effort to change plans for the mouth of the Don River and the Port Lands – both approved by council – could open the city to lawsuits from developers in adjacent areas.
"You can't just rewrite history because you won an election," she said. Private developers have invested millions in the East Bayfront and other nearby sites because of all three governments' plans for the Lower Don Lands.
Mr. Murray said the province's investment in the West Don Lands, the site of the athletes village for the Pan American Games, also hinges on the Port Lands revitalization.
"The naturalization of the Don, the creation of a great, green urban space, these were planned to support each other."