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Sugar Beach and its ‘umbrellas’ have been criticized as extravagant; but in fact the park sets an example.NICOLA BETTS

On Unwin Avenue in Toronto's port lands, the ground looks like a blank canvas: it's largely a scrubland of asphalt and sumacs, punctuated by a power plant. The skyline of downtown shimmers like a mirage, but it's just four kilometres away.

From here, it's clear why governments see this area of the waterfront as ripe for development, and why the public agency Waterfront Toronto was created in 2001 to make that happen. But as the agency's CEO John Campbell explains, it's not as simple as it looks. "All the land south of Front Street is landfill," said Mr. Campbell in an interview this week. "It's all brownfield" – former industrial land, often contaminated – "and it shifts. The costs of building down here are exorbitantly high. That's why nothing much has happened here for so long."

Yet Waterfront Toronto is responsible for revitalizing about 2,000 acres of this waterfront land, an area roughly equal to the entire downtown core, while reporting to three levels of government.

Seen as a whole, this is the biggest project of its kind in the world. So far, the agency has spent nearly $1.5-billion on infrastructure, cleaning polluted soil, and creating new parks and places of extremely high design quality. It has brought in profitable and attractive private development with a serious green- building agenda.

And it has been largely free of controversy – until this month, when it faced claims of overspending from Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong and Mayor Rob Ford, and the mayor called for Mr. Campbell's resignation. These attacks come just as it seeks $1.65-billion in funding for the next 10 years of its work.

Those deciding whether or not it gets that vote of confidence need to look at its record. Working quietly, the agency has become the great success story of Toronto urbanism in the 21st century.

Because the agency was created by all three levels of government, it has been able to pursue its long-term plan, which will take at least 25 years to complete, without being derailed by changes of government. The mayor, who seems to have forgotten that he was appointed to Waterfront Toronto's board, can't force Mr. Campbell out; Doug Ford couldn't overrule years of planning with his ill-conceived pitch for a Ferris wheel and shopping mall.

The agency says that its first $1.26-billion in spending generated $622-million in direct revenue to government, plus $838-million in revenues from the development projects it has made possible. "It's very close to break-even, plus much more in spinoffs already," Mr. Campbell argues.

So far, the agency is doing large-scale development the right way. It is creating a series of cohesive new neighbourhoods, extending from Jarvis Street through the port lands, mixing public space, public buildings, and profitable private housing with a component of affordable rentals to create a real community.

The agency takes a long-term approach that sees both beauty and return on investment in building a 21st-century cityscape: vibrant day and night, pedestrian-friendly and focused on the street, and with broadband to support employment and entrepreneurship in tech and related fields. The goal is what Mr. Campbell calls "a pedestrian, high-quality, beautiful environment that has a quality of place that's second to none."

Urban beauty is a tool of economic development. "Talent and capital are mobile," Mr. Campbell says. Keeping them here – attracting educated, entrepreneurial people who increasingly want to be in places that feel like cities – is the goal. Mr. Campbell, a career real estate executive who oversaw the completion of the BCE Place complex in the early 1990s, deeply understands the cultural shift that is drawing some businesses away from Bay Street towers toward hipper precincts. This insight guides waterfront development. "It's about making the city's quality of life and quality of place make us competitive in the long run," he says.

"It's an economic long game."

Waterfront Toronto seems caught off-guard by the recent political attacks, particularly Mr. Campbell – a jovial man who's as lean as a plank and seems boyishly enthusiastic about the agency's mission. He is too proper a civil servant to argue with the mayor, but also a bit flummoxed. "If you ask my staff, I'm very tight-fisted when it comes to expenses and such," he says. "It's the Scottish blood in me."

To execute its vision, the agency has started with public space: 23 new or improved parks. Following the wisdom that's driven port lands redevelopments across Europe and the Americas, the agency understands that creating a sense of place is crucial in making new neighbourhoods. They've used design competitions to hire some of the best landscape architects in the world to do this.

Take Sugar Beach. The two-acre park opened in 2010 at the foot of Jarvis Street, the point where the busy central waterfront starts to dissolve into a terra incognita of light industry and parking lots.

The park, designed by Montreal's Claude Cormier and Associates, is a showcase, and isn't a "beach" in any real sense; it is a public square for a very dense neighbourhood that is coming into being. The office building next door houses radio station The Edge; when they host in-studio performances, audiences of up to 1,000 spill out onto Sugar Beach's paved plaza. Mounds of granite, transported from a Quebec hillside, provide a lunchtime perch for office workers and students from the George Brown health campus that's opened one building down; condo-dwellers from the St. Lawrence neighbourhood now come here to sunbathe or take their toddlers to the splash pad.

A certain amount of hardiness and rigour, not to mention quality of place, was required. These are among Waterfront Toronto's core principles."We've got to get this right," says Mr. Campbell. "It's a once-in-100-years opportunity; you can't jerry-rig it. We have to make sure that the quality is there, and it's something we're all proud of."

Cormier's landscape architecture firm won a design competition; changed their design following rigorous feedback from the public and the competition's judges; and then the construction of the project went out for competitive bidding.

For this and for each of Waterfront Toronto's capital projects, the agency must submit a formal application for funds that is vetted by the city, province and federal governments. That vetting process, Mr. Campbell says, has taken an average of six months for each project. "This idea that we don't have oversight – we have more oversight than you can shake a stick at," he says.

And the results in the case of Sugar Beach are extremely strong. The park functions well as public space and also as an Instagram-able landmark. The sugary white sand is a welcome place to sunbathe, against the backdrop of a cargo ship parked at the Redpath Sugar plant just across the water. It meets the granite mounds, which Claude Cormier calls "rock candy," to form a playful tableau.

And those beach "umbrellas," now notorious after Mr. Minnan-Wong's attack on their price tag of $11,565 each, are solid. They are tough fiberglass on a stainless-steel structure; each stands on a concrete base about three metres square. In its shaft, each holds an LED light fixture, weatherproof and controllable. This is not lawn furniture. It's infrastructure, built to survive wild crowds and January winds and stand up for a thousand selfies.

The need for all this will be clear when the neighbourhood is fully built out, which is happening rapidly. Next door, Waterfront Toronto is building a Waterfront Innovation Centre in two buildings adjacent to the park, to house tech companies and draw on the ultra-high-speed broadband Internet service that they have brought into the area.

Workers and others will be able to live nearby: developers Hines and Tridel have a 363-unit building under construction next door, and a second phase is coming. They'll be part of a well-planned neighbourhood that includes small, pedestrian-friendly streets lined with retail, designed to mitigate the sense of corporate sameness that comes with all large development projects.

That is an important concern, and WT is right to worry about it: The agency's plan is to build 40,000 residential units, which will house an estimated 115,000 people.

This whole area of the city is changing almost by the hour. Right across the street from Sugar Beach is the 2.8-acre site of The Guvernment nightclub; it's owned by developers Daniels, who are planning a mixed-use development that might include four separate buildings. This is not a Waterfront Toronto project, but it is subject to a city design review panel – through which new buildings get critiqued by a group of top design professionals.

And a sophisticated context has been set by the parks, the excellent office and college buildings, by Diamond Schmitt and KPMB, and the nearby condos currently under construction – including the River City project a few blocks away, by Montreal architects Saucier and Perrotte, a complex of what are the most adventurous and handsome residential buildings in the city. Their developers, Urban Capital, won the right to build here after submitting a competitive bid to WT. And while the agency picked their proposal based on a mix of criteria including design quality, it also included the highest financial return for the agency and governments. That has happened, says Mr. Campbell, with each of the agency's condo deals so far. "We set the bar high," he says. "Developers see that there's room here for a high-quality product. We all win."

For many Torontonians, that sounds too good to be true. For 200 years the waterfront has been a place where grand dreams go to drown. The idea that a government agency is accomplishing something here, and doing it right, is hard to imagine. But it's true. To show off the vision, Mr. Campbell took me to the new park, Corktown Common, at the foot of River Street, which opened officially this month. I was there a few times last year, and the park looked great. This week it looked even better: lushly green, the playgrounds full, a new artificial wetland humming with life, and the skyline in front filling in nicely. It suggests what the port lands could look like in a generation. It's a vision of Toronto's future going surprisingly right.

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