With a DJ pumping out tunes in the background, developers, planners, architects and city officials gathered in a heated tent on Thursday morning to celebrate the launch of – surprise – another glass-and-steel building project by the waterfront.
The Daniels Waterfront-City of the Arts will feature a 48-storey residential tower as well as space for offices, classrooms, shops and arts groups. It is just one of several big projects that are set to transform what is known as the East Bayfront, a 23-hectare stretch of property from Lower Jarvis Street in the west to Parliament Street in the east.
The city has yet to wake up to what is unfolding on this precious parcel of waterfront land, but when it does, there is bound to be a backlash. Blocks and blocks of new buildings are not what most people are expecting from the costly, long-awaited redevelopment of the waterfront that is being directed by Waterfront Toronto. Toronto has bitter memories of what happened at the other end of Queens Quay, where what was supposed to be a park ended in a wall of cheap-looking condos.
In the 1972 elections, the federal Liberals had promised to create an urban park on the western bayfront. Out of that decision came Harbourfront, the thriving tourist spot and arts hub. But the resulting building boom in the neighbouring district led to public resentment over the concrete curtain that seemed to cut off the lake from the city.
It would be a shame if that fiasco was repeating itself in the east. Fortunately, it's not.
Yes, a lot of buildings are going up in the East Bayfront. Corus Quay and George Brown College already stand by the water. Monde Condominiums is going up across the street. The huge Bayside community is planned for a plot of land just to the east. Other sites await development.
Waterfront Toronto, quite rightly, set out to create a dense urban neighbourhood that will draw people to live and work by the water as well as to visit. But it also set out to avoid the mistakes of the past.
To make sure the new buildings don't create another wall, the buildings are to be stepped back, with lower ones close to the water and taller ones behind. To prevent simple ugliness, a review panel scrutinizes building design. To give people room to breathe, Waterfront Toronto created inventive spaces such as Sugar Beach, with its sand and pink umbrellas, Sherbourne Common, with its cascading water, and the treed waterfront promenade that travels east from Sugar Beach and will one day take pedestrians all the way to Parliament Slip.
"You can have amazing space here and still have buildings," says Tom Dutton, senior vice-president for The Daniels Corporation. "People will be pleasantly surprised."
The City of the Arts project is designed to reflect the day-and-night, live-work-play character of the rising waterfront district. The $700-million complex is to rise on the site of The Guvernment, the cavernous nightclub now being demolished, on the north side of Queens Quay near the Redpath sugar factory.
Half of the 1.3-million square feet of floor space in the City of the Arts will be dedicated to non-residential uses. Its daytime population will be three times the size of its nighttime one.
Daniels is getting the designer of Sugar Beach to create a Sugar Beach North. It is carving out a space called "The Yard" for cafés, shops and neighbourhood festivals. It is bringing in cultural organizations like the non-profit Artscape and, possibly, OCAD University.
"We are doing things that are way beyond creating a one-dimensional condominium community," says Mr. Dutton.
Not everyone will like the result. Even a mixed-use neighbourhood that includes offices and arts space as well condos will not match what many Torontonians envision as their ideal waterfront. Some look to Chicago, with its expanse of lakeside parkland, as a better way to go.
But the waterfront will have plenty of public space among the glass and steel – places to walk or bicycle or just look out over the water. For those who want a greener getaway, the Toronto Islands lie a ferry trip across the harbour. More parkland is planned for the Port Lands at the east side of the harbour.
To slap a windswept swath of grass along the waterfront in a northern city like Toronto would be a mistake. Far better to create a living community that will bring people down to the water's edge.
So when Torontonians see all those big projects taking shape along Queens Quay, they should resist the temptation to let out a shriek. Building down there won't ruin the waterfront. It will help bring the waterfront to life.