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Waterfront Toronto announced this week that it is launching an international call for ideas on how to redesign not just the ugly concrete-and-steel terminal, but the entire stretch of the waterfront around the docks, including a planned park for the slip at the foot of Yonge Street.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

While most Torontonians have stowed their picnic baskets and beach gear for the season, city and waterfront officials have begun to focus on fixing one of Toronto's most congested summer locales – the ferry docks to the Toronto islands.

Waterfront Toronto announced this week that it is launching an international call for ideas on how to redesign not just the ugly concrete-and-steel terminal, but the entire stretch of the waterfront around the docks, including a planned park for the slip at the foot of Yonge Street.

The project, whose costs aren't yet known, is surfacing at a time when a number of other waterfront projects, including one that was shelved at the beginning of Rob Ford's term as mayor, are coming on stream.

The goal with the ferry terminal is to drastically improve the user experience and prepare the area for the phase-in of new ferries, the first of which is due to come into service in 2018. "What we'd like to do is have an iconic entrance to the islands," says area Councillor Pam McConnell, who describes the terminal's waiting area as a "cattle pen."

Officials expect to have a shortlist of design firms by next month, with the master-plan proposals unveiled to the public by late winter, says Waterfront Toronto vice-president of planning and design Chris Glaisek.

The agency and the city want to see proposals that don't just pretty up the terminal, but also create a continuous waterfront walkway from Harbour Square to the Yonge Street slip, perhaps by creating an elevated pathway and viewing area over the passenger-loading area, which is fenced off and accessible only to people who have bought ferry tickets. "Hopefully there's a way to create public access right through," said Mr. Glaisek. "That's where the site really needs some rethinking."

The city recently completed an environmental assessment on removing the looping York Street ramps from the Gardiner Expressway and transforming that block into a park. Farther west, construction on the long-delayed pedestrian bridge linking King Street West and Fort York, approved by council in February, is expected to begin next year. Early in Mr. Ford's term, he and his supporters grounded plans for the Fort York bridge, claiming excessive cost.

Tucked behind the Westin Harbour Castle, the ferry docks have long frustrated visitors, who must line up to buy tickets and then wait in a cramped pen fenced off with steel bars. Mr. Glaisek points out that from a tourism perspective, the entrance, tucked behind the large hotel, is also difficult to find.

Reconstructing the terminal, whose operations are governed by federal dock-security regulations, could involve further disruption to the city's island ferry service, which is already straining at the seams. Just two years ago, ferry dock staff faced enormous lines and customer complaints after newly enacted ship capacity rules forced the city's ferry service to reduce the number of passengers on each journey.

Although officials say a new master plan for the area will be phased in over several years, the city also faces a hard deadline with the launch of the new $11-million ferries, which will carry 1,200 passengers – four times the capacity of the familiar pug-nosed ships that have been crisscrossing the inner harbour for decades. (The full introduction of the new ferries is expected to take 20 years.)

Mr. Glaisek notes that capital funding for the reconstruction of the terminal and surrounding area hasn't yet been allocated. But Ms. McConnell says she's not concerned about the budget, as the city can draw from existing parkland acquisition and maintenance reserve funds. "We can do this in bite-sized chunks."

Nor is she concerned about the response from mayor-elect John Tory.

"I believe he is a city builder and will support these iconic city-building projects, especially those with a good financial plan."