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The curved, Art Moderne wall of the 1935 William McGill and Co. building on Villers Island, Toronto.The Globe and Mail

It is a sunny day in September, 2033. You are standing on Toronto’s Villiers Island – created when the mouth of the Don River was naturalized almost a decade ago – and wondering what to do with your day. Pop into a retail store in one of the heritage buildings? Maybe grab a coffee in the old Toronto Hydro-Electric System building (1928), or wander through the artist’s studios/marketplace in the old Essroc silos (first silos built in 1920)? A walk along the two-sided Keating Channel promenade? Or get the dog and explore the naturalized river valley? Regardless of what you choose, you’ll be thankful for the multiple ways these 39 hectares of parks and wetlands allow you to engage with the Don River and Lake Ontario.

It is a sunny day in September, 1983. You are one of 600 architects, planners and preservationists who’ve just attended Heritage Canada’s 10th-anniversary convention at the Royal York Hotel. You’ve decided to walk 15 minutes south to the “street that is in trouble” – that’s what guest speaker, New York-based architect Craig Whitaker billed Queen’s Quay West – to view the “anonymous façades” of the towering 1970s Harbour Square condominiums and the questionable public park between them. Mr. Whitaker said that the park is “not perceived as public. It is not the best expression of a great city sitting on a great lake.” Once down there, you’ll agree: not only is it inhospitable around there, a walk in either direction and one is confronted with industrial tank farms or wide expressways and dirty railway lands.

It is a sunny day in September, 2023. I am standing inside the empty 1928 hydro building at 281 Cherry St. with Scott Pennington, CreateTO’s vice-president of port lands asset management, communications manager Samantha Martin and project manager Paul Arkilander, and dreaming of the coffee I might purchase here one day. The trio is also telling me about “new” Cherry Street to the west, which will connect to the mainland, and how the current Cherry Street, which will get a new name, will dead-end at the water’s edge.

“Once the flood protection work is completed, this will be, in essence, an island with bridges connecting it,” says Mr. Pennington, “and this is where the first residential development will occur; we anticipate it’s going to be right across the street. The city is very focused on maintaining this stretch as a, let’s call it a ‘heritage corridor,’ because there’s the old bank building there as well.”

  • Villers Island, Toronto. Photos from the 1930s.The Globe and Mail

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Mr. Pennington is referring to Darling & Pearson’s (former) Bank of Montreal (1920) at the corner of Villiers and Cherry streets. Just to the south is the curved, Art Moderne wall of the 1935 William McGill and Co. building, which reminds me of the Waterworks building at 505 Richmond St. W. To the south of the hydro building is another bank building, the 1920 Dominion Bank, now home to the popular Cherry Street Bar-B-Que. And, a stone’s throw away at 39 Commissioners St. is Fire Hall No. 30 (1928) by city architect J.J. Woolnough.

And all of the new development that will surround these heritage buildings will show respect via setbacks and view corridors to the area’s other big heritage piece, the industrial infrastructure, such as the many smokestacks, the silos and the 1961 Atlas crane next to Polson slip.

Respect is a good word to use here. Yes, there will be market-rate condo buildings in this new development, but there also will be a significant amount of affordable housing (a target of 30 per cent). There will be much mid-rise, but also some high-rise. But no matter what goes up, this island aims to “not overwhelm” in order to champion the pedestrian, the cyclist, the transit user, the dogwalker and, yes, even the heritage buff. In a way, Villiers Island (as well as the adjoining Keating East and West and the McCleary District) will not only correct the sins of the 1970s and 80s, but it will, by its sheer size and scope, erase them.

(And it is my selfish hope that, when developers do break ground here, they’ll employ boutique firms such as AgaThom Co., Partisans, or Batay-Csorba – to name but a few – rather than the ‘big box’ designers in order to create something really special)

The city, through CreateTO and Waterfront Toronto, can do this because it owns much of the bricks-and-mortar along with huge swathes of land on both sides of Cherry and Commissioners streets, on either side of the Keating Channel, and most of the land around the Ship Channel and Turning Basin. It’s big. So big, it’s “going to surprise many people who aren’t aware of the project when it finally opens,” says Chris Glaisek of Waterfront Toronto (during a density study meeting in June, 2023, see end of column).

As our little group exits the hydro building and walks to the columned and stately bank at the corner of Villiers and Cherry streets, we note how wide Villiers is, and the kinds of opportunities that creates for transit. We also posit that, if one thinks of the top 10 cities in North America, Toronto stands alone when it comes to the size and scope of its waterfront reclamation opportunities. Which means there’s an incredible responsibility to get it right.

The last time Toronto had an opportunity of this scale, Mr. Pennington reminds us, was when the lands around the CN Tower became available: “an old, industrial area that was basically a blank spot on the map, and now, all of the sudden, it’s going to become open to development because they moved all the rail sidings and terminal up to Vaughan.

“This,” he finishes, “is opening up because we flood-protected it.”

So let the development floodgates open. The envy of architects and designers the world over awaits.

A cool café is not guaranteed for the 1928 Toronto Hydro-Electric building; this writer simply engaged in creative thinking. The account of Heritage Canada’s 10th anniversary and Mr. Whitaker’s remarks comes from the Globe & Mail account by Adele Freedman on Sept. 24, 1983. For those with the time to spare, Waterfront Toronto’s almost 1 1/2 hour-long Villiers Island Density Study Public Meeting, June 2023 is worth looking up on YouTube.

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