Buildup To Greenbuild: A Waterfront Of Broken Dreams


30,000 green building professionals are coming to Toronto for Greenbuild in October; this series will try to explain Toronto to them.

Greenbuild is being held in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which is a long way from the waterfront. In fact, from Front Street, the north entrance to the Convention Centre, you cannot even see the water, you wouldn't even know it was there. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The convention centre sits on land that was either by or on the water, that architect and surveyor John Howard laid out as "pleasure drives, walks and shrubbery for the recreation of the citizens."

Unfortunately, the railway had other plans. According to Grant Head In Ontario's History in Maps:

to be effective, the new railways must have wide access to shipping, and there seemed to be no better place than on filled land in the shallower parts of the harbour. The railways, of course, won. Recreational use of the harbour from the city were thus massively blocked, and the character of the area was decisively changed.

I love how in 1847, waterfront land just to the west is labeled "reserved for the public as a promenade and pleasure ground"

Here is the same property today, that Google A is in Victoria Square Park at the upper left corner of both drawings.

By the 1950's the area was completely covered in rail-related uses, a grade separation blocked the view of the water from the City, an elevated expressway was added and the area was, as far as Toronto citizens were concerned, a complete no-go zone.

In the seventies, as the railways declined, the Federal Government came up with a great idea of developing Harbourfront, a collection of cultural and recreational facilities on the waterfront. But to pay for it all, the Harbourfront people sold off land for development, and another layer was added between the city and the water, a wall of awful condominiums with above-grade parking between.

Further to the east, another wall of condos and and a hotel, so that it is once again impossible to see the waterfront, you cannot even find the ferry terminal to catch a boat to the Toronto Islands. It was just about the worst example of selling public assets for private gain that you can imagine.

Today, the Convention Centre sits far from the water. There is a lot more green than there used to be, (the south part of the convention centre is underground, under a park next to the CN Tower) there have been attempts at reconnecting streets through to the waterfront again, there are new parks at the waters edge, thanks to the work of Waterfront Toronto, an organization set up to redevelop the remaining industrial waterfront carefully and after a lot of public consultation.

They have built some gems, like Sugar Beach, and Sherborne Commons, and are developing the waterfront in a way that brings people down to live and work, but always keeps the waterfront public and active. They have spent a decade figuring out how to build a greener, healthier community down here.

That's why Mayor Ford's new plan for massive development, shopping malls ferris wheels and monorails bothers so many people so much. It is simply a big selloff to raise as much money as possible, exactly what people have been doing in Toronto for 150 years. As Greenbuild visitors spend their time on Convention Centre escalators going up over railways and down under parks, recognize that it isn't just crummy architecture that is causing this, but a hundred years of bad land use decisions, promises not kept, and citizens screwed over and over.

More in this series:
Buildup to Greenbuild: A New Vision For The Toronto WaterfrontI
Buildup To Greenbuild: The Green Roofs of Toronto
Building Up To Greenbuild: Bring Your Hardhat And Watch Out For Raining Panes

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Tags: greenbuild | Green Building | Toronto | Urban Planning