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TORONTO'S WATERFRONT DEVELOPMENT HOLDS LESSONS FOR BUFFALO PLANNERS

The Concrete Canyon and the new Berlin Wall are just two of the names attached to this city's Harbourfront development.

Both imply that Toronto has lost control of redevelopment of its waterfront and failed to preserve its lakefront for the average citizen.

The criticism centers on the growth of condominiums, hotels and office buildings, and the absence of parks at Harbourfront, a mile-long stretch of prime real estate on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Critics see it as a lesson on how not to develop a waterfront, a lesson to be heeded by cities like Buffalo. If so, what can local officials learn from Toronto's mistakes as they embark on their own redevelopment effort? "The thing to remember is that we are making almost irrevocable decisions," said David Crombie, former mayor of Toronto and head of a Royal Commission looking into the future of Toronto's lakeshore.

Crombie was among the speakers last week at a national waterfront conference in Washington, D.C. The conference featured a critical evaluation of Toronto's Harbourfront.

The message was clear. Toronto failed in not planning properly for public space on its lakefront.

Without a comprehensive plan, the city rushed into development during the 1970s and 1980s. The result was a series of ugly buildings that serve as a high-rise wall between the waterfront and the rest of the city.

"People in Toronto were enraged by what happened," said Ken Greenberg, former director of architecture and urban design for the city and now a private consultant.

With the anger came a city-imposed freeze on development and some long-overdue thought about long-term consequences.

After more than a year, Harbourfront Corp. last month reached a compromise with the city. The government-owned corporation agreed to set aside 40 acres of parkland in exchange for an end to the freeze.

Ironically, an urban park was first envisioned for the 90 acres of waterfront. The land was a gift from the federal government to the city. Faced with a recession and a shortage of federal funds for cultural projects, the city altered its vision in the late 1970s and approved a master plan that called for a broad mix of housing, offices, stores and public facilities.

In addition, Harbourfront was ordered to concentrate on entertainment and cultural programs as a way of attracting people to the water. The result was a popular mix of festivals, galleries and theaters that attract 3.5 million people a year.

"There isn't a city in North America or Europe that can match the programming we offer," said Frank Mills, Harbourfront president.

For Mills, public access is not just parks or open space. It also means giving people a reason to visit the lake.

"We're trying to stay away from traditional, stereotypical attitudes of what's good for the waterfront," Mills said. "We've made mistakes, but they pale when compared to the progress we've made in terms of opening the water to everyone."

Even critics acknowledge the success of Harbourfront's programs. But they question the cost.

"What we're really saying is that you can choose programming today or some better land use tomorrow," said Dale Martin, the city councilman who represents the waterfront.

According to Martin, the problems at Harbourfront are not a product of design or architecture but of poor public policy.

He points to an early requirement that Harbourfront be self-sustaining, a mandate that forced the group to sell off land to pay for its activities.

During an interview, he suggested Buffalo could learn from Toronto's mistake by viewing its waterfront as more than a money-maker.

Martin also warned against the formation of quasi-private groups such as Harbourfront, suggesting they lack accountability to the public.

When told of Erie County's Horizons Waterfront Commission, he said the group should be changed to include elected officials.

"That's been our biggest problem," he said.

Still others suggested that the mistakes at Harbourfront result primarily from the absence of planning and that Buffalo should be careful to avoid piecemeal development.

"Start with a plan and make it clear," said Eudora Pendergrass, head of Toronto's waterfront planning effort.

Without a plan, Buffalo will have the same problems as Toronto, she said.

Richard Tobe, Erie County's commissioner of environment and planning, said he was encouraged by what he heard in Washington. He thinks the county is moving in the right direction by forming Horizons and drafting its own regional master plan.

"The lesson of Toronto . . . was that they didn't plan for public space and they lost control," he said.

In addition, the Horizons commission can avoid Harbourfront's errors by viewing the waterfront as more than a revenue source and by making public access its top priority, he said.

Tobe disagrees with Martin in comparing Harbourfront to Horizons and the need for more accountability.

He said Horizons is different because the group is merely a planning agency whose powers are limited by the fact that it owns not an acre of land. The accountability lies with every city, town and authority that owns land and has the power to approve or reject Horizons' plan, he said.

More importantly, Tobe said, Horizons will create the type of vision that is lacking in Toronto.

"Toronto had a variety of opportunities but no consensus," he said. "Erie County has opportunities but we're trying to develop consensus."

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