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2005 11 05
Mistake by the Lake?
Diamond/TEDCO Scheme

Koetter/TWRC Scheme

Last Thursday morning the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation voted to adopt its own plan for the East Bayfront Lands. In choosing one of the two plans presented -- the other was from the Toronto Economic Development Corporation -- it hoped to end the public agency infighting that has long impeded Toronto's waterfront renaissance.

But did the TWRC board choose wisely?

Given that the authors of the two different urban design schemes, Boston's Fred Koetter and Toronto's Jack Diamond, both claimed their schemes were more similar than dissimilar, how could the board go wrong? Those claims, however, were the morning's first piece of fiction.

While true on some levels, the audience of 100-plus struggled to see the similarities. For example, Koetter's scheme allows towers -- including a 40-storey building at the foot of Jarvis -- while Diamond's plan stresses more modest, neighbourhood-based structures.

Koetter's places a large park -- some describe it as winter-defying and wind-swept -- at the foot of Sherbourne. Diamond argues his small-scale public squares create microclimates appropriate for year-round use.

Diamond restricts the tallest building to 40 metres, while Koetter allows for point towers up to 120 metres tall. Lined up against the Gardiner Expressway, these monoliths echo the condo towers to the west that challenge the original Harbourfront vision.

Everyone at the meeting could see these were two very different schemes, but the audience's -- and the board's -- biggest leap of faith had nothing to do with the built form. No, it was the scheme's economic assumptions that demand the greatest suspension of disbelief.

Overall, the Koetter East Bayfront plan builds 300,000 square feet of retail space at grade. Furthermore, the water's edge buildings have about 1,300 linear feet of retail frontage from Jarvis to Parliament.

Ron Soskolne, the retail consultant for the TEDCO-backed scheme, gives these numbers some reference points. According to him, the Eaton's Centre has a similar amount of retail frontage on any one of its levels. ''The Eaton's Centre draws hundreds of thousands of people every month to an enclosed mall on a major subway line,'' Soskolne states. ''The East Bayfront lands are unlikely to see anywhere close to that much traffic.''

This is someone who should know. He oversaw retail planning for Harbourfront's Queen's Quay Terminal building some 25 years ago.

''The Terminal is a good example of what I mean,'' says Soskolne. ''It originally offered 100,000 square feet of retail space, but has had to cut that back to 50,000 square feet because the larger space cannot be sustained.''

According to Tom Ostler, manager of the city's research and information department, the original Harbourfront neighbourhood population is about 7,000 people. The proposed population of the East Bayfront district is close to 10,000. ''How,'' Soskolne asks, ''will the 300,000 square feet of retail be viable given the Queen's Quay experience?''

This is not just about questionable economics. There is a human cost to be paid. Empty or poorly utilized retail spaces at grade destroy neighbourhoods. No one wants to live in or go to unused spaces. They are a recipe for crime and abandonment.

Diamond's scheme preempts this criticism by rolling out retail only along the major arterial streets and designating water's edge units as live/work. That way, he says, the units will be market-driven and will convert to retail as demand grows. A healthy community is maintained. This recipe has worked for developers for years -- here and elsewhere.

Members of the TWRC board acknowledged the Koetter plan's limitations by asking that it adopt some of Diamond's strategies. ''The plan that we thought was right is the one that we should go with,'' said one. ''But if we can take something from the Diamond plan we should.'' Still, they approved the plan as is.

Why? Many board members voiced that they wanted to ''aim high.'' There was a concern that in order to fulfill Toronto's ''Creative City'' objectives, the waterfront site must allow for regional destination building activities. Given that premise, the apparent modesty of Diamond's neighbourhood-based scheme seemed counterintuitive to them.

The plan now goes to Mayor David Miller and City Council for approval. It is up to them to find that solution before the best last piece of our waterfront is lost for another 100 years.

This story is cross-published in today's National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 11/05 at 03:07 PM

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