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2006 06 04
The West 8 Team Wins Waterfront Design Competition
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Toronto may be about to enter the 21st century. After more than a century of political wrangling, we have a waterfront -- a livable, walkable waterfront as alluring as any city's. Almost.

Yesterday, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation revealed the winner of its Waterfront Innovation Competition. West 8's clear, simple and disarmingly competent proposal will start construction later this year. By late next year, the first $20-million or so in improvements will be in place.
Why is their scheme so important? Besides reconnecting us back to the waterfront, Toronto desperately needs an alternative to cottage life.

Every weekend, beginning in early spring and ending with the snows of autumn, hundreds of thousands of Torontonians flee the city in an attempt to find nature. Think of it as voting with our cars. We seem to hate the city so much that we poison the countryside with automobile exhaust in a desperate attempt to escape it.

The convulsive habit of almost everyone leaving from, then returning to, the city every five days may soon stop. West 8 is bringing Canadian cottage life down to the waterfront -- or, at least, a reasonable facsimile of it. Why drive north when soon you will be able to walk south?

The winning team decided early on in their design discussions to, as team member John Hillier says, ''Create a simple and doable plan.'' He says that the foreign design partner from Rotterdam, West 8, reminded the Canadian team members about what they could no longer see: This is CANADA. The trees are green. The water is cold and clear. The sky is blue. This is our hinterland.

Oh, and there are maple trees -- lots of them.

While other proposals were trying to bring ultra-slick New York or Dubai urban design projects to Toronto, West 8 got the bright idea to imagine a waterfront that is Canadian in flavour but International in detail.

West 8 is working on one of the most internationally recognized waterfronts anywhere, in London. If you have recently walked along the Thames promenade, you probably know how breathtaking parts of it are. The skills they learned there are deployed here, for us.

The designers understood there is a Canadian vernacular that we just like -- it's the same stuff that draws us north every week. They combined cottage elements like timber-beamed, modestly scaled bridges together with pontoon docks. Their scheme also boasts wooden boardwalks. Newly planted trees are everywhere.

They also decided that the waterfront is not about cars. Sure, they left room for them but their scheme creates a logical alternative to automobiles. The north side of Queen's Quay is for cars. In the middle is the rapid transit system. It stays where it is. Next to it is a bicycle path. On the south side, once a road, is a grand, tree-lined promenade connecting the central harbour's formerly lost east and west ends. Simple? Yes, but brilliant too.

The other clever thing they did was to assemble a team with outsider's insights but also with some of Canada's most accomplished landscape architecture, architecture and engineering firms. These designers know the waterfront, and it shows in the believable details of the overall plan.

For example, architect Don Schmidt says they wanted to introduce village-like scale to places at the edge of the water. Remember how the monolithic apartment towers at the foot of Bay Street cut us off from the water. Now imagine the fine-grain, human scale of a Nova Scotia fishing village. Which is more appealing? They thought so. too.

The plan does not work without clean water. West 8 wants to convert the vacant Soy Mill at the west end of the harbour into a 21st-century water filtration plant. It will clean the waste-water entering the harbour. The plant works hand-in-hand with a series of biofilters found along the harbour. The waterfront will no longer be an open sewer.

Sewage that once escaped carelessly into the harbour is collected in a sewer beneath Queens Quay. It then makes its way to the filtration plant for treatment. A large, unashamedly symbolic maple-leaf shaped, floating biomass filter also collects particulates and cleans them before they reach the harbour.

After years of waiting, Torontonians must thank a government organization, yes, it's true, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, for finally making the promise of our waterfront a near reality.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 06/04 at 07:06 AM

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