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2005 10 28
Toronto Unbuilt: The Last Best Piece of Waterfront
Image from TEDCO/Diamond Scheme
Image from TWRC/Koetter Scheme

This morning, the Board of Directors of the Toronto Waterfront Regeneration Corporation receives two different plans for the same waterfront property.

One plan has neighbourhood-focused buildings fronted by a pedestrian only promenade. The other imagines a destination-building matrix of commercial, residential, and cultural uses with a narrower pedestrian edge. The TWRC board must decide on one, or, if they choose to delay the project, a synthesis of the two.

The properties critical to today’s meeting are the underused East Bayfront Lands, located between Jarvis and Parliament Streets. Ravers, joggers, and yacht club members know this area but for most Torontonians it is another forgettable strip of industrial grey.

For planners though the Queen Elizabeth Docks, as the property is called, offer a tabula rasa for possible design solutions. More than that, their development is the cornerstone of the City’s anticipated waterfront renaissance. If you have imagined a Toronto waterfront on par with those of other great cities, these 10 hectares of land provide an invaluable canvas for that dream.

Recognizing the importance of this site, the TWRC (the public agency created to administer waterfront development on behalf of all three levels of government) held a multi-year urban design study and competition. The U.S. firm Koetter & Kim won that competition. Fred Koetter, a principle in the firm, co-authored “Collage City,” an essential text at schools of architecture and planning. The finalists include internationally respected architectural firm, Diamond and Schmitt.

With Koetter & Kim working on the master plan, the TWRC — and David Miller — were ending one hundred and fifty years of waterfront neglect. Except the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO), owners of the property, then hired Diamond and Schmitt as advisors and design consultants. Following the direction of TEDCO, Diamond produced an alternative plan for the site.

Understand that any design proposal of this magnitude requires lengthy consultations with a myriad of constituents. TWRC worked three years on that process. Yet, no matter what number of consultations, there is always tension between an overarching planning vision on the one hand and the finer-grained considerations demanded by involved parties on the other. That is true in this case; However, because the schemes come from different philosophical corners of the planning spectrum reconciling the two will be a challenge.

According to John Campbell, TWRC’s CEO, the Koetter scheme is in tune with Toronto’s “Creative City” strategy. Campbell traveled internationally with the Creative City group to study successful waterfront projects. His vision for the property creates a global destination providing multiple cultural, commercial, and residential uses to city dwellers and visitors.

With this as a premise, the development is distinct from but the planners argue, complimentary to Toronto’s existing, neighbourhood driven fabric. High-rise development is a large part of the scheme but until the revised plans are revealed today, the number of towers and their scale is unknown.

The most public part of the TWRC scheme, the waterfront promenade, is nineteen metres to the seawall with an additional five metre boardwalk. This plan allows for streets along side the pedestrian walkway. Vehicles can bring people near the water’s edge and to the small businesses and restaurants located at street level.

Diamond’s TEDCO scheme, championed by CEO Jeff Steiner, adopts a primarily residential approach to the site. Under their plan, the development borrows from Toronto’s neighbourhood forms and — in theory — extends the city fabric to the waterfront. Using smaller scale, lower density residential buildings Diamond envisions a more sedate but equally destination-making precinct by the water.

Here the waterside promenades are fifteen metres wide and are restricted to pedestrian traffic only. That’s fine because the adjoining buildings are primarily residential outside of the arterial roads. Parks are scaled in proportion to the buildings around them. Diamond also emphasized articulating the water’s edge giving them something he compares to the qualities of a Venice or Amsterdam.

Both schemes plan to extend Toronto’s arterial grid into the site — a critically important strategy for the city. The proponents of both also refer to other waterfront cities for typologies that can be successful here. We expect this from two world-class design teams.

The TWRC Board of Directors could decide to choose one of the schemes today. If they do Toronto may well live with their choice for the next one hundred and fifty years. Hold your breath.

This story is cross-posted in yesterday's National Post newspaper on page A18.

[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 10/28 at 07:10 AM

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