What Kind of Waterfront do we Want?

When I take the Toronto Island ferry the directional difference in perspectives is stark. Going to the Island, a green line of trees floats between the water and the sky. Returning to the city, a high wall of concrete disrupts the horizon and becomes dominant as the ferry pulls up the shore. These perspectives make me think about how Toronto’s waterfront is currently used, and what it could become in the future.

Four Uses of the Waterfront

The waterfront is used in four ways, as a port, a transportation hub, as housing, and as recreation. After a downturn due to the pandemic, the port is recording increasing volumes of foodstuffs and construction materials. The transportation hub includes the aging Gardiner Expressway parallel to the shore and the Don Valley Parkway perpendicular to it, commuter and long-distance trains connecting to Union Station, and Billy Bishop Airport on the Island. Housing includes numerous condominium and apartment buildings that create the concrete wall. Finally, recreation includes the Island Park, Ontario Place, Rogers Centre and nearby Ripley’s Aquarium, Exhibition Place and BMO Field within it.

Waterfront Controversies

Given the extent of Toronto’s waterfront and its different and often conflicting uses, it should not be surprising that there are ongoing controversies. Three involve Ontario Place, Billy Bishop Airport and the eastern end of the Gardiner Expressway. The Ford Government wants to rebuild Ontario Place with the Therme Group’s mega-spa and a new Ontario Science Centre that would be much smaller than the current site. Billy Bishop Airport’s lease on land owned by the City expires in 2023, and the public policy question is whether the airport should continue operating or convert the site to parkland as part of Toronto Island Park. The City is planning to rebuild the elevated eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway to link to the Don Valley Parkway rather than link the two with a surface-level boulevard.

Olivia Chow, who takes office as mayor on July 12, opposes the Ford Government’s plans for Ontario Place and the City’s current plan to rebuild the elevated expressway. While she has not opined recently on Billy Bishop Airport, in the past she opposed its expansion to include jets, and her platform and values suggest she would favour closing it in the future. (It is ironic that a racialized woman is taking office as mayor in a city once know as the Belfast of North America where Orangemen’s Day was celebrated with an enormous parade.)

Egalitarian Greenery

I am a strong supporter of closing Billy Bishop Airport, as I discussed in a previous post, and an opponent of the Ford Government’s plan for Ontario Place, which I wrote about in a recent op-ed in The Globe and Mail. My approach to both these issues is consistent. I think Toronto needs more parkland that is widely accessible. A luxury spa and a commuter airport primarily benefit those who are well-off. The high cost of either rental or owner-occupied housing accounts for a large component of household budgets. In the past, many Torontonians got their greenery fix at summer cottages. People struggling to pay rent or mortgages can’t ever imagine owning cottages. Downtown parkland, especially at the Island, Ontario Place, and the waterfront is a reasonable publicly owned and operated substitute. That’s why we need as much of it as possible and, when opportunities arise to provide more of it, we should seize them.

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