Project's launch ends years of wrangling

After nearly 20 years of concerns over contaminated soil, flood plain issues and political wrangling, the labour has begun in the birth of Toronto's newest neighbourhood.

The current enthusiasm on virtually every front regarding the 6,000-unit West Don Lands housing development would have been almost unthinkable a decade ago with the provincial government's Ataratiri boondoggle still fresh in the public consciousness.

But with brownfields legislation in place, construction of a berm to protect the area from flooding and an open and transparent development process that pleases area residents, Toronto's waterfront project is underway with a hopeful outlook.

"The Gooderham & Worts Neighbourhood Association (GWNA) could not be more pleased with this development and we are truly pleased to see shovels finally going into the ground," GWNA president Lester Brown told Business Edge via e-mail. "At times we doubted if we would ever see this in our lifetime."

Brennan O'Connor, Business Edge
When it is finished, the West Don Lands development will add 6,000 units of housing on 32 hectares of brownfield not far from Toronto's downtown core.

Brown isn't alone in his skepticism about the development of the area, a short distance east of downtown.

Back in the early '90s the 7,000 units of affordable housing planned for the site - dubbed the Ataratiri project - was abandoned after more than $300 million was invested. Instituted by the Liberal government of David Peterson, handed off to the NDP government of Bob Rae and plagued by public unhappiness about building low-income housing on a site whose contaminated soil would have to be completely replaced, Ataratiri was doomed to fail. The project would have cost $1 billion if completed, but in the end the Ontario public got nothing but the bill.

In the years since, there have been other ideas floated for the site such as a horse racing track and the media village for Toronto's failed bid for the 2008 Olympics.

Now this 32-hectare former industrial site between the Don River to the east, Parliament Street to the west, King Street to the north and the railway yards on the south will be a whole new community as large as Canary Wharf in London, England, or Battery Park in Manhattan, according to John Campbell, CEO of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp. (TWRC).

The TWRC, which was created by the federal and provincial governments along with the City of Toronto, is charged with redeveloping Toronto's waterfront and the Portlands.

"These are big projects," Campbell says. "The overall plan has been the result of good design, but also good public input."

In addition to the 6,000 housing units there will be nine hectares of parks, improved transit, access to the lake and approximately one million square feet of office and retail space. First occupancy is slated for late 2007 or early 2008.

The West Don Lands project will cost about double what Ataratiri would have, but only $230 million of that will be public money. Money from the city, Queen's Park and Ottawa will be spent over the life of the project on soil remediation, parks, flood protection, light rail transit along Cherry Street and community buildings.

The rest of the money will come from developers who will create housing across the spectrum, from high end to low income. The TWRC has a target of 20-per-cent affordable housing. What exactly that will look like and just how high the high end will be is still undecided.

"The market will dictate a lot of that," Campbell says. "On the side streets we are trying to get a lot of family housing - townhouses. We are trying to build a really broad mix of housing accommodation. We call it housing for all Canadians. It doesn't matter what your age demographic or your income demographic is because there will be a home for you here."

The neighbourhood groups involved in the process have applauded the plan for mixed demographics.

Julie Beddoes, who lives adjacent to the West Don Lands on Parliament Street, says that the TWRC has been an example to developers in its concern for the safety and convenience of surrounding residents.

"I'm delighted that it's happening," Beddoes says. "From the point of view of those of us who live very close to the site it will bring many benefits: Firstly, it will reduce the ugliness of the brownfields; secondly, the improved water's edge and river mouth will add enormously to our quality of life; and thirdly, we need neighbours so as to merit improved services."

Beddoes has been closely involved with the project since the beginning as part of the GWNA, as well as the West Don Lands Committee.

"For the city community as a whole I'm delighted to have played a part in bringing about intensive brownfield development as an antidote to suburban sprawl," she says.

But from her personal point of view (not as a representative of the GWNA) Beddoes thinks the 20-per-cent affordable housing is shamefully inadequate, however.

"I would be happy to see 50 per cent of the site made available to specifically reduce the city's waiting list," she says. "Do we really want to see everyone in our society decently housed or don't we?" The city-owned Toronto Community Housing Corp. provides accommodation for 164,000 tenants and has a lengthy waiting list.

The actual mix of social housing in these new developments is really the only source of contentiousness circulating. Beddoes thinks there won't be enough social housing. Others are concerned with the mix.

TWRC's Campbell says that although there has been some trepidation about the social housing component, most of those issues have been put to bed.

"It's not designed to be a social ghetto at all, it's just designed to be affordable," he says.

"People look to the St. Lawrence neighbourhood as a great model. You've got all kinds of housing in there, all kinds of income levels, age groups and so forth. I think people want to see more of that sort of social fabric."

That the project is starting at last is a boon for everyone close by, especially those closest, in the Distillery Historic District.

The area is a hot spot not because of its location, but in spite of it.

And the redevelopment of Toronto's waterfront puts a smile on the faces of local business people such as Steve Abrams, the marketing director/business manager for Mill Street Brewery.

Mill Street has just moved its primary production to a warehouse in Scarborough while converting its Distillery district space into a 400-seat brewpub. Having a neighbourhood of 6,000 units adjacent makes Abrams happy.

"This will really enhance the area and we are really excited about it," he says. "The more the merrier."

One of the key stumbling blocks to the West Don Lands development was the fact that the soil in the area is toxic.

The previous plan to completely replace the soil was seen by some as well-intended but rigid and unnecessary.

With the passing of the Brownfields Statute Law Amendment Act by the Ontario government in October 2004, redeveloping brownfields became much easier.

The new rules mean development is done on a risk-assessment basis. The key piece of the legislation concerns the record of site condition (RSC), which is an environmental assessment of a property after remediation of an environmental problem is completed. The RSC includes an assessment that the piece of land in question is suitable for a given use. Total remediation may not always be necessary to move forward.

"It's really taking a pragmatic approach to a problem, rather than going to inordinate efforts to clean up land well beyond what the risk is," Campbell says. "Why would you do that when in fact you can protect for the risk that is there and for the use that's there."

The other stumbling block was the fact that the entire area is a flood plain.

So, if a storm of the severity of 1954's hurricane Hazel hit the area, the Don River could potentially flood all the way to the nearby downtown core.

A total of 81 people died in hurricane Hazel, 30 of them on one street adjacent to the Humber River on the west side of Toronto.

After conducting an environmental assessment to figure out how to protect the area, the TWRC is building a berm to protect against flooding, as well as shoring up the CN Rail bridge.

"This combination of the flood protection and the brownfield legislation now allows us to proceed to develop the West Don Lands," Campbell says.

But not only will the soil be remediated on this contaminated site, the West Don Lands will - somewhat ironically - become a green community.

The entire build-out will be to leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED) Gold standards, an extremely high level of sustainability for a project this large.

"This will probably be Canada's first LEED Gold community," Campbell says. "What we are trying to do is stretch the marketplace to gold, and then move on to platinum in two, three, four years time."

While the project is underway and the big picture is set, the details are still partly undecided. The precinct project calls for a plan that identifies built form, while the zoning will limit heights and setbacks. But there will be no real limits on density within those building envelope guidelines.

Campbell hopes that in June the TWRC will be putting out a proposal call once the zoning and other infrastructure details have been ironed out.

The TWRC wants to make sure that social housing, park designations and other government issues have been sorted through so that any developer who comes in will only have two risks: Market and construction.

(Paul Henderson can be reached at henderson@businessedge.ca)