Sunday, February 29, 2004

Dennis Mills and the Waterfront

So Toronto Liberal MP Dennis Mills has released his plan for Toronto's waterfront. There's a website devoted to the proposal, although it seems rather light on details to me, even on projects like the Union Station renovations that are already underway (though you'd never know it from the writeup), which doesn't even reference the actual study's website, which is here, by the way. The Toronto Star is cautiously optimistic; local blogger Andrew Spicer is more pessimistic. Me, I'd like to know what Mills' obsession is with the United Nations; perhaps drunk on his SARS-stock success, he's previously proposed moving the actual building to Toronto's waterfront.

Perhaps more seriously though, I'd like to take what might be a more unpopular or controversial stance: it sounds like there is too much reliance on parkland. Yeah, I know, saying that too much parkland is being proposed is somewhat akin to, oh, saying that the government is spending too much on health care, or that taxes are really too low, or that Saddam wasn't that bad a guy after all, just a little misunderstood. In the Star article, Mills uses the word "developers" as though it's a four-letter word — he practically spits it out. I'd argue that severely restricting development is the wrong direction; in fact, it should be encouraged, provided it's the right kind.

A feature article published a few months ago ("Walk on the waterfront", Bill Taylor, October 12, 2003 — sorry, no link available) described a couple of trips Taylor took in early October on sunny days with temperatures above 20 degrees, where he was somewhat surprised that, for the most part, there was hardly anyone enjoying the early autumn weather on the waterfront. The only places where there was significant activity was near the downtown condos, due to a critical mass of population, and in the Beach. A couple of quotes:


"No one would claim that the residential streets in The Beach keep anyone from the Boardwalk and the sand. It's the busiest area of the lakefront, a living, breathing, vibrant community, with lots of places to eat and drink (west of Spadina Ave., this becomes a serious deficiency). What's the problem elsewhere? East side, west side, it seems to be the same. Parking lots and places, especially in the east end, where you're frequently forced away from the lake. And there's the fact that, most of the time, almost the only people you see by the water are walking their dogs."

And:

"Still a little early for lunch, but the [Beach] neighbourhood is booming. People walk (even when they don't have dogs), run, cycle. Chill out on patios. If you don't mind mixing metaphors, you could call it an oasis by the water. People use it because people live by it. They have shops and bars and restaurants, and that in turn brings in other people. But leave The Beach and you leave the people behind. Because from here to Yonge St., you'll be able to see the lake, but not get close."

Taylor primarily focuses his article on the lack of access, and the various barriers blocking the water's edge such as parking lots, cliffs, and private ownership. But his points about activity in the Beach are particularly notable to me. Though there isn't a wide swath of parkland in the area — in most cases, you can see the neighbourhood houses from the water — the area doesn't feel as though it has a lack of parkland. A big part of what makes it work is the mix of various uses: parkland and recreational facilities; houses, townhouses and walk-up apartments; restaurants, stores, bars, and the streetcar a pleasant four- or five-minute walk away. Development doesn't get in the way of enjoyment of the waterfront here; done right, it adds significantly to it. The lake isn't the only attraction; if you want some variety, you can go for a walk in an architecturally interesting neighbourhood, or head up to Queen Street for some window shopping. Local development attracts enough people through locals alone that it makes the waterfront a more interesting destination for non-locals to come and people-watch, and the built form adds definition to the park edge and makes the area much more visually interesting (this is also an issue up in Downsview, where the park commission envisions a Central Park-type environment, yet inisists on paying for it by selling off the boundary lands for bix-box development.

Maybe a better approach would be an emphasis on quality, not quantity, of parkland, and to not treat development as an evil that's taking away our waterfront. Toronto already has an example where development and the waterfront not only co-exist, but make a whole arguably greater than their sum.

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