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Making waves -- how Sidewalk Labs will bring cottage country to Toronto

Regardless of how Sidewalk's proposal plays out, it is the latest example of downtown waterfront developers' taking advantage of the 13th largest lake in the world
August 29, 2019

From illuminated LRT tracks to fountain-filled public squares, the large-scale model of Sidewalk Labs’ proposed Quayside development is eye-catching to say the least. But for anyone who lives or lingers in Toronto’s downtown waterfront, one feature of the flashy mock-up will likely stand out: The revamped Parliament Slip.

Ringed by docks, paths and parkland, Sidewalk’s vision for the watery notch just west of the Port Lands would provide the kind of cottage-country lake access that simply does not exist elsewhere along Queens Quay. “People have tended to think about waterfront as the edge of a community,” says Jesse Shapins, director of public realm for New York-based Sidewalk Labs. “We see it as being integrated into the community in the same sort of way as in Amsterdam or Venice.”

The downtown skyline and CN Tower are seen past the eastern waterfront area envisioned by Alphabet Inc’s Sidewalk Labs as a new technical hub in the Port Lands district of Toronto on April 3, 2019. Chris Helgren / Reuters
Part of this is about allowing people “to get out and experience the water on boats, kayaks and paddleboards,” Shapins says. “It’s also about thinking long-term. Will there be ferries that connect us to Scarborough? Will there be more connectivity across the lake?”

Less than two years after winning the opportunity to plan the 12-acre Quayside site, the subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. unveiled its ambitious and controversial Master Innovation and Development Plan on June 23. The 1,524-page proposal, entitled “Toronto Tomorrow,” encompasses 190 acres of Toronto’s eastern waterfront, with a series of public consultations and negotiations between Sidewalk and the Waterfront Toronto intergovernmental planning organization slated to yield a final agreement in early 2020.

Regardless of how Sidewalk’s proposal plays out, it is the latest and most pronounced example of downtown waterfront developers’ unprecedented efforts to enhance access to, and enjoyment of, the 13th largest lake in the world.

Clients like the idea of living in a community, rather than just a condo tower

Now under construction at the northeast corner of Queens Quay East and Freeland Street, a new two-acre park will connect Menkes Developments’ seven-tower Sugar Wharf project to the lakeshore. Once complete in 2022, the 11.5-acre complex will be the largest mixed-use development on the waterfront, with 7,500 residents and 4,000 office workers living, and earning their livings, there.

Then there’s the Daniels Waterfront high-rise community, which will combine about 650,000 square feet of residential space with 280,000 square feet of commercial office space on the former site of the Guvernment nightclub. “We’ve got this beautiful waterfront that’s still very underutilized,” says Dominic Tompa, vice-president of sales for Daniels Corp. “We’ve really tried to extend our property to the north side of Queens Quay so that the energy of the community feels connected to and integrated with the lake.”

Along with ample space for storing and maintaining bicycles, which Tompa says “is part of embracing the physically active waterfront lifestyle,” the project will also feature a northward extension of the umbrella-strewn Sugar Beach park, dubbed Sugar Beach North, which will proceed to connect with the Yard, an outdoor atrium lined with boutiques and restaurants.

Charts are displayed on a neighborhood model at the Sidewalk Labs LLC office in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
With the waterfront still relatively short on urban attractions like these, the shift is being noticed by condo seekers, says Tom Storey of Royal Lepage Signature Realty in Toronto. “Clients like the idea of living in a community, rather than just a condo tower. When you put thousands of people in one development, you’re going to need the restaurants and shops, which in turn can survive based on density.”

However, until large developments like Quayside and Sugar Wharf are occupied, prime views of the lake remain the top draw on the waterfront, he adds. “One of our favourite lines with clients is that ‘no view is safe.’ If you want to guarantee your lake view, make sure your unit is facing south in a building that’s as close to the water as possible.”

Such is the case with Aquabella, the new 14-storey waterfront condo building from Tridel Corp. The third of four projects in the Bayside development, Aquabella’s L-shaped design and stepped garden terraces accentuate views of Lake Ontario as it curls past the city.

“I love this kind of property, which faces south to the water but that also faces west and east,” Storey says. “The lake is gorgeous during the day, but it’s total darkness when the sun goes down. The best views look across the water and the city.”

Good urban planning, and not the innovative intentions of developers, is what matters most

Quayside, for its part, would feature a network of walkways, courtyards and plazas offering a variety of sight lines toward Lake Ontario, Sidewalk’s Shapins explains. A series of water features in the main Parliament Plaza would then “extend the lake north into the city. At the moment, you walk under the rail tracks, under the Gardener, and then you have to walk all the way across Queens Quay to experience the lake. We’re saying let’s start the experience the moment you cross Lakeshore.”

As appealing as this may sound, Waterfront Toronto has been getting along just fine without multinational assistance, says Andre Sorensen, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Human Geography. “Good urban planning, and not the innovative intentions of developers, is what matters most. We shouldn’t assume that we need a private-sector angel to save us from doing poor-quality development waterfront development. We’ve seen some very high-quality work in the 17 years since Waterfront Toronto has been in charge, and if a giant corporation wants to be part of it they should play by our rules.”

The Parliament Slip.

This has been the game plan thus far. Through legal contracts and design-panel assessments, Waterfront Toronto has pushed developers to enhance lake access, says Chris Glaisek, the governmental organization’s chief planning and design officer.

Much of the groundwork for these enhancements was laid years before developers arrived. Citing the parks at Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common and Corktown Common as examples, Glaisek says early investments in the public realm have been the key to successful development of the waterfront. “This has actually pushed the land values higher than they otherwise would have been. Our development community has been able to rise to the occasion when they need to, and our waterfront presents a unique opportunity for them to push the envelope.”