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Chris Selley: Toronto’s waterfront has come a long way, even cynics must agree
July15, 2015
By Chris Selley

If the Pan Am Games do nothing else for this city, it is to be hoped some of us might notice that at long last, and not without hiccups and massive expenditure, we are knocking the downtown renewal file out of the park.

Wandering around the teeming Distillery District on Sunday, even the grumpy and gridlock-bound would have been hard pressed not to concede we have something spectacular on our hands there. From there to Corus Quay to Sugar Beach to Queen’s Quay West, we are reaping the benefits of decades of political toil and spending.

On Tuesday, Mayor John Tory, federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver and provincial Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid stood at the edge of the harbour, north of Cherry Beach, and announced their support, in principle, for what’s arguably the Holy Grail of waterfront redevelopment: turning the Lower Don Lands, our most benighted lakeside, into many hundreds of acres of multi-use development and parkland.

Waterfront Toronto has earmarked $5 million for “due diligence” on the approved plan: soil contamination studies, procurement issues and scheduling. And if a firm price is in the neighbourhood of the suspected $1 billion, the feds and Queen’s Park want you to know they’re interested in chipping in your money for it.

The renderings are nothing short of spectacular. The project would create a new waterway between the Keating and Shipping channels, just south of Commissioners Street, which would serve as the new mouth of the Don River.

There is a utilitarian purpose: The Don currently ends unceremoniously in a 90-degree turn at the Keating Channel, which creates a flood risk to some 700 acres of downtown land. A more natural outflow will hugely mitigate that risk and make development a far more rational proposition. But that’s just a means to an end.

Tory called it “one of the most exciting things that lies before this city.” He’s dead right. And looking west along the waterfront from its arse end, even knowing how little an agreement in principle from a government is worth, it was difficult to muster the cynicism that traditionally attends megaproject announcements in Toronto.

“You need look no further than the (Pan Am) Athletes’ Village,” said Tory. “Twenty years ago it was a contaminated piece of land that nobody really wanted to talk about. ... Today it is a thriving centre of activity ... and several months from today it will be a thriving first-class neighbourhood.” It’s never quick, never cheap. We might quibble with parts of our improved waterfront. But no one, surely, would refund those improvements for the money spent.

I’m a year away from 40, and well accustomed to bitching about the pace of progress in this city; but the more I’ve thought about it recently, the more I’m amazed at how far we’ve come, and the less despondent I am about the timeline.