Toronto waterfront in need of a facelift

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2004, 12:00am

Concerned residents draw up plans to beautify city eyesore

For a long time, the people of Toronto have lived with the knowledge that their city's waterfront is an eyesore.

The core of the city is separated from the harbour and Lake Ontario by highways and ugly industrial sites that block the view of the lake and the crescent of islands sheltering the harbour.

In the early 1970s the federal government bought 40.6 hectares of land along the waterfront but nobody had an urban plan that was worthy of the property or the view.

The result has been an erratic hodgepodge of development. Monolithic condominium towers form a cement wall that separates the city from the lake. Outside the walls of the towers, there is almost nothing to see or do.

It was this barren landscape that greeted Anne Christensen when she moved to the harbourfront area two years ago - a singular absence of 'the retail amenities that make a neighbourhood'.

The one respectable concentration of shops and restaurants, Queen's Quay Terminal, was fine on its own but the whole harbourfront area did not attract enough visitors to generate much excitement.

The terminal was successful originally because it was designated a tourist site and thus could stay open for shopping on Sunday but that success evaporated when all the city was opened for Sunday shopping.

'It's one of the worst waterfronts I've seen in my life. I'm embarrassed about our harbourfront,' said estate agent Brad Lamb.

It was a similar judgment that Ms Christensen heard 30 years ago when an urban planner complained that Toronto was the only city in the world that turned its back on a waterfront. She did not worry much about trying to do anything about it until she moved into the area two years ago.

Her first step was to join the fledgling Harbourfront Community Association.

Then plans were announced for construction of a bridge to the Toronto Island Airport. That would bring flights of large jets to an area already struggling to maintain a touch of residential peace. The fight over the island airport became the focus of the civic elections in Toronto last November when the only opponent of the airport, a virtually unknown councillor by the name of David Miller, won the mayoralty.

The fight over the airport energised the harbourfront association. Ms Christensen got herself elected president and the association has set out to plan and finance the kind of attractions that will make the waterfront more appealing to visitors and residents.

That will mean making the whole area more pedestrian-friendly and more tourist-friendly in the hope that, in the process, shops will find the harbourfront becoming more retail-friendly.

A survey shows that the harbourfront area has about 12 million visitors a year. The problem has been to make them stay.

Mr Lamb's suggestion is to narrow the main road, widen the boulevard and install park benches to anchor people in the street: 'It's awful but it could be better.'