A new controversy is brewing over the fate of an award-winning master plan by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for the Lower Don Lands, an underutilized 308-acre industrial section of Toronto’s waterfront.
The 2007 Van Valkenburgh master plan calls for flood-proofing the Lower Don Lands, and transforming it with new sustainable parks and mixed-use communities. A key aspect of the plan is to reroute the Don River and restore wildlife habitat and wetlands that were lost more than 100 years ago.
The master plan for the Lower Don Lands is part of a larger redevelopment project underway in Toronto’s 988-acre Port Lands district, which city officials say is the largest urban renewal project in North America.
Currently, armies of construction workers and hundreds of cranes are building two neighborhoods, each one about the size of Battery Park City, in waterfront neighborhoods adjacent to the Lower Don Lands.
However, work has yet to start on the Van Valkenburgh plan for the Lower Don Lands, which could take years to build out because of the plan’s ecological goals and because of tightening government budgets. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, elected in December 2010, and his influential brother, Toronto City Councillor Doug Ford, have advocated for a revised master plan with elements that could be built on a faster timeline.
Last September, after a public backlash, Mayor Ford and the city agency that owns large stretches of the waterfront backed away from a plan to seize a section of the Don Lands from Waterfront Toronto, the joint federal, provincial and municipal development agency charged with developing the city’s waterfront.
Instead of the mixed-use community built upon the 21st-century ecological goals emphasized in the Van Valkenburgh plan, the mayor and his brother reportedly wanted to build a tourist-oriented development on the site that would have featured a megamall and a Ferris wheel.
Now critics charge that the Ford administration is working on another attempt to gut the 2007 Van Valkenburgh master plan, this time in conjunction with Waterfront Toronto. Early this summer, Waterfront Toronto was to have presented a modified master plan developed by Toronto-based urban planning firm planningAlliance under the new Port Lands Acceleration Initiative, to Toronto’s Executive Committee. However, the deadline recently was extended to September.
“[The mayor and his brother] see it just as a fire sale of assets,” said Ken Greenberg, a prominent Toronto-based urban planner who worked on the Van Valkenburgh master plan, adding that the city’s new approach effectively was to “do the minimum we have to for flood proofing in the form of an engineered channel; strip out what, in their view, is all of the extra parkland; and put the land on the market for developers.”
Greenberg says that more significant public involvement and investment is needed and that private developers will not be able to realize the ideals contained within the award-winning master plan, which was chosen as one of 16 founding projects of a Clinton Climate Initiative for its broad potential in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Officials with Waterfront Toronto counter that they are not, in fact, changing the objectives of the Van Valkenburgh plan, but rather developing new ideas about how to finance it. Some of the proposed changes also include building out the master plan in phases and moving the locations for some of the parks. Reached by email, Michael van Valkenburgh did not want to comment at this time.
“This is a natural evolution,” said Michelle Noble, director of communications for Waterfront Toronto. “The cold hard reality is that there are less public dollars available for everyone.”