The man battling Rob Ford for control over Port Lands redevelopment is warning that the mayor's new plan will cost an additional quarter of a billion dollars for infrastructure. In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail, Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell stressed his agency selected the most cost-effective alternative for naturalizing the mouth of the Don River and building a flood plain capable of handling storms of the magnitude of Hurricane Hazel. Under the mayor’s plan – which features a megamall, Ferris wheel and monorail – Toronto taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $270-million in extra infrastructure costs, according to Waterfront Toronto officials, citing financial estimates that were prepared by third-party costing and hydrology consultants retained for the lengthy environmental assessment process. Among other things, the additional expenses include $50-million for relocating a Hydro substation and $100-million to clean a heavily polluted area north of the Keating Channel, Mr. Campbell said.
These numbers will be presented to council later this month as part of the agency’s business case, which is currently being peer-reviewed.
Waterfront Toronto – an agency of the federal, provincial and Toronto governments – had been charged with coming up with a plan to redevelop the Port Lands, a vast area of heavily contaminated industrial property created by the Toronto Harbour Commission before the Second World War. But early this week, consultants for Toronto Port Lands Corp., a city agency that owns property in the area, unveiled a competing scheme that it claims will hasten revitalization while shifting the cost of infrastructure to the private sector. That scheme has received the support of Mr. Ford's executive committee.
Sounding defiant yet philosophical about the agency’s future, Mr. Campbell made no apologies for the pace of progress in redeveloping 2,000 acres of waterfront, much of it heavily polluted.
“It’s like, please, run this race and by the way, here’s a 300-pound ball and chain you’ve got to drag behind you,” he observed. “I say that to work here, you have to have a high tolerance for ambiguity.”
Officials at Waterfront Toronto say their proposal, developed by Brooklyn-based landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh & Associates, has been configured specifically to raise real estate prices in the Port Lands by maximizing the amount of water’s-edge land available for the sort of mixed-use residential development envisioned in the official plan.
“When you look at the value you create, you’re talking about an uptick of 35 per cent,” Mr. Campbell said.
At the same time, he didn’t rule out the possibility of adapting the city's land-use plan to accommodate other uses, such as more commercial centres. “The city is entitled to change the plan. The land is large enough to do that.”
When Mr. Campbell left a private development company eight years ago to join Waterfront Toronto, he discovered the publicly owned agency had to complete no fewer than 263 federal and provincial environmental assessments before it could begin redevelopment activities. It also faced six-month delays when submitting funding requests to the three levels of government that are its shareholders.
“The lack of tools, the regulatory constraints – I’m proud of what we’ve done given the constraints,” he said.
The agency’s strategy, which creates a naturalized estuary that opens into the harbour while retaining the Keating Channel, relies on relatively clean city land for the parkland areas prescribed in the city’s official plan. Waterfront Toronto estimates the new rivermouth will cost $634-million and could be completed within five years of the approval of the environmental assessment, which has been submitted to Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment.
The controversy over Waterfront Toronto’s plan has arisen because several developers, including Westfield, an Australian shopping mall builder, have spoken with Councillor Doug Ford and Toronto Port Lands Corp. officials about acquiring property on the Port Lands.
Investors regularly approach his agency with requests to buy and develop land on the waterfront, Mr. Campbell said, but it rejects unsolicited offers. “We cannot do deals behind closed doors. We go through a public procurement process because we’re dealing with a public asset. We encourage those investors to be part of the process, but we can’t do one-off deals.”
Mr. Campbell also warned that an abrupt shift in direction, and the likely delays associated with redoing much of the environmental assessment if council goes ahead with the Toronto Port Lands Corp. plan, will send the wrong signal to investors at a time when the agency is poised to begin soliciting development proposals for the heavily contaminated north side of the Keating Channel.
Having survived three mayors, seven changes of government and 15 cabinet ministers, Mr. Campbell takes the long view and sounded confident that the agency can work with the Ford administration instead of turning back the regulatory clock by as much as four years.
“I understand their impatience. They want to open up the thing and say, ‘What can we do?’ I think there’s room for us to work collaboratively with them. We think we’ve got a great plan. Doesn’t mean it can’t accommodate some of the features people are looking at. Maybe it’s time to pause, and, through a public process, look at some of these ideas.”
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