A city that might have been
Waterfront renewal painfully slow seven years after Toronto lost Olympic bid to Beijing
July 13, 2008
For most Torontonians, today is just an ordinary Sunday. Yet today marks an important, albeit forgotten, anniversary.
Seven years ago this day, in a Moscow hotel, delegates from the International Olympic Committee gathered to decide the host city of the 2008Olympic Summer Games.
Final tally: Beijing 55 votes, Toronto 22, Paris 18, Istanbul 9.
For China, the victory marked a new beginning. For Toronto, it marked an end.
Having lost the Games for the second time in little more than a decade (the city finished third in voting to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games), Toronto's own Olympic era was ostensibly laid to rest.
Still, even in defeat, talk of an Olympic legacy endured.
"We lost the Olympics, but we won the waterfront," mayor Mel Lastman assured us.
With a firm commitment of $1.5 billion from all three levels of government, the wheels of waterfront "revitalization" were finally in motion. The impossible would soon become reality.
Today, seven years later – with developers just now set to break ground in the West Don Lands, the East Bayfront still mired in planning and the Portlands locked in industrial slumber – reality has yet to impress.
Without the eyes of the world upon us, progress on the waterfront has remained painfully slow.
But imagine, for a minute, what might have been.
All but three of 28 proposed Olympic venues would have been situated along a six-kilometre stretch of redeveloped waterfront extending from the CNE grounds in the west to the Portlands in the east.
The showpiece of this "Olympic Waterfront" would have been the Olympic Stadium, a 100,000-seat coliseum located where Cherry St. now meets Commissioners St., the backdrop for the Games' athletic events, soccer finals and opening and closing ceremonies.
To the north, on the banks of the Keating Channel near the mouth of the Don River, would have stood the Olympic Aquatic Centre, the second of three marquee sites planned for the Portlands. Featuring separate diving and swimming pools, with seating for 15,000 to 25,000, the pod-like Aquatic Centre would have been home to diving, water polo, swimming and synchro events.
To the south, encompassing what is now Cherry Beach and Waterfront Park, would have been the Olympic Village, a state-of-the-art neighbourhood with accommodations for nearly 17,000 athletes, coaches and trainers. A grid of walkways, streets and boulevards would have linked this self-styled "environmentally responsible and progressive community" of townhouses, lofts and apartments (rising up to six stories) to a private beach, along the lake, and public promenade, facing the city.
After the Games, with festivities complete, plans called for the Olympic Stadium to be scaled down to 20,000 seats, serving as a much-needed national training centre for athletics. Same for the Olympic Aquatic Centre as well as the Olympic Regatta Centre, a world-class rowing and paddle sports facility that would have been carved out of the now-desolate shipping channel south of Commissioners St.
Along the western waterfront, the CNE would have inherited a new Equestrian Stadium, a secondary Aquatic Centre, and an 8,400-seat Olympic Velodrome and Multi-sport Centre for indoor cycling and wrestling (where BMO field is today).
While these developments may sound impressive, skeptics, such as Councillor Michael Walker, the bid's most outspoken critic at the time, would insist that we dodged a bullet. And in certain respects, they would be right.
Despite a guarantee from the province to cover any financial shortfalls, the economic risks inherent in staging such a monumental event were never fully debated. Even the IOC Evaluation Commission, in its final report, "was uneasy about the manner in which the budget was produced and presented."
The Olympic Village, intended as a test site for the city's 20-year plan to bring 100,000 new residents to the waterfront, would likely also have brought various social challenges.
Consider that the village was designed largely for the short-term needs of the athletes, not the long-term needs of future communities. Funded entirely by the private sector, the plan's focus on "studio lofts" and "garden apartments" makes no mention of affordable housing options, rental or otherwise.
From an ecological perspective, however, the Games may have represented an important catalyst for change. The pressure to follow through on the Olympic development plan would have helped accelerate an array of environmental initiatives, such as the cleanup of thousands of acres of contaminated industrial lands, which, although part of Waterfront Toronto's mandate, are currently inching forward at a snail's pace.
Other environmental priorities, such as transit improvements, would also have been fast-tracked.
The proximity of most venues to the Olympic Village and downtown core – many within walking distance of one another – would have required spectators to use alternative modes of transportation. Projects still languishing on the drawing board, such as enhanced GO Train service along the lakeshore, renovations to Union Station and the long-overdue Pearson-Union rail link – plans for which resurfaced again last week – would have finally moved ahead, contributing to fewer smog days, less air pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Is Toronto worse off for losing the Games? Maybe. Maybe not.
The point is had we won, change would be here by now.
And for a city starving for a new waterfront, that alone is something worth imagining.
Gabriel Eidelman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and Centre for Environment at the University of Toronto.