Last week, Waterfront Toronto held a community consultation at the Daniels Spectrum to share information on the Port Lands Flood Protection & Enabling Infrastructure (PLFPEI) project and collect public feedback on the design of Promontory Park and the River Valley. The PLFPEI project is expected to be complete in 2023 and will re-naturalize the mouth of the Don River, create a new river valley through the Port Lands, a new island, and new parks, roads and bridges. With construction now underway, the meeting marked a significant milestone in the project’s 20+ year-long process, and gave the audience an opportunity to hear presentations from those involved in the project, ask questions, and voice their concerns.

A model of the Port Lands Flood Protection & Enabling Infrastructure project, uploaded by UrbanToronto user skycandy.

The PLFPEI project covers over 800 acres of land in Toronto’s Port Lands—“one of North America's largest underused urban areas." Initially developed in the early 1900s, the Port Lands was created in anticipation of housing the City’s industrial growth. The design followed planning practices common at the time, forcing the river into a 90° turn, conflicting with the waterway’s natural movement. A majority of the Portlands is currently within the resulting flood plain and has suffered from its history of industrial usage. Therefore revitalization, decontamination, and flood protection is necessary before the City will allow residential and commercial development.

The PLFPEI project has roots in 1989 as part of Mark Wilson’s efforts to Bring Back the Don. In 2007, Waterfront Toronto made it a top priority to redevelop around the mouth of the Don as a means to create flood protection, and launched the Lower Don Lands Master Plan design competition. The competition was awarded to Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA) who has now been with the project for over 10 years. In 2017, three levels of government announced that funding of $1.185 billion would be set aside for the revitalization of the site.

Project Area of the Port Lands Flood Protection & Enabling Infrastructure project. Image courtesy of MVVA.

Through extensive collaboration among a wide range of stakeholders, it has been established that a new naturalized outlet for the Don River will be created with a waterway that carves out a new island between it and the Keating Channel, the current outlet of the Don. The Keating Channel will also be improved with a new mouth, construction of which began with the filling of Essroc Quay to create a new landmass. This milestone was celebrated last month at an event attended by Julie Dabrusin, MP for Toronto–Danforth (on behalf of the Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities); Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau (on behalf of Minister of Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli); Toronto Mayor John Tory; Will Fleissig, CEO of Waterfront Toronto; and Stacey R. Laforme, Chief of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation.

Map of PLFPEI's infrastructure development. Image courtesy of Waterfront Toronto.

The meeting on February 22 saw presentations from Councillor Paula Fletcher, David Kusturin and Chris Glaisek of Waterfront Toronto, Matthew Urbanski and Herb Sweeney of MVVA, and ended with an opportunity for the audience to ask questions to the presenters. The presentation was accompanied by an elaborate display of the project and community feedback stations that included a “map scavenger hunt” station, “tell me more” station, “visualize your future spaces” station, “envelope wall”, “meet your neighbours” station, and a massive model of the project that acted as a centerpiece for the event.

Speaking on behalf of Waterfront Toronto, David Kusturin and Chris Glaisek gave a short history of Toronto’s Port Lands, explaining that the man-made site existed to host industrial activities, and as a consequence is currently not amenable to residential development because the soil is contaminated and a majority of the land lies within the flood plain. The PLFPEI project has addressed these difficulties through an exhaustive review and analysis process. From their due diligence exercise, Waterfront Toronto was able to establish a scope, schedule, cost, and risks of the PLFPEI project, which resulted in a report 7 binders thick. Many public consultations have happened already, but the City is still interested in collecting as much feedback as they can in order to develop the vibrancy and richness of the project.

The PLFPEI project's playgrounds will be interwoven with nature. Rendering courtesy of MVVA.

Matthew Urbanski and Herb Sweeney from MVVA—responsible for the master plan of the site—followed Waterfront Toronto's presentation with an explanation of the parkland design, their approach to the site, and precedents that inspired the firm. Sweeny explained that the design needed to provide flood control, create a connection to the urban context, and attract visitors from across the city to the parks. As such, the proposed Promontory Park has been identified to address the city's need for event space, music venues, and beach space. People will be able to access Promontory Park and the riverbanks through several means including LRT, bicycle paths, and walkable trails.

To address flood control, MVVA gave the Don River three waterways to flow into, with one main mouth that forms a soft turn instead of the existing hard right turn, and two alternative paths.  These waterways are each lined with wetland buffer spaces that allow the water levels to rise in the event of a hurricane, creating a resilient and sustainable environment. In total, 29 hectares of naturalized green areas are planned—including coastal wetlands—as well as 16 acres of parkland, and 14 acres of in-water aquatic habitat. 

Urbanski wrapped up the presentation with a slideshow of the potential the PLFPEI project can bring to the City, using much of MVVA’s past work as examples. Potential programmatic uses of the site include event lawns, cafes, playscapes, picnicking spaces, nature play, promenades, kayak/canoe channels, passive-use lawns, romantic overlooks, public art, heritage reuse, multi-use fields, and the possible adaptation of the Essroc silos for rock climbing walls. These programs would provide access to water, restored wetlands (that look like they’ve existed for decades), skyline views, trails, and the City as a backdrop to activities.

The proposed landscape design for the PLFPEI project has many programs. Image courtesy of MVVA.

The audience had many questions and comments to provide after the presentation, which mostly concerned the usage of the site, affordability, and safety during potential flood events.

Some were concerned with the continuation of existing trail paths and whether this development will interrupt the Martin Goodman Trial, the Lower Don River Trail, and the adjacent Tommy Thompson Park. To this, the presenters replied that all developed trails will be complimentary to existing paths and Tommy Thompson Park will remain as a nature preserve.

There were questions about the plans for the Villiers Island urban area (named for an existing street on the land which will become an island following the digging of the new river mouth).

One audience member commented that as the current Port Lands are relatively vacant, they has been providing an excellent space for artists to experiment without bothering residential uses, and was wondering whether the PLFPEI project will push out the artists. Waterfront Toronto commented that they anticipate arts programming to be part of Villiers Island, but the form has yet to be determined.

There was a question about whether affordable housing will be provided in on Villiers Island, to which WT responded that the affordable residential unit mix will follow the City’s current policy but will be more aggressive, with intentions to exceed the target as the development evolves.

There was also a query on whether Villiers Island would be proposed to Amazon or Sidewalk Labs as a potential site for their developments, which another audience member answered, stating that Amazon is currently looking for a site that can be developed within a 10 year window, and Villiers Island falls just outside of this window, thus making it ineligible.

Many were concerned whether the revitalized wetlands will actually keep Villiers Island safe from a hurricane event, and whether the development will benefit other upstream areas of the Don Valley. In response, the presenters assured the audience that the City’s current flood models are appropriate for this site and the design will meet these models, but unfortunately it is not possible for the PLFPEI project to provide flood protection for the buildings upstream that were built within the flood plain.

We will keep you updated as more information about the Port Lands Flood Protection & Enabling Infrastructure project emerges. In the meantime, feedback is being collected through an online survey titled “How to Make a Great Park,” and additional information about the area's redevelopment is available in our database file, linked below. Want to share your thoughts about the project? Leave a comment in the space below, or add your voice to the ongoing discussion in our associated Forum thread.

Related Companies:  LEA Consulting, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, urbanMetrics inc., Waterfront Toronto