Accidental Activist

Toronto's Waterfront

Toronto is trying to wrest its waterfront back from the cars and condos that have strangled the shoreline.

By Ben Bull
Published August 30, 2006

One ailment I appear to have overcome since moving to Toronto is that age old Hamiltonian curse known as Toronto Envy.

It is, of course, not surprising that the grass in TO is not as green as it sometimes appears from the other side of the lake, but what is surprising is just how many similarities there are between my two favourite towns.

Monkey crepes, a glass of Stella, and a lakeside view: what more could you ask for?
Monkey crepes, a glass of Stella, and a lakeside view: what more could you ask for?

Take the waterfronts. Over in Hamilton I hear that better-late-than-never Mayor Larry Di Ianni recently returned from a trip to Halifax where he learned all about their much admired waterfront revival. Word is he is planning to make Hamilton's own Bay restoration a key issue in his upcoming municipal campaign.

A quick look across the water and what do we find? Toronto Mayor David Miller cutting the ribbon at the ten-day "Quay to the City" Queens Quay makeover and promising that the restoration will "bring back the waterfront to the people." ( "A Glorious Kick In The Asphalt," The Toronto Star, August 12, 2006)

Both our waterfronts are stalled. Bogged down in bureaucracy and inhibited by an infuriating lack of ambition, Toronto's waterfront has come to symbolize the chronic inaction that permeates this once ambitious city.

Sound familiar? The Toronto Star's urban issue columnist, Christopher Hume, is so fed up with this inactivity he's taken to referring to us as "Toronto the Timid."

The perpetual planning, Port Authority-bashing, and endless buck-passing that has characterized Toronto's harbourfront for the past dozen years is eerily similar to Hamilton's own lakeside story.

But just as Hamilton's waterfront wheels seem to be churning at last, Toronto's are also showing signs of life.

From August 11 to 21, Queens Quay - the lakeside highway that runs from Parliament to just past Spadina - was pedestrianized. The ten-day design featured extended sidewalks, bike trails, and lots of much needed greenery - all at the expense of the car.

Look, no cars! The south leg of Queen's Quay gets a much-needed makeover
Look, no cars! The south leg of Queen's Quay gets a much-needed makeover

Enthused by these developments, I set off, last Saturday, August 12, with my eight-year-old son Jack, to check out the new street layout firsthand.

My first impressions were mixed. For some reason I thought that the entire stretch of the Quay - from York to Spadina - was going to be blocked to traffic. Turns out it was just the eastbound lanes, so instead of the car-free utopia I had anticipated there was the all-too-familiar commotion of bumper to bumper traffic honking up the north side.

Still, the south side featured a welcome extension of the Martin Goodman bike trail (why it's called an "extension " when it's really just a continuation of the trail that ends abruptly at Jarvis and starts again at Spadina - is beyond me) and a fine looking grassy strip running between the trail and the sidewalk.

Bike Sculpture at York and Queen's Quay. City Staff call it the Gateway to the Future ... but is it art?
Bike Sculpture at York and Queen's Quay. City Staff call it the Gateway to the Future ... but is it art?

I walked with Jack under the curious looking Bicycle Sculpture (an artsy arch made up of discarded bike parts from the Toronto police warehouse) and enter what has been described as the "realm of the future " (Toronto City Council plans to make the Queens Quay makeover permanent some time next Summer).

I found the extra walking room pleasant, if a little modest. As I strolled along the newly rolled turf it occured to me how thin the current strip of sidewalk is. Like many sidewalks in Toronto and Hamilton I am amazed at how the mere possibility of two couples, strolling hand in hand towards each other, has not been accommodated. Cars can pass at speed, pedestrians must make way.

Muskoka chairs are dotted around the boulevard as an invitation to sit and watch the world go by. Up on their verandahs I spied two lucky condo owners sitting with beers in hand, taking in the show.

It was the first time I've seen anybody up there.

I took a seat with Jack and asked him what he thought. "This is cool, Dad. Can we get some ice cream now?"

Rock Balancer Daryl Maddeaux does his thing. Careful, now; nobody sneeze...
Rock Balancer Daryl Maddeaux does his thing. Careful, now; nobody sneeze...

I notice a slight problem with the interim design. There are two car park entrances on the south side of the Quay. A police officer is stationed at each, guiding the cars across the sidewalk, the bike path, and over the streetcar tracks that run in the center of the road.

It's chaos; not so much for the pedestrians, who are used to interruptions to their right of way, or the streetcars, which run safely up and down the track, but I notice many an unsuspecting rollerblader or cyclist getting nicely up to speed, only to find yet another reason to throw on the brakes.

Caution is definitely called for, whatever your mode of transportation.

The Toronto Star reports that up to one third of the estimated $1 million budget put aside for this project has been allocated to the police. That's a huge sum and I wonder why, if the police are predominantly dealing with traffic issues, the entire stretch of the Quay could not have been cordoned off.

At the very least, the car park should have been closed. The final estimate for next Summer's permanent improvement is $60 million. With all the planners at City Hall, I wonder why such an expensive dry-run was needed. Why not just make it a permanent fixture now?

As I took in the spectacle I got the sense that many pedestrians were not quite sure how to enjoy their new sense of freedom. Some tried to sit on the new grass but quickly found themselves blocking the way as groups of teenagers and tourists strolled along in double and triple file.

Those walking on the grass seemed to find it a little uneven and many retreated back to the safety and familiarity of the sidewalk, until they encountered another oncoming couple and had to step aside once again.

For the most part it seems that the little strip of grass is best suited as a buffer between the old sidewalk and the bike trail "extension ". It's certainly a damn sight better than the two lanes of traffic that are now tearing up the strip, once again.

In search of ice cream, Jack and I wandered over to Pier 4 and back over the bridge to the Harbourfront stage.

'Hey, Dad: can we buy a boat? Pleeeease?'
'Hey, Dad: can we buy a boat? Pleeeease?'

A sultry looking Jazz singer sauntered by and belted out a classy sounding tune. Her ensemble was tight and Jack managed a whole half song, perched atop my shoulders, before getting restless and reminding me that we were supposed to be looking for ice cream.

As we set off again it occured to me that there were many more people milling around here than usual. I was also struck by how un-Torontonian this whole 'people place' coming togetherness really is.

Even Dundas Square, that blob of concrete that looks every bit the public-space-designed-by-committee that it is, has only recently begun to draw in the crowds, thanks in part to the cool water spray features that invite public participation and remind us of what public spaces are supposed to be: Fun.

As I watched the Toronto public and tourists cautiously avoiding each other, it's clear that the European sixth sense 'pedestrian avoidance system' is going to take a little while to kick in.

Jack and I retreated into a cool looking enclave, 'Crepe Du Soliel,' which overlooks the harbour, the island, and the chaos. As I wrote in my European public space hopping series, 'People Places' I am happiest here - sitting back, sipping a coffee, a beer - anything really - and watching the world go by.

A couple of cops came over and chated with a friend on the table next to mine. I heard all about his wife's illness and the recent goings on at 51 Division. She has cancer but a great prognosis. He's working a double shift because Toronto is "going nuts" (whatever that means).

Jack tried to get my attention with another installment from his 'Captain Kid' series - straight from the depths of his amazing imagination - but soon realized he must compete with the dozens of low-topped females cruising dangerously close to our table.

"Dad! I'll tell Mom!"

A First Nations panpipe player was busking to our left, a magician to our right, and out in front was a wonderful chaos of harbour cruises, Island ferries and other assorted watercraft criscrossing the harbour, doing their thing.

Jack changed his mind on the ice cream and ordered a Monkey Crepe instead: Chocolate, almonds, bananas, peanuts - it looked delicious. I went for a beer and a Veggie Wrap.

As with most people places, enjoyment is predominantly free and conversation is absolutely optional. The sheer peacefulness and entertainment of watching the human race go by is the only thing we need to take up our time.

A middle-eastern looking man with a young daughter bent over to pick up a Spanish looking lady's scarf. She thanked him profusely. Here, in the melting pot of Toronto, I am left to wonder why there are so many wars in the world.

After some bill trouble (third time lucky - the exasperated waitress explained that the place had never been so busy) we headed into the Terminal in search of a wine store and a washroom.

You can still see the CN Tower betwen the condos (well, most of the time). Now, is that a wine store on the left?
You can still see the CN Tower betwen the condos (well, most of the time). Now, is that a wine store on the left?

I used to work in this building, eight or nine years ago, and here at least, it seems that little has changed. After a washroom break we realized we had less than 90 seconds to get across the road and into the wine store. My wife left me with one clear instruction when I set off: "Don't come back empty handed."

As we tore across the road on our right of way, we had a minor altercation with an overzealous driver who seemed to think it's OK to keep inching forward - in the direction of my son - as she tried to make a left on the red.

We exchanged the inevitable insults - the driver, as I have learnt for myself, is never wrong - and reached the wine store just in time to have the doors locked in front of us.

What is it about that pane of glass that makes us entirely invisible as soon as the clock strikes nine? Our tap-tap-tapping on the window went entirely unacknowledged, despite the fact that the shop assistant was looking straight at us and the clock behind her read 8.59 PM.

Star gazing on the Quay. Look closely, yes, him on the right: CBC's Rex Murphy out for a stroll (well, I was impressed...)
Star gazing on the Quay. Look closely, yes, him on the right: CBC's Rex Murphy out for a stroll (well, I was impressed...)

Feeling a little hard done by, we headed for the streetcar and home. A quick look down the line told us we'd better hurry a car was approaching fast.

Knowing firsthand that the TTC is not quite what it used to be, I resolved to catch it but again we found we had a few more traffic obstacles to maneuver.

First, we had to cross Queens Quay at York. It took a couple of minutes for the little man to appear.

Then we had to cut across York, an almost pointless wait as the only traffic heading south of the Quay was for the nearby hotel.

After a 60 second wait at that light we found we have to wait again, this time to cross back over Queens Quay, into the middle where the streetcar stop awaits. As the traffic roared by and the streetcar rumbled up to the stop, several pedestrians jokingly told the traffic cop they were going to run the light and catch the streetcar, "even if it kills us."

At last the light changed and we joined the other dozen or so pedestrians hurtling across the road and up to the streetcar steps.

We made it!

As I walked home from Union station, hand-in-hand with Jack, we passed the AIDS display at BCE Place, the Hockey Hall of fame, the Hummingbird Centre, and the teeming thoroughfares of Front and Esplanade, and I was reminded of just how lucky I am to be so close to everything - and yet never far from home.

As we rounded the corner to Longboat Avenue, Jack asked me how I enjoyed our "Father and Son night out."

I had no hesitation in responding. "It was perfect, Jack, just perfect."

Home again. What d'you reckon, Jack? 'It was cool, Dad.' 'You mean the Harbourfront?' 'No, stupid - the monkey crepe!'
Home again. What d'you reckon, Jack? 'It was cool, Dad.' 'You mean the Harbourfront?' 'No, stupid - the monkey crepe!'

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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