Waterfront Toronto

One of the world’s largest urban waterfront revitalization projects
By Leah Kellar

Waterfront Toronto

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One of the world’s largest urban waterfront revitalization projects is on track and poised to substantiate Toronto as a leading global city of the 21st century. Fourty-thousand new residents, 40,000 residential units, one million square metres of employment space, and 300 hectares of parks and public spaces created along the city’s long-neglected waterfront, including several projects broken down by area within the waterfront consisting of: East Bayfront, West Don Lands, Central Waterfront, Port Lands, Lower Don Lands and Wider Waterfront— this is the vision of Waterfront Toronto.

Behind that vision, CEO, John Campbell, sits at the helm of the public advocate and steward organization that was created by the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario, and the City of Toronto in 2001. Waterfront Toronto was initially born out of efforts to develop the city’s largely neglected waterfront area in 1999 as part of its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, but it has since become a pioneer in city-building with a mandate of urban revitalization and sustainable planning and infrastructure. To that end, Waterfront Toronto has received $1.5-billion of government funding, and has attracted $2.6-billion in private sector investment, with   a 25-year mandate to transform 800 hectares (2,000-acres) of brownfield lands—i.e., previously developed lands for industrial and/or commercial use— along the city’s waterfront next to the city’s central business district into sustainable mixed-use communities and public spaces.

Enter Campbell, and a new kind of thinking when it comes to revitalization rather than redevelopment.  For the CEO of Waterfront Toronto, revitalization is all about trying to “future-proof” what he calls the new city of Toronto. This means revitalization that is public-policy driven with the goal of putting a stop to urban sprawl, and promoting sustainability, transit, housing and improving quality of life to attract talent and a more flexible long-term capital. The initiative began in 2005 with the board’s sustainability framework that takes an active role in determining that the future investment make-up of the city is compatible with that framework.

“We believe that if we’re controlling about 2000-acres, and people are buying land from governments through us, it has to be different—it has to be green. In that way, we should be an active agent of market transformation,” said Campbell. “What we’re trying to do is position Toronto in the next century as being a great example of how to build great cities.”

Campbell, who has an MBA from the University of Toronto and a BA in Engineering from Carleton University, began his career with a passion for civil engineering and worked in the construction industry for nearly two decades. He held senior positions in the real estate divisions of Bell Canada in 1989, and its subsidiary company, Bimcor Inc., which mainly manages pension fund assets. During his first career with Bell Canada, Campbell put his passion for civil engineering to work by gaining experience in the construction of buildings, from microwave power-lines in Northern Ontario to skyline-altering buildings in Toronto, and those that shape the ultra-modern cityscapes of Saudi Arabia. Prior to joining Waterfront Toronto in April 2003 as CEO, he worked as a senior executive at Brookfield Properties, formerly Brookfield Capital Partners (BCP) heading its Canadian property management services subsidiary and played a leadership role in the development of BCE place the company’s most prestigious property.

Waterfront Toronto, is already starting to pay for itself. Seed capital of $1.5-billion jointly invested by all three levels of government for the massive waterfront project has already yielded $2.6-billion  in private sector investment. Waterfront Toronto’s $1.5-billion investment has and will generate $622-million in tax revenue  according to an Economic Impact Analysis report for 2001-2013 issued last summer. The report is based upon research findings that look at jobs created, impact to the economy, and the tax revenues generated from the project.

“We think that’s a pretty thrilling endorsement of government’s investment of infrastructure in seeing the payback very quickly. And on top of that, the focus on the waterfront has impacted many of the projects around our area—about 44 others—that are in some way, not entirely, but in some way catalyzed or influenced positively by what we’re doing,” said Campbell. “That’s another 9.6-billion investment that’s going to generate $3.3-billion in tax revenue. So investing in infrastructure and really laying the groundwork in an area is certainly paying back for the government.”

The team has taken a practical approach to achieving its mandate while generating revenue by looking at what has worked and what has not in terms of sustainability and economic growth and development for other global cities. So far that transformation under Waterfront Toronto initiatives headed by Campbell has seen the development of Corktown Common, Sherbourne Common, Sugar Beach and the Central Waterfront wave-decks and boardwalks, and the fairly recent Queens Quay revitalization. Waterfront Toronto has been the recipient of over 50 local, regional, national and international awards each year for its leadership particularly in the category of sustainability since 2004. In 2012, Waterfront Toronto was awarded The Globe Award for Environmental Excellence in Urban Sustainability for a Minimum Green Building Requirement, and also the BEX (Building Exchange) International award in the category of “Best Futuristic Design Award” for the Keating Channel Precinct Plan.

A leader in urban waterfront revitalization innovation, Waterfront Toronto is not only concerned with building tangible infrastructure and job creation to attract long-term talent and capital, but also intangible infrastructure such as wide-range, no caps, high-speed broadband Internet access networks in the city. It is proudly responsible for implementing Canada’s first open-access broadband network, and the second in North America.

“We’re re-promoting this as a new city, and so we recognize it’s really about that infrastructure that you don’t see. That infrastructure is a key element in attracting talent, in attracting jobs, and building quality of life down here,” said Campbell. “Certainly broadband is one example, and that’s something nobody really contemplated when we started. It’s not seen as the normal infrastructure, but we realized early on the potential to attract jobs downtown to the waterfront, and this is where the talent is so it’s a critical innovative aspect.”

Over the past decade, Toronto has taken some heat from critics who will note that development is moving at a slower-than-preferred rate, but smart, sustainable development and revitalization, some of which is of the unseen nature in previously unchartered territory, takes time. A different, more traditional challenge for Toronto is to accommodate Mother Nature by the massive Flood Protection Landform under Waterfront Toronto, with the help of Infrastructure Ontario, constructed with clean soil taken from construction sites within the Greater Toronto Area. Incorporating flood protection into the revitalization of the waterfront is critical at the Don River watershed— an area where flooding from the bottom of the river, if left unchecked, would essentially flood all of the eastern part of the downtown all the way to Bay Street, a 210-hectare area that includes Toronto’s financial district.

Waterfront Toronto devised an exemplary solution in green revitalization by using extra land brought in from construction sites to compress the landform, and then reshaped the land to make a superior city park that is Corktown Common naturally bordering the Don River to the east. In addition to the landform, flood protection was provided by widening the channel of the Don River so that it could accommodate a larger flow of water—think approximately two-thirds of the water flowing from Niagara Falls! Toronto and Region Conservation carried out this work as part of the Lower Don River West Remedial Flood Protection Project. Consequently, the Don River Park was built out of the unique topography provided by the landform in the new West Don Lands community.

In light of Waterfront Toronto’s achievements in revitalization to create new sustainable communities, Campbell recognizes that it all comes down to quality of place. His advice to other developers is a simple motto of what he describes as the three “p’s” of: purpose, passion and persistence. He added that it is not always easy to be patient when trying to effect policy, or to do what one thinks is the right thing as a developer when regulations haven’t adjusted yet to reflect new policies. Forward, long-term thinking is critical to success.

“You’ve got to future proof your neighborhoods. You cannot be building cities looking out the rear view mirror. You’ve got to be looking out the front window. This is an economic long-game because talent and capital is highly mobile and it can go anywhere, so we need to be thinking about a quality of place and a quality of life that allows us to attract the best and brightest people, that’s how we stay competitive,” concluded Campbell. “Some people think we’re just building pretty parks, but that’s just on the surface.”