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Lower Don Lands project in Toronto to open way for lakefront residential development

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by Ryan Bolton

The industrial Lower Don Lands are going to get a healthy dose of revitalization.
Waterfront Toronto
Waterfront Toronto

Urban Redevelopment

The industrial Lower Don Lands are going to get a healthy dose of revitalization.

As part of the Lower Don Lands waterfront revitalization plan, the mouth of the Don will be rerouted along with planning designs to establish a sustainable urban community, according to a recently released proposal from Waterfront Toronto.

“The underlying infrastructure rationale is ... flood protection,” said Waterfront Toronto president and CEO John Campbell. “The water goes out and it floods the whole port land primarily, so in order to develop any residential use, you have to somehow protect that.” He noted that if a Hurricane Hazel-like storm hit the Don River watershed, water would likely reach Bay Street downtown.

The first stages of the proposal will see the mouth of the Don River at the Keating Channel at Toronto’s east harbour moved to the middle of the Lower Don Lands between the Shipping Channel and Keating Channel. The drafted reroute is roughly expected to cost about $400 million.

But the rerouting of the river is only one ingredient of the project. Waterfront Toronto also aims to re-naturalize the Don River to usher in wildlife and to develop a community infrastructure creating a park and promenade along its edges with mixed-use neighbourhoods. The plans call for a combination of 75 per cent residential and 25 per cent non-residential space.

“Along with the flood-proofing, our strategy is for naturalization for creating a river mouth as it comes into the harbour and incorporates a lot of naturalized wetlands within a large park setting over a hundred acres,” said Ken Greenberg, a Toronto planner with Greenberg Consultants. “From a long-term strategic standpoint, this is extremely important for Toronto.”

The draft precinct plan for the Keating Channel Neighbourhood, located just north of the Lower Don Lands, would consist of 25 blocks with a waterfront setting to create a variety of public space and approximately 4,000 residential units.

Currently a 125-hectare industrial area, Lower Don Lands is “underutilized” and “long-neglected,” according to Waterfront Toronto. With a push from the local residents to invigorate the waterfront, Campbell wants to give the city a true harbourfront.

“It should be the jewel of the harbour — right now it’s the absolute opposite,” he said. But after revitalizing the West Don Lands with sustainability as an idea, Campbell is excited to work on this product with sustainability at the forefront.

“It’s interesting that this is the first chance to look at building a community from the ground up with sustainability in mind,” he said.

As sustainability is a key objective for Waterfront Toronto, the revitalization project, which is headed by New York-based architect Michael Van Valkenburg who won the international design competition for the Lower Don Lands in 2007, is incorporating the expertise of ecologists, climate engineers, landscape architects, sustainability specialists and urban designers. In this respect, the initial plans call for a high frequency light rail transit system for efficient transportation in the area. The proposal also calls for solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal heating and the ability to harvest rainwater from building roofs to feed into the wetlands.

“I think what distinguishes this product is that all the issues are being dealt with together,” said Greenberg. “Like I said: flood proofing, hydrology, transportation, environmental engineering, physical infrastructure, land use, neighbourhood formation [and] parks creation. Really across the board these issues are being dealt with together in an integrated way.”

Since the area is mainly industrial, both Greenberg and Campbell say construction isn’t likely to be a problem with nearby communities. Since the initiative is to be phased over a number of years, development will occur with pacing, keeping it an independent construction zone.

The problem, Campbell foresees, however, is funding. Although still in the initial stages of planning, funding is the next step for the project.

“It’s expensive and the funding isn’t there yet,” said Campbell referring to money as a possible hiccup for the project.

The next step is a North Keating’s zoning plan, which will be submitted to council later this year. After that, an environmental assessment for the naturalization of Don River is expected at the end next year.

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