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Walking Toronto's 'Golden Mile' with Dwight Duncan
Would a casino at Ontario Place be an anchor for the waterfront or just a dead weight?

 

Image via flickr

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said this week that a casino at Ontario Place would be “an anchor that could create a golden mile on Toronto’s waterfront.” Whether a casino would be an anchor or just a dead weight is debatable, but Duncan’s sound bite offers up another interesting topic for consideration: Creating a golden mile on the waterfront.

We may not think of it this way, but the makings of a year-round destination for tourists and locals alike at the bottom of the city are already in place. South of Front St. from Ontario Place to Yonge St., major attractions and their surrounding neighbourhoods are being redeveloped, renovated and reimagined. Forget the Port Lands for a minute; the rejuvenation of Toronto’s Postcard Lands is well underway. And while the “revitalization” of Ontario Place, under the leadership of shadow mayor John Tory, remains the biggest question mark, there are dozens of other spaces governments could turn their attention to if they really want this place to sparkle. I would love to take Dwight Duncan on a walking tour of our golden mile and show him exactly what I mean.

Heading north from Ontario Place, the first new addition we can expect is a “land bridge” spanning Lake Shore Blvd. to give pedestrians easier passage to Exhibition Place. It’s part of the plans to transform the parking lot south of BMO Field and Direct Energy Centre (both buildings are planning additions) into “Festival Plaza,” (PDF) a multi-purpose gathering place that can handle the CNE, outdoor concerts and parking when needed. Throw in the proposed 400-room hotel to open in 2015 and Exhibition Place could be a place you actually want to visit outside the month of August.

Making our way east we’ll cross through the Princes’ Gates, an architectural gem currently best enjoyed by westbound motorists. As one of our prettiest spots, the space in front of the Gates should be filled with tourists snapping pictures. It should be easier to get there from the Martin-Goodman trail and Coronation Park across the street. Plus the railway crossing at Strachan just north of here is being moved above grade so expect more traffic from Liberty Village and King West along this route. Could we realign the roads into a traffic circle? And rather than a parking lot, the block just northeast of the gates should be a well-manicured park with a place for kids to play and spot to sit and eat lunch; something human scaled to encourage lingering and service the neighbourhood emerging along the Gardiner.

Sneaking up Fort York Blvd., we’ll find the site of some new front doors for Toronto’s oldest address. Fort York’s gorgeous new visitor centre, to be completed in 2013, will make the best of an awkward location with creative landscaping and lighting features under the expressway. I hope they’ll extend the WATERTABLE light installation so it covers more of this area because that would just look really cool.

After soaking up some local history we would cross Bathurst and take a tour of the Amsterdam Brewery, if were so inclined. Then we take a quick jaunt through City Place (A library! A school! A real neighbourhood!) across Spadina to Bremner Blvd. We could catch a Blue Jays game, try the Skywalk on top of the CN Tower or check out the trains at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre. We could even take another brewery tour at Steam Whistle. By this time next year there’ll be an aquarium right here! The new office towers, condos and hotel in South Core will turn this stretch of Bremner into a busy promenade terminating at Maple Leaf Square, home to North America’s best sports bar and the hypothetical rallying point for Toronto’s own hockey riots.

Artist’s rendering of Queen’s Quay. Image via WATERFRONToronto

Ducking under the Gardiner along York St. we’ll notice how unpleasant crossing Lake Shore can be. But change is coming south of the highway and it’s going to be worth the trip. Right now there are parking lots, but soon there’ll be a couple towering new condos. The off-ramp south of Harbour St. will be realigned to open this square up as a park. Queen’s Quay will be transformed into a beautiful boulevard and Harbourfront Centre is putting their parking underground to open that space up for a “cultural village.” With all the effort being put into improving this space, ignoring the routes leading to it amounts to criminal negligence. The pedestrian crossings under the Gardiner from Spadina to Yonge should all be inviting. We could build some arches or something!

By the time we’ve peaked at the exhibits at the Power Plant Art Gallery, taken in a free musical performance at Sirius Stage and gazed upon the tall ships moored in the harbour, we’ll be too tired from all that walking to rent a boat at Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre and go for a paddle. All we’ll be able to do is watch the planes land at Billy Bishop Airport from under the yellow (golden?) umbrellas at HTO Park and recount all the great things we saw that day, dreaming about making them even better.

As we laze on the artificial urban beach, I would commend Mr. Duncan and his government for financing many of the worthwhile projects we saw that day. I would urge him to stay vigilant and avoid pulling funding in the name of austerity. To forge a sense of identity for this place, we have to make sure these individual attractions are connected to each other and easily accessible. That means well-designed pedestrian-friendly streets and human-scaled public spaces (we haven’t even talked about transit yet). In my books, that’s money well spent.

I’d call his bluff. By dangling a ‘golden mile’ in front of us Mr. Duncan, I would say, you’re trying to tap into Toronto’s historical inferiority complex to sell us on your casino. It’s pretty transparent. I’d tell him our city’s waterfront, already full of jewels, is remaking itself into a place we’ll be proud to tell our international friends they should visit. Along with the arguments about badly needed revenue and social costs, the merits of a casino at Ontario Place should be measured by whether it would compliment or detract from the waterfront we already have. What does a casino say about who we are? If you’re genuinely invested in polishing our city’s tourist district into something special, Mr. Duncan, I would say, leave the flashy projects to someone else and focus on getting the details right.

____

Michael Kolberg writes for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeykolberg

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