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“The demand is going to be sky high”


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As a resident of Toronto’s east end, Cam Woolfrey has first-hand experience with the agony inflicted on commuters by the recent closure and subsequent demolition of the Gardiner Expressway’s easternmost ramps.

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As a sales representative at Royal LePage Signature Realty, however, Woolfrey is confident that the short-term pain will give way to long-term gains — not just for real-estate agents, but also for house-hunters frustrated by the city’s superheated market, and for anyone already owning property near the East Harbour and Port Lands neighbourhoods that were once overshadowed and separated by the ramps.

When pre-construction condos in these areas go on sale sometime over the next decade, “they’ll sell out within the first hour,” Woolfrey predicts. “I was telling my clients about this five years ago, and now, with the Gardiner ramps coming down, it’s suddenly real. The demand is going to be sky high.”

Set on the former delta of the Don River, the Port Lands represent the final phase of Waterfront Toronto’s 23-year redevelopment of Lake Ontario shoreline downtown, the largest project of its kind in North America. Slated for completion in 2024, the multibillion-dollar transformation of the industrial lands south of Lakeshore Boulevard East is historically ambitious. A new kilometre-long waterway, for instance, will bisect the park-strewn Port Lands south of the Keating Channel before emptying into Lake Ontario. Dubbed the Don Greenway, this new channel will support wetland habitats while serving as a new secondary outlet for the Don River.

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A third of the Port Lands’ dozen official districts are slated for residential development, with the McCleary District benefiting most from the Gardiner demolition. Home to as many as 10,500 residents, about a quarter of whom will rent, McCleary will be bookended by the renaturalized Don River to the west and its namesake park to the east. The community’s tallest buildings will top out at 39 storeys along the Don Roadway and Lake Shore Boulevard, and terrace down towards Commissioners Street and an enlarged and revitalized McCleary Park, which in turn will be anchored at its south end by a community hub and creative incubator based in the repurposed Commissioners Incinerator.

North of Lake Shore, the industrial lands occupied by the shuttered Unilever Detergent Factory are slated to be transformed by developers Cadillac Fairview into East Harbour, a 15-hectare mixed-use community offering more than 4,000 housing units, 15,000 square metres of public space including six privately owned plazas and three parks, and a transit hub that will connect to GO Train, Ontario Line subway and TTC light rail transit once it is completed in 2030.

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The City of Toronto has been quick to highlight the long-term benefits of shortening the expressway. “The reconfiguration of the Gardiner and Lake Shore Boulevard East will help transform the area to improve transportation corridors, reconnect the city with its waterfront and balance modes of travel for residents and industry,” says David Stonehouse, director of the municipal arm of Waterfront Toronto, a.k.a. the Waterfront Secretariat. “The City and its waterfront partners are positioning the development of these waterfront precincts for a diversity of residential areas, public realm improvements, employment hubs and social services.”

At best, this positioning is paving the way for “a showcase of city building,” says Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Geography and Planning. “These mixed-use, deeply connected, transit-oriented areas will be walkable and will have green features and affordable housing at their core.”

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Affordability issues are playing increasingly prominent roles in shaping East Harbour and the Port Lands, Siemiatycki says, with the City’s apparent preference for commercial land uses across the areas causing considerable controversy. “There’s a lot at stake here, and it all has to fit together to be successful. We are in a housing crisis, and Toronto needs affordable places for people to live. At the same time, the pandemic is accelerating changes in how we build cities, with a mix of residential and employment uses being the best fit for the post-COVID work environment.”

Cadillac Fairview’s most recent planning resubmission to the City appears to address some of the controversy. Half of the 18 towers are now devoted to housing — earlier submissions did not include residential space — along with an extra half-hectare of parkland.

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While several pieces of the Port Lands puzzle have already fallen into place — the greening of Leslie Street, streetscaping and cleanup along Unwin Avenue, and most recently the Gardiner ramp removal — what remains is both extensive and challenging. To eliminate the risk of East Harbour flooding, an enormous protective landform must be built on the east bank of the Don between the Metrolinx bridge over the Don Valley Parkway and Lake Shore Boulevard. Land within the Don River’s floodplain, meanwhile, must be raised by as much as three metres. All of which is to say nothing of the roadworks, utility installation and environmental cleanup that still lie ahead.

In time, this heavy lifting will be worth it, Siemiatycki says. “This is about the future of our city. It may not be about where you live, but it could be about where your kids and grandkids live, and it’s definitely about the sustainability of the region. It is critical that we reach a point where housing affordability and desirability are no longer mutually exc

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