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Waterfront plan garners only lukewarm support

Municipal Election
Toronto Star Poll

Despite $1.5 billion gift, development not a high priority

By Karen Palmer
Toronto Star City Hall Bureau

With a $1.5 billion cheque and a renewed enthusiasm for the 2008 Olympic Games, there seems to be only one thing missing from the drive to redevelop the waterfront: public support.

According to a recent Toronto Star-Ekos poll, a mere 40 per cent of Greater Toronto residents consider waterfront development a high priority for the next municipal government.

Some 35 per cent said waterfront revitalization should at least be on politicians’ radar screens but as a low priority for the future.

The remaining 23 per cent consider it a moderate priority.

The telephone survey of 1,018 adults was conducted Oct. 10-12, before the federal, provincial and municipal governments announced they would each chip in $500 million to kickstart the $12 billion project. Results from a sample of this size are considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

“I still think that despite the fact we’ve gone to the public and talked about this, 75 per cent of the public doesn’t know what the plan is,” said Michael Kirkland, an urban planner and member of the waterfront revitalization task force.

The lack of support for such a large project is unusual, Ekos senior director Christian Boucher said, adding it suggests voters aren’t even thinking about dressing up the waterfront.

“I think it’s also our duty to go out and be much more forthcoming about giving explanations about the controversial or complicated pieces, which we’ve not done,” Kirkland said.

Kirkland, along with task force chair Robert Fung and three other consultants on the project, hit the speaking circuit days after unveiling the ambitious waterfront plan in March.

The survey’s results show they haven’t managed to persuade a majority of voters of the project’s value: Forty-one per cent of people living in Toronto and 37 per cent in the 905 regions consider it a high priority.

But members of the 2008 Olympic bid committee feel differently.

“What we have found from polling and from talking to people is that people think there’s an opportunity here that shouldn’t be missed,” said committee vice-president Karen Pitrie.

She points to the 60,000 volunteers who have already signed up to help out with an event that’s still eight years in the future - and may not even take place in Toronto - as proof that people are excited about the Olympics and, by extension, the waterfront.

“I think the development is fabulous,” said Laurie Keenan, manager of The Boathouse Bar and Grill on Queens Quay W. “It’s a shame to see some of the train yards and stuff around here that have been an eyesore for so many years.”

Keenan says she hopes the waterfront redevelopment will help Toronto land the 2008 Olympics. “It will be so good for the city.”

But the manager of Scotland Yard on The Esplanade thinks the city should focus on cleaning up the downtown and solving problems with homelessness.

“More people in the neighbourhood means better business,” Matthew Brock said. “I don’t think (waterfront redevelopment) should be a major issue in the next election, though. There are a lot of other things to worry about.”

“Development is important to the city, absolutely,” said Gillian Hnatin, manager of the Old Spaghetti Factory, also on The Esplanade. “But it has to be put on a plane with a lot of other issues.”

The Olympic bid hinges on the remediation of much of the port lands, where the Olympic stadium and media village would be located.

Most of the $1.5 billion seed money will be spent cleaning soil, setting up a development corporation to oversee the project and creating parkland on the waterfront, Fung said.

Construction cranes may be on the waterfront as early as winter, he added.

The survey’s results also showed wishy-washy opinion about tearing down the Gardiner Expressway, something Kirkland sees as integral to opening up the waterfront to the city.

“There’s no doubt. What city would keep it? What city would have it? Can you imagine that thing going across the face of Paris or Amsterdam or Barcelona? It has to go,” he said. “We can actually do this economically and painlessly if we move early. If we let another five or 10 years of development hem us in … then you’re really in trouble.”

Only 32 per cent of people polled said they supported the idea of scrapping the skyline highway, while 36 per cent said they would prefer to see the Gardiner survive waterfront redesign.

Some 27 per cent of people were undecided.

“I get questions all the time about the Gardiner, so it’s evident to me that people don’t understand what we’re doing there,” Kirkland said, noting that the task force hasn’t recommended getting rid of the Gardiner but replacing portions of it with street-level avenues.

The aging arterial roadway costs the city about $10 million each year to maintain and repair.

Although Mayor Mel Lastman initially supported the idea of tearing down the highway, he has since backtracked in the face of growing opposition to toll roads.

‘I think the public will be excited that this is going to go’

But at the waterfront announcement a week ago, Greater Toronto Area Minister David Collenette said he would use his influence to see the structure come down.

Support for the Gardiner was even among Toronto and 905 residents. About 34 per cent of Torontonians and 35 per cent of 905ers want to be rid of the roadway.

The Fung plan gives the city three options for financing the estimated $1.2 billion cost of destroying the eight elevated kilometres of the 35-year-old highway and replacing it with a ground-level avenue.

The options include using earnings of $781 million to $1 billion from a waterfront casino, collecting a parking tax or charging a $2 toll for every car travelling on the Gardiner, which would garner between $1.2 billion and $2 billion in revenue.

Kirkland said he wasn’t discouraged by the survey’s numbers.

“I think the public will be excited that this is going to go now that the money’s there.”

With files from Tim Cook