Harbour City Revisited

TEXT Brendan Cormier
PHOTO Zeidler Partnership Architects

This summer, the Ontario Place Corporation, an agency of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, issued a Request for Information to gather innovative ideas to re-energize the waterfront around Ontario Place. The iconic Toronto waterfront park, which opened in 1971, consists of a five-pod pavilion, the world’s first IMAX theatre, an open-air forum and a marina, has seen a substantial drop in annual attendance over the last decade. In thinking about the future of Ontario Place, many people have suggested looking to the past to better understand the architectural zeitgeist that influenced its development.

And so a look at Harbour City is particularly illuminating. Harbour City was a master plan commissioned by the provincial government and designed by Craig, Zeidler & Strong, in consultation  with Jane Jacobs, Hans Blumenfeld and others. It represented a strategy to repurpose the island airport adjacent to Ontario Place by turning it into a new waterfront community of 60,000 residents. The vision for the plan consisted of digging up parts of the island and filling in sections of the lake to form a series of canals and bays, creating a water city similar to Venice or Amsterdam. Both cities are explicitly referenced in the plan documents.

Reacting to concerns about high-rise development at the time, the plan proposed to be a horizontal groundscraper–a low-rise development that people could travel across using horizontal elevators. Traffic was strictly separated from pedestrian activity and buildings were planned to straddle the street. 

Modernist anachronisms aside, the development contains several urban design elements that are still used today, including the fine-grained mixture of building footprints, clever parking solutions, and an emphasis on dense downtown living. The plan was also intended to be fully integrated with public transit.

In fact, the development was a chance to put into practice many of the principles that Jane Jacobs had laid out in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Not surprisingly, she lauded the project as “probably the most important advance in planning for cities that has been made this century.”

Unfortunately, we will never be able to fully judge the plan’s merits because it was never realized. It was ironically shelved by some of Jacobs’s most fervent supporters, including Mayor David Crombie and Councillor John Sewell because of growing public concern that the development would necessitate the construction of the Spadina Expressway, and that it would increase pollution in the lake.

Harbour City was an expression of the Province’s vision to have Torontonians living by the lake. Its failure has meant that the waterfront area around Ontario Place has remained without a significant residential base, perhaps contributing to the development’s attendance problems. Some have suggested that a residential strategy might be what Ontario Place needs to regain its former glory. However, with the closing of the Island Airport nowhere in sight, the opportunity for a coordinated vision such as Harbour City may be lost. CA

Brendan Cormier is part of the Toronto-based research and design collective called the Department of Unusual Certainties.