Don River history referenced in Toronto Star article on Don Mouth redevelopment

Originally published by Toronto Star staff reporter Eric Andrew-Gee, 16 November 2014

Overhaul of Don River mouth could spur Port Lands development

By reducing flood risk, planners hope “renaturalization” will give new life to a forgotten corner of Toronto.

Don Murphy sits at the control panel of a dredging boat in the Keating Channel, the pathway between the Don River and Lake Ontario. He pumps his limbs energetically, controlling the pedals and joysticks that guide a crane scooping sludge from the still, brown water.

“We call him the dancing bear,” says colleague Shannon McKinnon.

This is how the Toronto Port Authority tries to keep the Don from flooding. Sediment and detritus gushing down the waterway stop abruptly here and sink as the river makes a sharp right turn into the channel, clogging the Don when rain and melted snow fill it to the brim.

There’s so much decomposing material at the bottom of the Keating that, on a calm day, you can see methane bubbles blooming and popping on the water’s surface. “It gets pretty stinky,” says McKinnon.

The mouth of the river has had the same problem since the Keating was finished in 1922, and workers have used roughly the same methods to solve it: a dredger dumps silt into a barge, then a tugboat tows the barge away. As anyone who has been trapped on a washed-out Don Valley Parkway or Bayview Ave. can attest, the process is imperfect.

Planners at Waterfront Toronto think they have another solution: a “renaturalized” river mouth that will meander into the harbour, equipped with three escape valves in case of flooding instead of the current one. The massive project, in the works for more than a decade and still at least a decade from completion, could open up a stretch of industrial land for development and introduce condos, cafés and parks to a forgotten part of the city. Its price tag: close to a billion dollars.

Amanda Santo, a manager with Waterfront Toronto, stood at the mouth of the Don on Friday morning, holding a take-away coffee in purple leather gloves. Looking out at the stagnant water cradling driftwood and Dasani bottles, a dredging boat in sight, she described plans for redirecting the river and opening up Toronto’s Port Lands.

“I always call it the last frontier,” she says.

Until the early 20th century, the Don had a natural mouth, draining straight into the lake through a sprawling marsh that stretched as far east as Leslie St. Factories lining the river ensured that the wetlands were never lush or lovely.

“Animal carcasses, lime from tanning operations, corrosive lye from soapworks, and industrial by-products such as gasoline all found their way into the river,” writes Jennifer Bonnell in her recent book, Reclaiming the Don.

For decades, the waterway and marsh were left to fester. By 1894, the Toronto Mail was still describing the Lower Don as a “pestilential channel” with a “yellowish green colour, and a slimy, souplike consistency.”

It was, the paper said, “nothing more or less than a big open sewer.”

That began to change in the early 1900s, when the city filled in Ashbridge’s Marsh.

“The city (was) increasingly concerned about litigation and the fear of cholera,” Bonnell said in an interview. Engineers built the Keating Channel between 1914 and 1922 “as a way of flushing waste.”

In part because of that focus, the Don is still at risk of catastrophic flooding. A video simulation put together by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) shows what would happen to the Port Lands in the event of Hurricane Hazel-level rainfall: they would be mostly covered in water. So would parts of Leslieville and Riverside.

With experts predicting more rainstorms in Toronto’s future — the result of climate change — the need for flood protection has grown.

And the Keating — narrow, clogged and alone — would be no match for another Hazel.

“It’s completely inadequate for a really big storm,” said Chris Glaisek, vice-president of planning and design for Waterfront Toronto.

Hence the plan to naturalize the river mouth. Still unfunded, the project is estimated to cost $975 million and would take between eight and 10 years to build once the money became available.

It would run the Don River south past the Keating Channel, then west along Commissioners St. before emptying into Toronto Harbour. Instead of the abrupt, 90-degree angle the river ends on now, it would take a meandering route to the lake.

Most important, it would feature three outlets for floodwaters: the new river mouth; the Keating, which will be kept as an escape valve; and a stretch of vegetation, a “greenway” in planning jargon, that would typically be kept dry but could help drain into the shipping channel when emergencies strike.

The impetus for all this flood protection isn’t purely altruistic: it would also open swathes of land for development where real estate agents currently dare not tread for fear of finding their buildings underwater.

“It’s got a negative value in its current state — it’s contaminated and it’s in a flood plain,” Glaisek said. “I think the genius of our plan is that we actually move the river and use it to create waterfront property where there isn’t right now.”

The TRCA and Waterfront Toronto predict that their naturalization plan would remove 716 acres of land from the flood zone.

“It’s just an astonishing amount of property,” Glaisek said.

Developers are already making the right noises about how “excited” they are by the new river.

“In addition to providing necessary flood-risk mitigation, the project adds significant green space to the area, which adds value to development,” said David Gerofsky, chief executive officer of development firm First Gulf, in an email. “The potential is real. First Gulf is excited to have the opportunity to contribute to the revitalization of this area of the city.”

Dundee Kilmer president Jason Lester called the project “very, very exciting.”

“Are we getting excited, the developers? I think seeing this potential, and that this master planning is first-rate and well-executed, I think it is exciting,” he said in an interview. “Any time you can do a mixed-use project of this size this close to the city centre, it’s very exciting.”

The centrepiece of the planned development is Villiers Island, which would be carved out of empty lots and warehouses by the Don’s new path. Mock-ups show it ringed by public green space, but Waterfront Toronto hopes it will house 6,000 people, mostly in condos, and feature a host of “mixed-use” amenities: restaurants, shops, parks, even a streetcar.

All told, the agency believes rerouting the river will lead to $5.4 billion worth of construction and generate $75 million in property taxes a year when the Port Lands are fully built up — a date they concede is decades away.

If all goes according to plan, the new river mouth will drag the area out of its industrial past. But even the Toronto Port Authority, steward of the city’s shipping economy, is “on board” with the ambitious overhaul.

“It’s a great idea,” said harbour master Angus Armstrong.

Waterfront Toronto and the TRCA won his support, in part, by making a point of accommodating the marine economy into their plans.

“We aren’t really losing that much port infrastructure,” Armstrong said. “They want to see the port there.”

In fact, the harbour master says he negotiated a change in the river mouth design, ensuring that it would be bordered by a hard wall instead of sprawling vegetation to facilitate navigation in the harbour.

That willingness to compromise has been criticized by some, who would like the proposal to have a more conservationist bent.

“A lot of the promise of the original plan has dissipated from the pressure of building more condos and preserving industry,” said Bonnell, an assistant history professor at McMaster. “When you look at the evolution of the plan, there was just a lot more green space.”

The masterminds of the plan defend its green credentials. Piles of boulders will be built in the Keating Channel to encourage fish habitats, says TRCA’s special projects manager Ken Dion. “Any species [of fish] that are currently found on the north shore of Lake Ontario would be able to live in mouth of the Don” once they’re finished with it, Dion said.

And the parkland swaddling Villiers Island is expected to host a range of bird and fish species — “lots of natural predators to help control insect populations such as mosquitoes,” he notes.

Waterfront Toronto’s Chris Glaisek also argues that a project this expensive should pay governments back with tax revenue.

“There are critics of our plan who would say there’s too much green space. There’s been push back from other areas who said we should be developing more, there should be more density,” he said.

“It is a massive cost, and there’s always been some assumption that there would be some return.”