Toronto Islands: a love story

I love the Toronto Islands.

I love the fact that while it’s a public park, people live there, in little houses on little “streets,” without huge fences and without any “no trespassing” signs (that I’ve noticed). I love the fact that in a canoe, which you can rent from a club on Queen’s Quay, you can paddle your way across the Western Gap (a shipping channel) skirting the buoy-marked no-go zone under the island airport landing strips, and in a half-hour (more or less) find yourself in the still backwaters and lagoons of the island proper, with its bird sanctuary, its long narrow channels, and its places to beach your boat and walk around. I love the fact that you can leave your boat there for a while without fear that someone will steal it.

I love the ferries, too, three of them, that transport people and goods and bicycles back and forth between Toronto’s waterfront and Ward’s, Centre or Hanlan’s ferry docks. For the princely sum of six dollars round trip, it’s possible to scoot over to paradise, ride around for an hour or two, find something to eat in a nice boite (or pack a picnic), loll on a beach (nude if you prefer), ride a miniature train, feed a swan, or play volleyball. You can stroll the toy-town streets of the residential community, and, if you’re lucky enough to have a friend living over there, pay someone a call. Between the little streets on Ward’s Island and the slightly wider streets on Algonquin Island, some 800 people reside in the car-free park.

But the Islands are in the news lately.

The people who live there would probably prefer otherwise.

First of all, there’s the bit about the Island Airport, which comprises some 80 hectares (200 acres) of former residential and commercial land at the western-most end of the island chain. It’s the closest bit to downtown, with the aforementioned Western Gap and five-minute ferry-crossing at the bottom of Bathurst Street. Of course, everyone knows something of the struggle to link a road directly across the Western Gap. It’s part of the vital history of the Islands, with bridges, tunnels and more bridges planned (and even launched) from the start of the motoring age. The latest incarnation had a would-be airline entrepreneur scheming with federal appointees at the Toronto Port Authority to build a $22 million (projected cost) bridge, a scheme that led straight to downfall for the former mayor and his cronies in 2003. The bridge never had the necessary government permits and until four days before the election of the new city council didn’t have a signed contract, but when the new council voted to stop it the Port Authority, the fledgling airline, and the construction company all participated in threatening lawsuits amounting to half a billion dollars. The latest news is the federal government is paying off the Port Authority with $35 million and a request that they shut up about bridges “forever.”

Some have questioned how $22 million could have been touted as the cost of building the bridge, when a few months later $35 million is being paid to not build it. But it’s likely the money won’t be wasted, because the original schemers are still around, and now they have money greasing their pocketbooks. It’s unlikely we’ve heard the last of their lot.

But this comes in the wake of another mad-eyed scheme, aired in April, to “investigate” making a bid for a 2015 World’s Fair. The proposal, which garnered lukewarm support from the city politicians, would see the airport razed and rebuilt with pavilions, the Western Gap filled and a new ship channel dug to the south, and an underwater tube to run a train back and forth to a secondary fairground at the mouth of the Don River. The razing of the island airport, source of so much grief to the island residents (and others along the waterfront), is the one beacon of hope in the proposal.

Now this week, the most recent insult. Something called “Wakestock,” a four-day festival of surf-board-towing powerboats, pop music, and alcohol and drug consumption, has been foisted on the island community by the Toronto parks administration. Politicians, from the mayor down to the city councillor responsible for the ward, claim to have been blind-sided. The 40,000 fans of the festival, who trashed the small town of Wasaga Beach at last year’s Wakefest and led the mayor to banish it, will be descending on the Toronto islands this summer instead. And the island residents are being being called the worst of insults, NIMBYs, for their frustrated cries about this gift to them from the unelected bureaucrats in the parks department.

The interesting thing about the island residential community is that while everyone acts as if they resent and envy it, no one makes the obvious leap to say “Why not build more of it?”

While there is a 500-name waiting list of families who pay a yearly fee to be considered, should the opportunity arise, to buy one of the 362 coveted homes on the island, no developer considers contacting the names on that list. I mean, where is the developer with the vision to contact those 500 families and ask if among them might be people who would like to live in a similar community to be built elsewhere? That this developer fails to materialize despite the fact that the list is “capped” (a yearly lottery is held for the chance to take one of the spaces on it that opens up when people lose hope and drop out) seems utterly without logic. Doesn’t this situation cry out about a pent-up demand for a similar community to the Toronto islands?

And of what would this “similar community” comprise?

The model is simple, really. First, there is the grid pattern. There are two types. One, the Ward’s island model, is a grid of approximately 40’ x 50’ lots, laid out in long rectangular blocks of some 20 houses per street. House size is limited to 1200 square feet, often quite a bit smaller. The other, the Algonquin island type, has 50’ x 100’ lots, with a similar block pattern, and proportionately larger houses (up to 2400 square feet). Houses are free-standing, usually frame in structure, one or two storeys in height, occasionally with belvederes or widow’s walks at roof level.

But the key element is not the architecture or the grid pattern, but the narrowness of the “streets” and the fact that they are entirely without cars. In fact, there is no reason considerably larger houses, in the realm of 4-5,000 square feet, could not be built (given large enough lots). There is no reason there couldn’t be apartment buildings, shops and offices.

Here we have evidence of a perfectly viable carfree community right under our noses, and nobody makes a move to try and duplicate it.

Several years ago, the Toronto Society of Architects held a juried public design competition to develop the theme of something called the Fung Report. This report analyzed the entire waterfront of Toronto for opportunities and projects. The competition generated its share of schemes to replace the Gardiner expressway, to develop a naturalized mouth of the Don River, and to place “gateways” and markers at significant points along the waterfront. The competition awarded some prizes and some honorable mentions, and melted away into the night.

I entered this competition too, and while my project won no awards, it did garner specific mention by the chief juror, architect Rodolphe el-Khoury. And John Barber, the Globe and Mail newspaper columnist, picked up the idea of my scheme and broadcasted it in his column as a “why not.”

What I did was to look at the Fung Report for what it was pretending not to see. For while it proposed an “emerald necklace” of greenspaces and new civic programmes to ring the harbour, it ignored the lump of coal that is the Toronto island airport. On all the maps of the site, there it was, glaring at any who looked at it, an untouchable blight.

I merely asked the obvious question: what will happen when the government carries through on its promise to build a rapid transit link to Pearson Airport, and the island airport dries up and goes bankrupt? What should happen to the acres and acres of superhardened concrete runways, and to the flat hinterland of seagull-fertilized grass that lies between? What about that waiting list for carfree housing? Why not redevelop the airport along the model of Ward’s and Algonquin?

I took the proposal one step further, including in my drawings new “main streets” of four- to six-storey buildings, with retail at grade and apartments above, lining the former runways. These new avenues, in my proposal, have trolley-buses or trams that serve as the only motorized transportation permitted. These trolley lines would extend to the Ward’s and Algonquin communities, bringing them the opportunity to use the existing ferry at the Western Gap, especially in winter when crossing the Harbour can be slow, treacherous and sometimes impossible because of ice.

Today, we have a different situation than at the time of my proposal. For starters, Bay street is having the notion of “Peak Oil” shoved down its throat. As today’s news tells us, General Motors and Ford have been demoted to “junk bond” status in the U.S. (not least because of the falling demand for the gas-slurping “portable furnaces” the two companies promote so heavily).

For another thing, the airport has been kicked in the head by the city, the province, and the federal government. The only support it has is from a gang in towns like Ajax and Newmarket, far from downtown Toronto, who write letters to the editor every now and then that refer to the islanders as “squatters” and elitists who should be thanking their lucky stars for the airplanes that circle their homes and belch pollutants into their backyards. With the 2015 World’s Fair proposal comes a new smackdown to the airport.

Meanwhile, the province is making moves to limit sprawl-type development in the farm fields at Toronto’s margins. People are moving into the downtown in droves. And that 500-name waiting list for the islands has not shrunken any.

The time is riper than ever to consider an alternative future for the island airport site. Should it be an extension of the existing park, as many call for? Should it be an extension of Harbourfront, with condo towers and underground parking lots, wide windy streets and cars everywhere? Or is there something between these two extremes, as I propose: the superhardend concrete runways remaining as palimpsests for new main streets, small houses on small lots in the hinterland, with the possibility of larger houses and larger lots at critical locations, and the whole thing accomplished without cars?

Remember, before you answer, that old Toronto island community rallying cry: “Parks and People Belong Together!”

One Response to “Toronto Islands: a love story”


    Look for the forthcoming uTOpia book, to be published this fall by Coach House Press in Toronto, in which an illustrated (!) version of this essay will appear, alongside great writings by a slew of imaginative and creative people. The book will be launched November 20 (mark your calendar!) at the Gladstone Hotel deep in the west end. Watch this site for more as the date approaches.

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