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From Winning Project to Public Controversy

by Carmela Cucuzzella, published 2013-04-19
Competitions are often accused of generating controversies, yet what if the projects themselves, at the urban scale, unveil vulnerability and controversies. The Lower Don Lands competition, launched in February of 2007 by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC), in cooperation with the Toronto and Region Conservation (TRCA) and the City of Toronto, was an international competition looking for ideas to bring the river back to the city, after many years of seeking to reframe the industrially focused site. This competition of a public space project, with the unique opportunity of harmonizing the riverbanks to the urban space, was exemplary not only for designers, but for the citizens too, as this was the realization of a longstanding community ambition.

Following the first phase, where 29 design teams from 13 countries submitted qualifying dossiers, four teams were selected to participate in the design competition:
(1) Stoss, Boston; Brown + Storey Architects, Toronto; Zas Architects, Toronto;
(2) Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, New York; Behnisch Architects, Los Angeles; Greenberg Consultants, Toronto; Great Eastern Ecology, New York;
(3) Weiss/Manfredi, New York; du Toit Allsopp Hillier, Toronto;
(4) Atelier Girot, Zurich; Office of Landscape Morphology, Paris; ReK Productions, Toronto. These 4 teams, coming from all over the world, had about 8 weeks to come up with their proposals.

The redevelopment of the 40-hectare Lower Don Lands, a great opportunity to rebuild a river in an urban center, called for two broad goals. The first, “An iconic identity for the Don River that accommodates crucial flood protection and habitat restoration requirements.” The main idea here was to reframe the river as a space that is striking and memorable, analogous to the Seine in Paris, or the Fens in Boston. The second general objective was, “A bold and comprehensive concept design that comprehensively integrates development, transportation infrastructure, and the river mouth into a harmonious whole.” The focus here was to ensure that a balance is achieved between the various infrastructure changes that must be implemented, such as, mass transit, new roads and trails, waterfront development projects - and the central focal point of this redevelopment, which is the river.

The winning project, the proposal by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates (MVVA), called Port Lands Estuary was bold and, among all finalists, it best integrated the urban and naturalized environments by creating a stunning vision for the area, through a deeply thought out implementation and phased strategy. The project by Weiss/Manfredi/du Toit Allsopp Hillier although architecturally elegant as it nicely reconciled contemporary approaches to landscape with the naturalized river mouth, was seen as less effective in the way they addressed the ecological function of the river. The proposal by Atelier Girot was considered ambitious in its integration of the morphology of the river into an urban context. However, they did not carefully consider the transportation into the site and network of movement within the urban neighbourhoods. Stross Landscape Urbanism/Brown + Storey Architects/ZAS Architects provided many innovative ideas, contributing to both, sustainable natural and urban environments, however, they did not provide an effective overall approach to the Lower Don Lands.

Since 2007, the winning project has won a variety of awards. There has been much preparation in trying to implement the project, and finally in 2010, the project was approved. However, in 2011, after the municipal election, there was an attempted takeover of the project by the new municipal administration, claiming that the current proposal was considered a ‘socialist utopia', too frivolous, and that the city couldn't afford such a plan. The new plan, endorsed by the hand-picked City Executive Committee, was that the public sector would withdraw from the plan, and would let the private sector take over. This was an obvious short-sighted, quick-fix, solution that promised instant success. So, instead of the site-sensitive winning competition project, where the community had much opportunity for involvement, the new shift promised a Mega-mall, a Ferris wheel, and a luxury hotel, among other private development plans. There would be no river park, no flooding solutions, just more development. The enormous community reaction that followed, once the initial shock turned to defense, resulted in the creation of a community network among citizens and an institutional coalition among organizations. After some tense weeks, there was a consensus vote at City Hall to take back the project from the private sector. This story has a happy ending so far, … but what happens next.

This was a case where the reflective exercise of urban planning through a competition process almost turned into a market game, if it wasn't for the community reaction. While it is debatable that competitions have the high hand on controversies, it is undeniable that they possess the inherent quality of stimulating public debate, before during, and after the competition.
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