It's been three years now since a small army of cops and hired security guards stormed Tent City and forcibly evicted the 150 or so squatters who'd taken up residence on the 14-acre site at Lakeshore and Cherry owned by the Home Depot Inc. The shanties and shacks are long gone. Now the world's largest home improvement retailer has submitted another rezoning application in hopes of finally building a new store on the property it acquired not long before revitalization became the rage along Lake Ontario's mostly derelict downtown shore.
Truth be told, Home Depot would probably be better off selling its problem acreage to the city (the land is contaminated) and looking elsewhere for commercial opportunities. The company promises to put up an "urban format" store like one that recently opened in Vancouver, with additional street-level retail and a condo development.
But there seems little chance Toronto council or its federal and provincial partners on the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp. (TWRC) will agree to let Home Depot take up so much of the East Bayfront precinct and mess with their grand waterfront plans.
"Putting a Home Depot on that site is not on," says area councillor Pam McConnell. She argues that it doesn't matter that the company's latest proposal would look nothing like the big box development the city fought successfully at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in 1998.
"We opposed the big box not on the basis of it being an ugly building; it had a green roof and was quite a nice-looking structure," the councillor recalls. "We opposed it on the basis that it would bankrupt the business economy of that whole community, and the same goes now.
The OMB supported the city's argument back then that "the port lands are not planned to become a destination shopping area" and that giving big box development a foot in the door would have a negative impact on smaller retailers.
"I wouldn't support anything that would draw business away from the little hardware stores along Parliament or Queen. Those are the businesses that pull those neighbourhoods together."
But Nick Cowling, a spokesperson for Home Depot, says the urban format stores are "very high-end design and decor" outlets that don't sell lumber or building materials.
"It's something we really believe our customers in downtown Toronto are looking for," he says of an anticipated clientele made up primarily of condo dwellers. "If there were no sign on it, you wouldn't even know it was a Home Depot."
Cowling adds that the latest proposal features more than just a 70,000-square-foot home improvement centre. "It's a mixed-use plan that would include additional street-front retail and a condo development." There's also a plan to "dedicate the land adjacent to the mouth of the Don River to the city" for a park or other public uses.
"We want to keep [the store itself] as far away from the waterfront as possible," the company's communications director says.
But that offer isn't likely to win the TWRC's support for the new development application.
"We'll probably have to object to it," says John Campbell, the TWRC's chief executive officer, who appeared before council's policy and finance committee this week to get city approval for its five-year business plan.
Campbell maintains that private property owners in the East Bayfront precinct west of Parliament are "pretty much in agreement with the plan being developed" for the area: a mix of low-rise condos and storefronts, with wide avenues stretching to the lake.
But, he says, "it's a whole other issue" east of Parliament, where Home Depot's property is located and where naturalization of the Don River is a big concern. Campbell says an environmental assessment must be completed there before any development can go ahead.
"It will take a while," he warns.
McConnell, meanwhile, is "very concerned" that Home Depot's continued attempts to get approval for a major retail development on its property could seriously delay waterfront revitalization in the area.
"As a gateway to the port lands it's a very important site," she says, and Home Depot would be well advised to "offer it to the city at a reasonable cost to be used in the public realm.
"The company would gain more public support by doing that than it will by fighting once again at the Ontario Municipal Board," McConnell says. "We will do everything in our power to make sure the city's vision for redevelopment of the waterfront isn't thwarted by private interests."