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What legacy will the PanAm/ParaPan games leave on Toronto's infrastructure?

The site plan for Canary District. YONGE STREET MEDIA.

Big sporting extravaganzas are always meant to be good for the host city. It’s how the evangelists that make up the bid committees sell it to governments and residents. And during the bidding process and the lead-up to the games, whether they be Olympics, Commonwealth, or PanAm/ParaPan, everyone gets worked up into an optimistic froth about how awesome all the new stuff they’re getting is going to be.

But we’re Canadians. We hosted what were arguably the world’s most infrastructurally disastrous Olympics. It may have been way back in 1976, but since Montreal only ended up paying them off about a decade ago, the memory’s still fresh. So when the PanAm/ParaPan Games came up for grabs, we were going to need a little more than happy froth and a pretty velodrome to sell us.

What we got, thanks to a whole coalition of remarkably effective people, was an entirely new neighbourhood on the Waterfront, the games acting as a sort of accelerator for an already planned overhaul of the formerly industrial port lands. As a result, the contributions being made by these games are more organic, contributing to the ongoing process of city building rather than setting itself up as a standalone wonder. This doesn’t mean that it just might work; it means it’s already working.

Take the athletes’ village, for instance.

“Redevelopment of the West Don Lands began with the area being identified as one of four priority project areas for Waterfront Toronto, when formally created by the three orders of government in 2001,” says Tari Stork, a communications manager for Waterfront who once described herself to the National Post as an infrastructure wonk.

“Waterfront Toronto was given a 20-year mandate to transform 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of brownfield lands on the waterfront into beautiful, sustainable mixed-use communities and dynamic public spaces.

“Following the province’s successful bid for the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games, the West Don Lands area was identified as the ideal location for the Athletes’ Village because of its state of readiness—planning and approvals were well underway—and its ideal location in the heart of the city, with great connections to the surrounding GTA where Games venues would be located. West Don Lands revitalization has benefited from being chosen as the location for the Village. The development timeline has been accelerated by five or more years, and now more than half of the area will be complete by 2015.”

Dundee Kilmer is the developer for the area that will, temporarily, be the village, and will, ultimately, be the Canary District.

“There are two stages,” says Dundee REIT CEO Jason Lester, whose company is under contract with Infrastructure Ontario. “The first stage is that we have to build for the PanAm Games. We have to finish that by Jan. 15.”

Working with Ellis Don-Ledcor, his company’s delivering 175,000 square feet, including 787 housing units that will ultimately be market value, in addition to 253 designated for the affordable rental market (ultimately to be managed by Fred Victor and Wigwamen). They’re also building all the public realm amenities and infrastructure, including roads, under which they’re installing what Lester refers to as the “deep utilities,” including sewers, Hydro and the Internet infrastructure for which Waterfront is already being recognized.

And then there’s the transit.

“Eventually, the streetcar tracks will be laid down on Cherry Street to allow the King Street East car to turn down Sumach and to the Distillery District,” Lester says.

The connection to the Distillery District is of particular significance. Until now, the neighbourhood has been largely recreational, both for tourists and Torontonians. But lacking an easy connection to other neighbourhoods, it’s remained a destination location rather than a walk-by. But once the 35-acre Canary District infrastructure is in place, along with the rest of the Waterfront, the Distillery (which was also owned and developed by Dundee) may finally take its place among Toronto’s integral neighbourhoods.

“Utilizing the West Don Lands for the Athletes’ Village is an exceptional way to create a really positive legacy from hosting the Games,” Stork says.

“During the Games, the Village section of the West Don Lands will provide accommodations and training space for the 10,000 Pan and Parapan athletes and officials expected to attend. After the games, the buildings will be converted into their permanent state—and what is was always planned for the area—a lively mixed-use riverside neighbourhood that offers a range of housing for people at all stages of life and income levels. Each of the Village component parts/buildings are designed to meet Waterfront Toronto’s core objectives, which include triple-bottom line sustainability. The neighbourhood design includes important features such as pedestrian-friendly woonerfs, new transit in close proximity to residences and businesses, and street designs that encourage walkability and encourage transit-use and cycling.”?

But the infrastructural legacy of the games will not be limited to the Waterfront, or, in fact, to the physical realm.

Markham is getting the Markham PanAm Centre, a 147,000 square foot multipurpose community and athletic centre, including a 34,000 square foot triple gymnasium and a 10-lane, 50-metre pool. And Etobicoke’s Olympium is getting an overhaul, mostly infrastructural (electricals, mechanicals) to be used as a training facility for the games.?

But the most exciting aspect of these games’ legacy, at least for a certain type of urban advocate, is what might be called the human infrastructure.

Rahul Bhardwaj was vice president of Toronto’s 2008 Olympic bid, and, as a result, spent a good deal of time studying what went on in Sydney, as well as—later—the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and Vancouver’s Olympics. So by the time he became president and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation, and the city won the PanAm/ParaPans, he had some pretty clear ideas about legacy.

Read More: A legacy that will last

“What we took away from [those other games] was that there will be a legacy,” he says. “The legacy can mean a lot of things. The physical legacy is self-evident: the transit, the stadiums, the pools. But there was a bit of narrative around the social legacy, and there weren’t the same level of resources put into those. They had a way of falling off the table.”

He had noticed that all the games had recruitment programs for volunteers, but that, once the games were done, so were the volunteers. Bhardwaj saw this as a waste of both human and social capital, and vowed to do it differently here.

He started from a simple premise. People love to play. The PanAm/ParaPan Games are simply play writ large. Go.

So the TCF went out and talked to people, and came up with Playing for Keeps, using the Ontario Summer Games of 2012 as a trial run. In conjunction with communities in Toronto, Hamilton and Ajax, the TCF has been recruiting volunteers—more than 650 of them to date—to organize games in their own neighbourhoods. These volunteers are being trained in various community outreach, organization, and leadership skills.

“The neighbourhood game is a pathway,” Bhardwaj says. “It’s a moment in time when people get to know each other get to trust each other, and build trust to leverage doing more important things. It’s like a street hockey game. People are hanging out together, getting to know each other, and as they do, they’ll start doing other things together. It could actually be learning to take pride in their community, and when that community is threatened, or challenged by something, they’ll organize and open a dialogue. As communities change, we know it strains, and this creates trust to manage that change.”

According to research done in conjunction with George Brown College (itself a part of the games’ infrastructural legacy, with its Waterfront health sciences campus adjacent to the future Canary District), 90 per cent of these volunteers have said they picked up new skills, 86 per cent are positively inclined to give back to their communities, and 80 per cent feel more connected to people in their neighbourhoods.

And that’s all more than a year before the games begin.

A new Waterfront, new facilities across the GTA, and a new spirit of community engagement and volunteer leadership that could last for years: It might just be enough to make up for Montreal.

This article first appeared on Yonge Street Media.ca. Bert Archer is Yonge Street’s development editor.