Toronto's Port Lands plan includes building a new island

Toronto is building a brand new island on what's essentially a flood plain. Is that a good idea?

Waterfront Toronto says it's confident area will be able to handle a 100-year flood

This is what Waterfront Toronto thinks the Keating Channel could look like in six years' time. It doesn't look like this now. (Waterfront Toronto)

Toronto is building an island on what's essentially a flood plain.

Which, given what's happening to the city's other islands this year, sounds like a terrible idea.

But Waterfront Toronto is confident Villiers Island — the first part of the development coming to the Port Lands — will be able to handle any flooding Lake Ontario and the Don River sends its way.

"It's really been analyzed, scrutinized and frankly, you wouldn't have three levels of government putting up this kind of money if they didn't have the confidence that we could deliver on this," Waterfront President and CEO Will Fleissig told CBC Radio's Metro Morning this week.

The island doesn't exist now, but it will form when Waterfront reworks the mouth of the Don River, allowing it to flow into both the Keating Channel and a new river valley. New wetlands will also be incorporated into the design for the area.

Still, is this really a good idea, especially given the extreme flooding that's hit this city and other cities like Calgary?

"If we weren't absolutely positive that this solution would be able to withstand the impact of a 100-year flood, then we wouldn't be here," said Andrew Hilton, Waterfront's director of communications.

"We are 100 per cent confident."

Adding a second outlet for the Don River will create Villiers Island. (City of Toronto)

Environmental assessments have been done, Hilton said. This has been studied since the 1990s. And even Dutch experts, who would know about managing flooding on flat land, have approved of the design.

All that's left is to build it.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor John Tory took a water taxi to the Port Lands to announce $1.25 billion worth of funding over a seven-year span, money that's expected to make the Port Lands development a reality.

Villiers Island is mainly industrial space at the moment. (Urban strategies Inc.)

The goal is to unlock one of the largest pieces of land in the city — one that's currently used for industrial purposes (although there are also some nightclubs, a massive Asian grocery story and an axe-throwing place).

"It's basically the junkyard of the city," said Joe Berridge, a planner with Urban Strategies who is working on the design for Villiers Island and has been a part of similar projects in other cities around the world.

Berridge's vision for the area, part of which is set to go to city council this summer, includes a trail that will run from the core to Cherry Beach for those visiting the area, as well as amenities for those who will eventually call the area home.

It could, he said, also feature signature buildings or parks to make the Port Lands a prime destination.

Like other world-class cities, Berridge said Toronto is trying to "bring the city down to the water."

City to dictate what it wants in new neighbourhood

The Toronto Islands have been hit with severe flooding after a rainy spring. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Waterfront Toronto will focus on preparing the land, but private developers will be the ones putting up buildings.

However, governments will be able to dictate what they want to see in the area — including affordable rental housing units — because the city owns most of the land.

"It's critical that we do affordable housing here. We can't just do more condos," said Fleissig.

There is already some work happening in the area, and more construction is set to ramp up later this summer. "We're going to start to see the transformation very, very soon," Fleissig said.


John Rieti

Senior producer

John started with CBC News in 2008 as a Peter Gzowski intern in Newfoundland, and holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University. As a reporter, John has covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. He now leads a CBC Toronto digital team that has won multiple Radio Television Digital News Association awards for overall excellence in online reporting. You can reach him at