or pool your stimulus cash here


LISA ROCHON Saturday, January 17, 2009

Even within the wasteland of Toronto's Port Lands, the Hearn Generating Station is a civic legend waiting to be unleashed. It could be the next Tate Modern, but, given that its 300-metre turbine hall is nearly twice as long as the acclaimed turbine hall in London, it could be much more: a place where you could swim and float your mind.

For now, the coal-burning power station, built as a monument to heroic infrastructure in 1951 and decommissioned in 1984, belongs to a long, sad film about dystopia. The building is so massive and alone it appears like a bricked-up King Kong. The road leading to it, Unwin Avenue, is lined with mounds of gravel and hills of salt covered in black tarps. Hydro towers run behind the generating station like scarecrows lording over toxic fields.

And yet, on the other side of the dirty banks of snow, there are fields of dogwood staining the landscape red. Just beyond, masts of sailboats belonging to the Outer Harbour Marina can be seen and, not far, the blue spread of Lake Ontario.

How to spend infrastructure dollars? Along Unwin Avenue in Toronto.Now is the time to push Mayor David Miller to convert the Hearn into a world-famous sports and arts centre in the Port Lands.

Laying down the legacy rests in his hands. A plan for a major multi-use recreation centre, which has been languishing since 2002 at Waterfront Toronto, was turned over to the mayor's office last summer. In fact, the possibility of converting the Hearn station into a regional sports hub is being discussed by the mayor's key people within the waterfront secretariat. About $35-million has been set aside for the project. Elaine Baxter-Trahair, director of the secretariat, says the fundamentals of a plan can be expected by March: "It's a component of the public realm, and completing the public realm is a priority of the mayor's."

The moment has come for the mayor to lead on a critical piece of urban revitalization. Remember that the reinvention of seven of the city's major cultural institutions, such as the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and the Royal Ontario Museum, was a project belonging to cultural mandarins and private donors that reignited a 10-block area of the downtown. Putting an end to the perpetual dread of Unwin Avenue is another kind of cause - a less conventional approach to city building.

Consider the Hearn's west elevation with its narrow vertical windows running the length of the building's approximate seven storeys - it could be a fly tower for a Robert Lepage theatrical production, the backdrop for an Olympic pool or a video projection wall. Bring in Canadian installation artist Janet Cardiff to do one of her stunning soundscapes, or invite Danish artist Olafur Eliasson to light up the Hearn the way he illuminated the Tate Modern, with an enormous life-giving artificial sun.

But the obstacles are serious. The unwillingness of the province, the city and Waterfront Toronto to work together could condemn the plant as a ruin waiting to crumble. Since the 1970s, Toronto has proved incapable of rallying the leadership to build aquatic facilities with Olympic-sized pools. And within Canada, Ontario ranks last among all provincial and territorial governments in spending on summer sport.

Also, not everybody wants to do business in the Port Lands. A province-led bid for the 2015 Pan American Games already has it ruled out. "We've stayed away from the waterfront," says a key insider with the $1.77-billion provincial bid, an initiative led by David Peterson. "Waterfront Toronto has done dick and there are five jurisdictions down there. You spend all your time fighting with these people." Instead, they are considering building aquatic facilities at the University of Toronto campus in Scarborough or ambitious frontier towns such as Markham.

The Etobicoke Olympium, built in 1975, is the only facility in the Toronto region with a 50-metre pool open year-round. (It's also a site of overcrowded mayhem during school swim meets, when spectators crawl over each other to get to their seats and parents are tricked into leaving the bleachers by organizers to free up the aisles.) Bob Richardson, a member of the Pan Am bid committee, says it would probably be upgraded if the Toronto-branded bid wins.

Next to performance-arts centres and hospitals, competitive aquatic centres are the most expensive building type, at about $500 per square foot, to construct. They also require about six hectares of land to accommodate the facility and, especially, surface parking. Which helps to explain why a serious recreation centre makes sense for the mostly empty Port Lands: The space is available and there's an urgent need to build not another polluting power plant but a place to energize the city's people.

There are plenty of architects in town with the talent to design state-of-the-art aquatic centres. MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects is a Toronto firm specializing in the new generation design of multi-use recreation facilities. They design for communities such as Aurora, Brampton, Niagara Falls and Oshawa, which want places that offer not only somewhere fantastic to swim but also, under the same roof, workout rooms, basketball courts and even craft centres for family members who want to stay dry. What used to be windowless boxes holding blue rectangular pools have become light-filled rooms with exhilarating, clear-span roofs.

Though work in the suburbs is booming, design commissions for major recreation and aquatic centres in the city is non-existent. And whenever even a basic stand-alone pool is proposed, the process in Toronto is far more painful than in other municipalities. The 25-metre pool designed for Regent Park has been so severely delayed, because of the city's sluggish bureaucracy and endless public consultations, that nobody really knows any more how much it will cost.

"The city is notoriously stingy with pools," MJM principal John MacLennan says. A few years ago, the $5-million indoor pool that the firm designed for the Wellesley Community Centre was nixed by the city as too much of a luxury, though it would have served 26,000 people living in and around the high-rise community of St. James Town.

In many ways, the reinvention of the city's cultural flagships, set in the downtown business core and fired by the agenda of elites, was an obvious strategy. Unwin Avenue is graced not by towers of modernism but by unsettling cemeteries of concrete blocks and spools of cable. Transforming a wasteland of the city is not merely a matter of political leadership. An act of defiance is what will be required.


We'll have some of what they've having

Though Toronto is set on a Great Lake, there are many - adults and children, newly arrived immigrants and Scots landed long ago - who would drown should they venture into the water. That lousy record is primed to turn around most anywhere except Toronto, in cities where multi-use recreation centres have been recently completed or are on the boards to be built - Waterloo, Sudbury, Apsley, Richmond Hill, Kitchener, Kingston, London, St. Catharines, Oshawa and Windsor. On the world stage, the record is even worse. Fitness-crazy Sydney, a city of comparable size to Toronto, has 40 aquatic facilities with Olympic-sized pools.