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Delivering Design Excellence on the Waterfront: 14 Years with the Design Review Panel

Aug 7, 2019

Canada's Sugar Beach in the summer.Canada’s Sugar Beach is one of the many spaces along Toronto’s waterfront that has been influenced by the feedback provided through the Design Review Panel. (Image by Connie Tsang)  


Waterfront Toronto is responsible for the largest urban revitalization area in North America, and one of the fastest-growing neighbourhoods in Toronto. Since 2001, we have revitalized nearly 100 acres of prime waterfront land through government partnerships and catalyzed more than $10 billion in private-sector investment.  

So, how do we make sure all these investments result in a great waterfront? One of the keys is our Design Review Panel, which is made up of 15 of Canada’s leading design, planning, architecture and engineering experts. Formed in 2005 and meeting once a month, they review every design proposal on the waterfront – both public and private – providing objective, professional advice to ensure quality, consistency and excellence.

Members of Waterfront Toronto's Design Review Panel.Waterfront Toronto’s Design Review Panel members from left to right: Back: Chris Glaisek, George Baird, Peter Busby, Jeff Ranson, Paul Bedford, Betsy Williamson, Eric Turcotte, Nina-Marie Lister; middle row: Lorna Day (City of Toronto Director of Urban Design) Brigitte Shim; front: Claude Cormier, Mazyar Mortazavi (Board of Directors). Not pictured here: Fadi Masoud, Janna Levitt and Pat Hanson. (Image by Harry Choi) 

How does it work? Project proponents, including designers and developers, present their proposals and receive feedback on a wide range of design issues, including: building form, neighbourhood connectivity, parks and plazas, streets and transit, materials and finishes, and land use compatibility. Panel members offer their insights and expertise to proponents – for free – and their input helps ensure that every project makes a positive contribution to the neighbourhood. The net impact is that we build a more comprehensive, deliberate, and cohesive waterfront. 

“The Design Review Panel consists of some of Canada’s best design minds, and the respect they have encourages everyone to bring their ‘A Game’ when it comes to building things on the waterfront.” 

- Chris Glaisek, Chief Planning and Design Officer, Waterfront Toronto 

All reviews are made with regard for the City’s Official Plan, Central Waterfront Secondary Plan, precinct plans, and other policy documents that protect the public interest. City Planning officials participate, ensuring integration with the development approval process. This makes the Panel an effective tool in balancing private and public interests. 

Projects are reviewed multiple times as they evolve, starting with an issues identification review at the site analysis and programming stage, and concluding with a look at the final Detailed Design documents, with one or two other reviews in between. Starting early makes it easier for developers to be responsive to concerns before they have invested heavily in design work. And seeing things through allows attention to be paid to important details that make a big difference at eye level. Collectively, this raises the bar for design excellence across the board – from buildings to parks to streets. 

People enjoying the Simcoe WaveDeck.The Simcoe WaveDeck, pictured here, is one of three urban docks built over the water, creating generous new public spaces in areas where sidewalks were narrow and congested. (Image by Nicola Betts) 

The meetings are open to anyone who wants to observe, and the minutes are published on our website. This approach ensures everyone hears what the design experts have to say, and their comments become part of the record of feedback that we use in making decisions. While the recommendations of the Panel are advisory only, we work diligently to ensure their comments are acted upon. 

“Torontonians care deeply about their waterfront and want beautiful public spaces and a diversity of mixed-use buildings for living, working and enjoyment. The Design Review Panel is committed to delivering on those goals.” 

- Paul Bedford, Chair, Waterfront Toronto Design Review Panel 

Since its inception, the Panel has reviewed over 100 public and private projects along the waterfront. Its advice has helped shape noteworthy places like Sugar Beach, Underpass Park and the Canary District. And while its advice may sometimes be contentious, nearly 90% of projects – both public and private – get the full support of the Panel by the end.

The Canary District located in the heart of the West Don Lands.Developed by Dundee Kilmer Developments as part of the ambitious 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games Athletes’ Village project, the Canary District features mostly mid-rise residential buildings in the heart of the West Don Lands. (Image by Nicola Betts)  

Not only do members comment on the look and feel of projects, they also continuously move the dial on new and innovative design approaches. Things like better transit connectivity, improved green building standards, enhanced lake biodiversity, and better aquatic habitat are also elements included in the Panel’s reviews. So, it plays an important role in making the waterfront a more sustainable place as well as a more beautiful one. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Design Review Panel, want to attend a meeting, or learn about a specific project, please visit our website www.waterfrontoronto.ca