Toronto waterfront area showing a brewery and hotel

Underwhelming Toronto waterfront needs a bold transformation right now, report

Toronto’s Waterfront Business Improvement Area (BIA) recently released a report on ideas to boost business and encourage visitors to stay longer in the waterfront area, as the report suggests that tourists might feel “underwhelmed” by the lack of things to do at the waterfront.

Not to mention, there are a number of arts venues on the waterfront that most Toronto residents have probably never visited such as the Studio Theatre and the outdoor stage at Harbourfront Centre, and the Power Plant Gallery. These should be magnets for visitors.

Potential steps to revitalize the area (from Stadium Road to Cherry Street along the Queens Quay corridor, inclusive of the Toronto Islands) would include offering services such as “bike parking valets” to encourage cyclists to dismount and lock their bikes securely along the Martin Goodman Trail, as it would hopefully encourage passersby to “stop and shop.”

Placemaking interventions (e.g., markets, murals, street furniture, etc.) and floating patios/other points of marine use activation are also being recommended for the East Bayfront promenade. Organizers are pushing for more opportunities to create destination experience spaces that can enhance the area as a multi-element visitor experience (e.g. food halls, breweries, family-friendly activities, etc.).

“The key insight from our study reveals a challenge in aligning the diverse aspirations for Toronto’s waterfront, encompassing tourism, office, and residential spheres. This diversity of purpose has led to development decisions that, while well-intentioned, have not fully satisfied the needs of any particular group,” the report states, suggesting that these decisions—or constraints—can impact the long-term vibrancy of the district, potentially affecting its attractiveness to tourists, office workers, and residents who are looking for dynamic and accessible retail environments but are forced to go elsewhere in the city to find this.

“Among these decisions, we’ve observed retail spaces positioned away from main thoroughfares, lobbies in locations better suited for public retail, limited retail engagement places along the water’s-edge, retail spaces of sizes that may not be suitable for more diverse business use, uneven and inconsistent distribution of retail areas along Queens Quay, and restrictive signage and façade guidelines that complicate business visibility”.

For example, the report notes that when tourists stay at one of the two hotels along the waterfront (Westin Harbour Castle or Radisson Blu), they do so because these hotels are close to the downtown core, and they can enjoy a beautiful view. However, when they arrive, they might feel underwhelmed by the lack of things to do at the waterfront, especially considering that most waterfront cities worldwide are significant tourist attractions with various activities for visitors and are filled with waterfront-facing restaurants with patios facing the view.

Other examples of incomplete consumer journeys include the Toronto Islands — after a long and eventful day at the Toronto Islands, people might want a place to sit at a family-friendly restaurant to grab dinner or snacks before they start their commute back home.

“Unfortunately, there are few options for family-friendly restaurants around the Ferry Terminal area, where most visitors would end their journey,” the report says.

High-end clothing boutiques should generate new foot traffic to the area more so than passive passersby traffic, the report states. For example, a bridal party might show up at a store to find the perfect wedding attire. After a couple of hours of perusing the store’s inventory, they’ll likely be ready to continue the celebration by going to a high-end bar or restaurant.

“The eastern waterfront has limited options visible from the intersection of the bridal store or within walking distance, and therefore, they have to resort to options outside of the waterfront, or they cut their trip short and head home in separate directions,” the report says.

Colleges in the waterfront area (e.g., George Brown, Univesité de l’Ontario francais, etc.) present another issue. Although they attract many students to the waterfront, there are few student-oriented places where they can hang out with their classmates after a long stressful day, so they either head home or to a more suitable bar or restaurant out of the waterfront district.

The report suggests that the next steps should be to maximize the vibrancy of activity and showcase the area’s best-shared asset — the water.

“For areas of the neighbourhood that are still in the planning, early development or redevelopment stages, it is crucial for the Waterfront BIA to advocate for a re-evaluation of these practices to avoid repeating past oversights,” the report says, concluding that “In areas where development is already complete, implementing strategies and forging partnerships such as suggested in our recommendations section may provide significant support to businesses facing these challenges, enhancing the overall appeal and functionality of the waterfront area.”