Tall buildings and attractions are an important part of any city’s character, but parks and public spaces can be an equally important visual element to a world-renowned skyline. As Toronto has seen a renewal in condominium and apartment building downtown, the province of Ontario is investing in waterfront projects to celebrate the region’s landscapes and connect those developments with Lake Ontario’s northwest shore. 

To accomplish that transformation, the province selected Urbacon to build one of its new lakefront parks. “The intent is to take back the waterfront and make it more people friendly,” says Rick Spironello, vice president of special projects for Urbacon.

Infrastructure Ontario, an agency of the provincial government, is funding the project. Urbacon was chosen from among five finalist contractors to complete the project following a request for qualifications and competitive procurement process. The project area is a 7.5-acre former parking lot site on East Island that has been closed to the public for the past 40 years. 

“What it was and what it will be is so opposite,” Spironello says. Urbacon’s park is one of three projects underway to turn the lakefront into publicly accessible land. “We’re quite thrilled to be a part of it,” Spironello adds. “It’s the largest single piece awarded so far.” 

Work on the site began with tearing out the old parking lot in April 2015 and is expected to be completed by October 2016. Approximately 200 people will be working on the park during the peak construction period next summer. Activity is expected to slow down closer to the completion date as Urbacon transitions to the finishing touches, such as installing benches and fire pits.

Designing the Lakefront

LANDinc, a Toronto-based landscape designer, developed the look of the public waterfront. Urbacon is following that blueprint as it oversees construction and the subcontractors working on the project. “Our participation is focused on value-engineering and the role of construction manager for the project,” Spironello explains.

Subcontractors are undertaking about 90 percent of the work on the project. Spironello says Urbacon chose those subcontractors through an open bidding process, although it has worked with many of the companies on past projects. “For the most part, they’re companies we are comfortable with,” he says. “You want subcontractors who are as enthused and excited about the project as you are.”

The site sits on land that was once reclaimed from Lake Ontario and its use as a parking lot for decades left it mostly flat. To create a true park feel, Urbacon tore out the asphalt, replaced it with soil and graded the land to create natural-looking elevations. The company brought in more than 40,000 cubic yards of dirt that had to match the soils found in Ontario forests. “Getting these soils just right and bringing them to the site has been a challenge for us,” Spironello says.

The soil was specially selected to nurture the growth of the foliage that will be planted at the park. Urbacon will bring in 1,200 trees and 30,000 shrubs to fill out the natural elements of the area. “What the plan targets is a replication of the northern Ontario border,” Spironello explains, adding that the plantings represent about 25 percent of the total project budget. 

All of the selected species are native to the province and Urbacon will use mature trees sourced from local nurseries. Some trees will already be as high as 35 feet when they are replanted next spring, meaning residents won’t have to wait decades before the forest fills in. 

The new park will feature boat launches, a picnic pavilion and wavedecks, a type of boardwalk meant to mimic the roll of the lake. Walking and biking paths will link to the Trans Canada Trail Ontario route and the Martin Goodman Trail. The entire area is designed to be handicap accessible, Spironello adds, and will feature two structures, a restroom and the pavilion. The pavilion will feature a unique roof style meant to replicate the design of one of the buildings that once stood at the park site.

Another unique feature will be a ravine with walls made from local granite. As the park itself evokes Ontario’s landscape, the ravine will evoke its native people. Members of the First Nations, representing the indigenous people of Canada, have created a design that will be carved into the granite and add an artistic and cultural element to the park. Spironello says the carving will occur offsite this winter and the finished granite will be transported to the park for installation next spring.

Enjoying the Challenge

Urbacon has been involved in marina construction and completed large scale land development projects before, but Spironello says the company has never undertaken a project quite like the new waterfront park for Toronto. To pull it off, Spironello and Senior Project Manager Phil Lamoureux delved deep into naturalized landscape design and park development.. 

But although it was a unique type of project, Urbacon has embraced the process. “We didn’t look at it as being different; we looked at it as for once we didn’t have to buy concrete and rebar,” Spironello says. “You get quite excited by the fact that you’re not doing the same thing.”

With tens of thousands of people driving past the site each day, Spironello says the public’s anticipation has helped motivate Urbacon and he is looking forward to putting the company’s name on the completed project. “Everybody in the city is watching this thing grow and mature into this park,” he says. 

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