FOR Robyn Charlton, a vacant lot just across from the Royal Motor Yacht Club in Toronto is her time-out place.
About once a week, she drives her car onto the land in Bath Street, parks on the rise overlooking the lake and eats lunch or reads, all the while taking in the water view.
“I appreciate the simple things in life,” Ms Charlton said, as she watched a few swallows flying above the slope leading to the water’s edge. “There’s nothing nicer than being out and absorbing what I enjoy.”
This stretch of dirt that holds serenity for Robyn Charlton is seen as lots of opportunity by Lake Macquarie City Council.
The council owns this land, across two blocks, and it has plans for a development that incorporates three major hopes it has for Toronto: residential, commercial and tourism. The development could include tourist accommodation closer to the waterfront, a predominantly residential apartment complex up to six storeys high, along with commercial spaces, such as a cafe.
The council has emphasised nothing is set in stone yet, and the planned complex is a long way from being submitted as a development application, but mayor Kay Fraser already foresees it as a much-needed boost for the western Lake Macquarie centre.
“It’s really important we have tourist accommodation, and that we have people visiting Toronto,” Cr Fraser said. “We need more business here in Toronto, and we need more jobs. And this development will provide some of that.”
As the Labor mayor wandered the site with Liberal councillor Jason Pauling, they were walking on common ground for what they hoped would take shape here.
“If we can nail the vision we share for this site, it will be absolutely awesome,” said Cr Pauling.
Yet nailing that vision may prove difficult. For this site has also become a battleground for how different groups and community members see this land serving the future of Toronto.
Many of those opposed to the council’s development intentions have come together under the umbrella of the Toronto Foreshore Protection Group.
The views among group members on how the land should be used also vary.
Mel Steiner is the vice-commodore of the historic Royal Motor Yacht Club, Toronto.
Mr Steiner said the club hosted about 300 events a year, from weddings to meetings, and about 100 sailing races and regattas. While the club had its own car park, the block across the road provided overflow parking.
Mr Steiner believed that site should continue to accommodate some sort of car park, not just for the “thousands” who use the club each year but for the wider community.
“Toronto is really short of parking, it has a parking problem,” Mr Steiner said. “We’d like to have it developed as a formal parking area and parkland.”
Mel Steiner said council representatives had met with the club about the possibility of a joint venture to develop the land, but those talks hadn’t progressed.
“We don’t have a problem with development, we’re not anti-development, but it’s inappropriate development, because it’s so close to the foreshore.”
Jeff Jansson is another prominent member of the Toronto Foreshore Protection Group. He has a long history with both this area and the council. As a local Rotary club member, he has been part of clean-up and tree-planting events along the old rail corridor trailing the foreshore. And for more than three decades, he worked for the council, mostly in the environment field, helping promote a cleaner lake and trying to protect and restore its foreshores.
“I think the mistake the council is making is it’s looking at this from a single, dollar perspective, rather than in an integrated way,” he said.
Jeff Jansson believed this land should be a foreshore park, providing green relief for the lake and for those living in Toronto. And with a string of apartment developments planned or being built in the suburb, the need for public open space would be growing.
“It’s crazy, they [the council] have got a block of waterfront land, and they can have that as public open space,” Mr Jansson said.
The council argues it plans to revitalise Toronto’s “underused” waterfront land for public use. It has called for the community’s ideas about how to transform a 600-metre strip from Bath Street to Goffet Park, which will be considered as part of a Toronto foreshore master plan.
The mayor and Cr Pauling guided the Herald along the foreshore, pointing out how degraded it was.
“You can see why people don’t use it,” Cr Pauling commented. “Last time I was down here, I was waiting to get mugged, to tell you the truth.”
Both councillors asserted residents and visitors would benefit from an upgraded public space along the waterfront.
“It’s not before time, we should have been doing this a little while ago,” Cr Fraser said. “So I think it’s great we’re consulting with the community and asking them what they want along the foreshore here.”
Yet Toronto Foreshore Protection Group members argue the foreshore master plan doesn’t extend to the controversial section earmarked for development.
“Why is that not part of the consultation?,” asked Jeff Jansson.
Cr Fraser said the opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed complex would arise when a development application was prepared.
The council has said the proposed development site represents about 9.7 per cent of the total area, while the remaining 90.3 per cent would be public open space along the foreshore.
Both the council and the foreshore protection group have been holding information days and public meetings. The group has said it has collected more than 3500 signatures on a petition objecting to the commercial development and calling for the protection of the foreshore for public recreation.
About 500 people attended a recent meeting hosted by the group, with a resolution passed, saying council had “no community mandate” to progress the development.
But some Toronto residents welcome the development. Adam Walton is a local resident and father of two. He argued that those in western Lake Macquarie often complained they were “the poor cousins” compared to communities across the water, when it came to investment, so he was “at a loss” why there was such opposition to the proposal.
“It’s beneficial to the local community,” Mr Walton said. However, he believed the proposed development’s height should be reviewed and lowered.
“The last thing we want is a Gold Coast environment, where the sun is blocked by high-rise developments,” he said. “We don’t want literally a wall of development.”
Robyn Charlton, the local resident sitting in her car, said such a development would create more than a physical barricade to the lake for many who now used the land as a place to relax.
“Are six storeys going to provide social equity or green spaces for those who can’t afford a $15 lunch [at a cafe] or to hire a kayak?,” she asked.
The divisions over this land were evident as the two councillors walked across it. A woman sitting in a car called to them, “Save the waterfront!”. Signs protesting the development were attached to a tree and poles.
Councillor Fraser said there would be public space in front of the development. What’s more, the site itself would be improved from what it was now.
“I would call it a degraded car park,” Cr Fraser said. “It’s all gravel and dirt. So I don’t see it as foreshore.”
“I think using the word ‘car park’ is being kind, because it’s practically a moonscape,” added Cr Pauling.
What all sides agree on is they want Toronto to progress, but how that looks will continue to be debated.
“Some people mightn’t like a lot of changes, and Toronto is going through change,” said Cr Fraser.
“We want Toronto to go ahead,” emphasised the protection group’s Jeff Jansson. “We want Toronto to be an attractive centre for visitors, but we don’t believe that high-density development is the way for that sensitive foreshore land to be used.”
“Some people mightn’t like a lot of changes, and Toronto is going through change- Kay Fraser, mayor of Lake Macquarie
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