It takes a village to host the Games

DON PEAT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:10 PM ET

It could be the crown jewel of the Pan Am Games and the waterfront -- or it could be Toronto's new $1-billion mistake by the lake.

For Toronto, the success of the Pan Am Games will be measured by the athletes' village set to rise in the West Don Lands by 2015, just in time to house the athletes, coaches and staff expected for the first major multi-sport event Toronto has secured in almost a century.

Winning the Pan Am Games is a qualifying round in the real race for Toronto to prove to the world that it can host a world-class sporting event like the Olympics. Victory in that race will depend largely on the city's success in assembling the facilities, especially the athletes' village, in a timely and costly manner. And as many sporting events have proven, the temporary villages have a good track record of making the transition to urban housing. If Toronto can't make that work, where so many other cities have succeeded, the Games will likely be considered an organizational failure no matter what happens on the athletic fields.

Stretching over 32 hectacres, the village site -- old industrial land that once housed a good chunk of the factories that gave Corktown its name -- was already transforming before the Pan Am Games.

Toronto Community Housing is already building seniors and family buildings on its corner of the site. A private developer is also building its development. Add in the Pan Am Village and optimists will tell you the city could have 3,000 units in place by 2015 along with a TTC streetcar line and the infrastructure to build more.

That would be a boon for Waterfront Toronto, which has been pushing to develop the site but over a 15- or 20-year time frame.

John Campbell, CEO of Waterfront Toronto, calls the athletes' village a welcome catalyst that will bring development sooner rather than later. Although it still isn't clear who will pay for it, the Games will bring an approximately $1-billion investment for the village, including $450,000 for infrastructure, $450,000 for housing and $100 million for the overlay (items like the 5,000-seat dining hall, media centre, offices, training track and pool).

"What's exciting about the West Don Lands and the athletes' village is we're going to get to build what was to be built anyways," Campbell said.

Waterfront Toronto's plans have always called for an economic mix of low, mid and high-rise buildings that conform to the agency's standards of quality, sustainability and environmental design.

Campbell doubts that making the transition from temporary living for the hemisphere's best athletes to housing for future generations of Torontonians earning various incomes will be a problem.

"It's just a question of how many athletes, staff, trainers and coaches you put in each building," he said.

An example of how it might work would be to take a one or two-bedroom apartment and place beds in each bedroom, the living room and even the unfinished kitchen for the Games. Afterwards, during a retrofit, the beds would be pulled out, the kitchen installed and the final finishing touches put in place.

The concept isn't new.

Many of the villages -- often called cities within cities hosting Olympic or Pan Am Games -- start out as temporary housing for the visiting teams, delegations and volunteers. But after the Games are gone, the host cities inherit the villages and incorporate them into the fabric of the landscape.

Councillor Michael Walker -- the lone city councillor to vote against funding the Pan Am Games -- doubts the village will be a shimmering seed that grows a vibrant waterfront community or even that it'll just cost $1 billion.

"First of all, it will cost at least twice what they say it will cost," Walker said this week. "Look what happened in Vancouver, the overrun was over 100%. I think the village will cost well in excess of $2 billion."

He cited the cost of remediating the land, the massive efforts of reshaping the land to guard against a Hurricane Hazel type flood and the high costs of construction in downtown Toronto.

Walker also doubts the transition will work.

"You don't end up with a race horse for housing, you end up with a camel," he said.

Bruce Kidd, dean of the faculty of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, said history has shown that more of the athletes' villages have been successes than failures.

"Many of them become great successes and people love to live there," Kidd said.

Even the rushed Montreal Olympic village -- which needed a major retrofit to repair its deficiencies -- has been embraced by its permanent residents, he said.

Retired U of T professor Helen Lenskyj, a staunch opponent of Olympic and Pan-Am Games, said she's skeptical any significant community housing will come out of it.

"It's not a free lunch obviously. Like anything connected with sporting mega-events there is always a cost somewhere along the line and somebody ends up paying for it," Lenskyj said.

She visited the Sydney Olympic village in the lead-up to those Games.

"Sure it was state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly, it was all built on land that was formally a toxic waste dump so there were big questions about the safety but apart from that there was literally no affordable housing or geared-to-income housing," Lenskyj said.

Back here in Toronto, she's heard the cheers before for the West Don Lands development when the city was in the running for 1996 and 2008 Olympic Games.

"The environmentalists who were involved ... were quite firm in their belief that the area was so toxic that it would be a major undertaking to remediate it," she said.

But with the Games coming in five years, whether the critics and the city are ready or not, the push is already on to start building.

While no Pan Am host committee has been established yet, Waterfront Toronto hopes to start sending out the necessary requests in January, the first big steps in constructing the athletes' village.

"We have a number of years but we've got to get moving," Campbell said. "Looking at examples around the world, we know that every day counts.

"It's a daunting project, there is no question about that, but I think we're geared up for it and we're looking forward to it."

---

BUILDING DREAMS

Here's a rundown of Canada's athletes' villages for both the Pan Am and Olympic Games.

Toronto 2015

Set to be the crown jewel in the 32-hectacre West Don Lands site, the Pan Am Games athletes village is expected to be a $1-billion investment not just in the one-time games but also in the future of the waterfront community.

The Pan Am village will house approximately 5,000 athletes and staff coming to the Games and include a dining hall, training track and pool.

While the mix of housing isn't clear yet, organizers say it will have some affordable housing when it is transitioned into permanent housing after the Games.

Vancouver 2010

Already $131 million over budget, the Vancouver Olympic's $1- billion athletes' village may be an expensive lesson worth noting for Toronto's $1-billion proposed Pan Am village.

The village was supposed to be financed by private development but Vancouver had to bail out the project earlier this year when financial backers backed out.

After the Games, there are fears sales of the completed village suites in a slumping real estate market won't pay for the construction.

Built on undeveloped waterfront land near downtown Vancouver, the village will include 15 to 20 permanent buildings to house 2,800 athletes.

In April 2010 the Olympic Committee will turn the keys to the village over to the City of Vancouver. After a retrofit, the village should have 1,100 residential units with about 250 set aside for affordable housing and 100 for modest market housing. The village will include a 45,000 sq. foot community centre, boating centre, daycare and restaurant. After the Olympics, those buildings will house a community centre, daycare and commercial/restaurant space.

By 2020, the community is expected to house 12,000 to 16,000 people with more than 5,000 residential units.

Winnipeg 1999

Residences at the University of Manitoba were upgraded and the entire Pan Am Games budget -- including the athletes' housing -- came in at under $200 million.

Calgary 1988

Most of the athletes' housing was on the University of Calgary campus. After the athletes left, the buildings became student housing. A report to the Vancouver Olympic committee highlighted how the on-campus housing -- funded by the government of Alberta -- helped ensure reasonable rents for students in the coming years.

Montreal 1976

Two 19-storey buildings, built in the shape of a pyramid, the Montreal athletes' village was turned into 980 apartments surrounded by balconies. All athletes at the 1976 Olympic Games were housed inside the buildings except those competing in equestrian and sailing. In 1998, the buildings were sold to a private company. Despite numerous problems with retrofitting the village, including poor construction, the village is now a much sought-after location.

DON.PEAT@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos