Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pan Am dreams in T.O.

The West Don Lands may look barren as motorists zip by on the Gardiner Expressway, but it’s going to be a bustling mecca for 8,500 athletes and team officials by 2015.

Bits and pieces of what will eventually be the $1-billion Pan-Am Athletes’ Village are already beginning to sprout on the 80-acre, provincially-owned site. Bulldozers are excavating the area east of Cherry St. where the athletes will stay. Next on the list is a temporary dining hall, a parking lot for International Olympic Committee members and a transportation centre — near Cherry and Mill Sts. — where buses shuttling the athletes to and from the airport will park.

“The village fit very nicely into the plan,” said Meg Davis, vice-president of development for West Don Lands at Waterfront Toronto. “We’re able to take what was already going to be developed and advance that construction and have a community come online and be knit back into the fabric of the city much sooner than might have happened.”

Now that the Pan-Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, have wrapped up, the spotlight has shifted to Toronto which will host the sporting spectacle in 2015.

Will everything be ready?

“We’re right on track and right on budget,” says Ian Troop, CEO of the TO2015, the organizing committee of the Pan-Am games.

“We’ve got five major builds and they’re all moving forward through the procurement process,” adds Troop, whose organizaton is working with a $1.4-billion budget. “At this point, we’re right where we need to be and moving forward briskly on these.”

The five big builds include revamping Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton for soccer events, building a Pan Am Aquatics Centre and field house at University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus and a 12,500-seat stadium at York University. A pool and field house will be constructed in Unionville and there are also plans for a velodrome to host cycling events — location to be determined.

“We expect to have all of them starting construction in the middle part of 2012 to be finished by 2014, which will be for test events and it will be a full year ahead of the games,” Troop explains.

The construction, though, has progressed quickest along the waterfront.

The 6.5-acre Athletes’ Village is part of the second phase of the whole West Don Lands revitalization, developed by TO2015, Waterfront Toronto and Infrastructure Ontario.

Included in the West Don Lands revitalization is an 18-acre Don River Park adjacent to Front St., which should be finished by the end of this year.

Right now, a completed wooden pavilion stands at the top of the hill and serves as the centrepiece for the park. In it are washrooms, solar panels, an office for the city’s parks department and shelter for users of the park.

The area east of the pavilion towards the Don River is expected to be completed mid-2012 because more construction is required for flood-protection, Davis says.

“From the park over to Cherry St. is the centrepiece of the West Don Lands,” she adds. “It will house the Front St. extension, which will have cafes, a large boulevard and small parkettes. That will be used for the Athletes’ Village for Pan-Am, that will be permanent construction for residential and affordable housing, as well as community centre, student housing and other local community requirements.”

A 25-metre pool, gym, fitness centre and indoor track is included in the village plan.

The Pan-Am Village needs to be completed by late 2014 in order for games organizers to set up necessary amenities. In September 2015, after the games wrap up, the buildings will start to be occupied by purchasers and affordable housing providers.

Interested people who want a sneak peak of the construction zone can even log on at to see the time-lapse since 2009.

Troop said there’s a “strong team” made up of representatives from Ontario’s transportation ministry, Metrolinx and local municipal groups who are in charge of making sure traffic congestion doesn’t get too irritating.

An Air Rail Link, which will transport 5,000 passengers daily to and from the Pearson airport, is going to be ready in time for the game, according to a Metrolinx statement.

Transportation and shelter are big concerns for Curt Harnett, the Assistant Chef de Mission for the IOC and who will oversee the athletes at the 2015 games.

“Moving so many athletes around is going to be a significant challenge,” he says. “The layout for Toronto’s games is a little more widespread, so the dealing with transportation needs to be that much more of a focus for the organizers. Then there’s also the Athletes’ Village ... when I showed up to my first Pan-Am Games in Venezuela, we didn’t have windows in our rooms and the beds hadn’t been put together so it was all hands on deck. Games have advanced since 1983. It’s those elements Toronto 2015 will be looking at.”

There has also been some contentious issues finding the right venues. Since the committee rejected Hamilton’s $5-million bid to build a velodrome, Vaughan and Milton have thrown their hats in the ring.

“We only have a couple venues and sports left to settle — the velodrome being the principal one,” Troop says. “So 33 out of 36 sports isn’t a bad, batting average.”

However, former Canadian IOC member Paul Henderson criticizes organizers, pointing out that the first five years of the endeavour amount to a massive construction project and that the hype comes during the last few months.

“TO2015 has missed the first two years with no construction contracts signed and none will be finalized for months,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Disaster waiting to happen. Construction business is not like building a Ford car. Just in time delivery if the parts does not work. What makes a games financially successful is that the facilities are in place a year before, which is what Calgary (and) Vancouver have proved.”

The games are expected to bring in more than 10,000 athletes and 250,000 tourists to Toronto, the Greater Horseshoe area and the 905.

Andrew Weir of Tourism Toronto recently came back from the Pan-Am Games in Guatalajara saying there wasn’t a concentrated hub of activity in the Mexican effort — which parallels Toronto’s situation. However, he notes several key differences.

“The Athletes’ Village (in Toronto) is closer to downtown and some of the major events including the opening and closing ceremonies will be downtown,” he says. “It’s about the visitor experience — providing it to make it easy to get around. It’s about someone from Oshawa seeing an event in Hamilton or someone from Barrie to Toronto. While we want to draw all these Latin-American countries, this is a great opportunity of the 12 million in Ontario.”

Troop is convinced the community will embrace the 2015 Games wholeheartedly.

“It’s very rarely you welcome the world to your home. I know Toronto and Southern Ontario is going step up.”

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