Construction has officially begun on the first phase of a $1.25 billion project to protect the Port Lands from flooding and unlock an estimated 240 hectares of waterfront real estate for redevelopment.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Thursday morning to commemorate the start of work on the $65-million Cherry Street stormwater and lake-filling project.

The project, which is scheduled to be completed by March 2020, will focus on Essroc Quay which is located on the south side of Keating Channel where it meets Toronto’s harbour.

As part of the project, crews will be creating a new land mass around Essroc Quay through lake-filling, which the city says will be an “important element” in “safely conveying increasing storm and flood waters.”

The work will also allow for the ultimate realignment of Cherry Street and the construction of a new Cherry Street Bridge over the Keating Channel.

The city says that a new bridge over Cherry Street is necessary because the current one “causes a significant restriction to storm water flows during flood events.”

“People have to understand and we keep saying it that this work, that does cost one billion dollars, is absolutely necessary before you can do anything much with the Port Lands,” Tory told reporters following the groundbreaking ceremony. “Otherwise we face the prospect of all of this land and land up into the city being flooded as a result of one of those storms that we can no longer assume won’t happen.”

Area to be transformed over next seven years

The larger plan to protect the Port Lands from flooding is expected to be completed over the next seven years and is being jointly funded by all three levels of government.

The largest component of the project will involve the rerouting of the Don River to the middle of the Port Lands between Ship Channel and Keating Channel and the creation of a 1,000 metre stretch of naturalized river valley in the process.

The project will also involve the excavation of 1.5 million cubic metres of soil and extensive remediation work that will ultimately raise the ground by about two metres throughout most of the Port Lands.

“This is very expensive work but very necessary both in the context of building a great waterfront and also in the context of providing the flood protection which will of course lead to a huge amount of investment in jobs and development,” Tory said on Thursday. “This is one of the best examples you can cite right now of three governments working together.”

The developer that owns a 60 acre plot of land near Lake Shore Boulevard and the Don Valley Parkway has previously said that it has plans to turn the area into a major business hub once the flood protection work is complete.

That planned development, tentatively called East Harbour, would include 10 million square feet of new office space, two million square feet of new commercial space as well as new residences for an estimated 30,000 people.

In a press release issued on Thursday morning, the CEO of Waterfront Toronto called work to protect the Port Lands from flooding a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Flood protecting the Port Lands will make way for sustainable new communities that deliver affordable housing and job opportunities,” Will Fleissig said. “This project will enhance Toronto’s resilience to extreme weather, while also restoring a natural environment for all Canadians to explore.”