The Waterfront Then and Now

The Waterfront BIA is proud to now represent businesses across the entire stretch of Queens Quay that is quickly growing into its world-class potential. Toronto’s history can still be seen all around though. 

“200 years ago you would be standing in the water… Now you’re almost there!”

This is what the underpass pillars say as you walk south on Rees Street under the Gardiner Expressway. It is a well-known that Toronto has a number of streets that are not on the water that still indicate you’re standing right next to the water! Lakeshore Boulevard. Harbour Street. Esplanade. Front Street.

The names are there because the waterfront used to be there, too. The water kept moving southward as it was filled in from soil deposited here from the growth of Toronto’s building booms in the 1800’s and 1900’s.

Images: The southward expansion of the Toronto shoreline as Toronto grows and builds up its industrial waterfront in the 1800’s and 1900’s. From Waterfront ReConnect vision by Ken Greenberg and PUBLIC WORK.

The Rees underpass improvement pilot is part of the ‘Waterfront ReConnect’ vision of Ken Greenberg and PUBLIC WORK developed for the Waterfront BIA in 2019. This program was an extension of a key goal for the neighbourhood, to better connect the City with its waterfront as people now had to go under the more industrial Gardiner Expressway. In the longer term, we’ll hope to see The Bentway’s goals of friendlier, accessible and lively underpass improvements along the entire Gardiner corridor, including at all our north-south connection points.

For more history of the evolving Toronto waterfront, we recommend visiting histories of Harbourfront Centre, PortsToronto, Waterfront Toronto and its Port Lands page.

A business improvement area (BIA) is formed when a group of businesses get together and build support to start it – a new City agency that is funded directly by the businesses in the area and managed by a board of business members and property owners in the area. A steering committee was formed in 2004 including some business representatives that are still actively involved today. The steering committee found strong support from businesses, especially those involved in seasonal tourism industries building up along the water.



The Queens Quay Harbourfront BIA was founded in January 2005. Their goal was to get more involved with planning as the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto was forming plans to grow the waterfront, and also to build up programming and activation of the waterfront to compliment and expand around the Harbourfront Centre’s programs. 


In 2009, the Waterfront BIA went through a major re-branding McLaren McCann, a firm then located along the waterfront and a member business. Our most recent rebrand in 2021, was also delivered with a firm located on the waterfront – Influencers PR, including founders and graduates of the HxOUSE creative incubator. 


The Waterfront BIA became known quickly as an organization looking to activate the waterfront as a destination more and more. Over time, the BIA has supported outdoor and indoor art galleries, markets and festivals in parks, as well as public art.

During heavy construction in the 2010’s, the BIA started a Singing Ambassador program to greet and entertain visitors while also giving directions and promoting businesses. 


The BIA and its member businesses were also instrumental in starting Water’s Edge Festivals and Events, the organizer of the Redpath Waterfront Festival over the last 10 years. This event, usually around Canada Day long weekend, is well-known for bringing Tall Ships like the Blue Nose II to Toronto every few years, and also a very large Rubber Duck.


VIDEO: Celebrating a Decade on Toronto’s Waterfront (Waterfront Festival)

The BIA looks to work closely with a number of excellent waterfront event and activation programmers, including Harbourfront Centre, Waterfront Toronto, the City of Toronto’s Special Events team, The Bentway, Ireland Park Foundation and hopefully more in the future.


For more on past and present events and activations of the Waterfront BIA:  Signature Events

If you want to hear a few good stories, ask Queens Quay businesses that were here in the mid 2010’s about the two pictures below…

Images from Urban Toronto and drum118:  Construction along Queens Quay, mid-2010’s.

The business community was heavily impacted and disrupted by construction in the 2010’s, but they also understand that improvement takes time and effort. The result of all the construction was a wonderfully revitalized multi-transit mode super corridor along Queens Quay West. Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto’s work created new, beautiful spaces over the last decades including HTO Park and Sugar Beach, and additional public space to walk and visit events at Harbourfront Centre.


And the good news is that construction isn’t even close to being done. Queens Quay East Revitalization and the implementation of an LRT that connects eastward into the Port Lands is still to come. Love Park, a heart-shaped pond designed by Claude Cormier begins construction in 2021 at the site of the former York Street off-ramp. The Waterfront BIA is proud to be adding elements including animal sculptures and moveable furniture that will eventually be in the park daily to create a more intimate and enjoyable experience.


At the end of construction, you do get a party…

The ‘Party on the Promenade’ in 2015 celebrating the re-opening of a revitalized Queen Street West. In red with the colourful hats, the Waterfront BIA’s Singing Ambassadors.

York Street, looking east

Where to find more images of the Toronto waterfront’s past?
All credit is due to the City of Toronto photography archives, and also the Sidewalk Labs #OldTO mapping of photos along Queens Quay. We also recommend following PortsToronto on social media as they do a great job telling the story of the waterfront, too

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