There’s no swimming at Sugar Beach, but the crowds come anyway.
It’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or, as they say here in Toronto, a balmy 27 degrees. Stephanie McCarthy leans back in a white Adirondack chair and digs her feet into the sand. On Canada’s Sugar Beach she’s just a short walk from her downtown apartment, though as she sits in the shade of a pink umbrella, it seems a little unreal. “It feels like you’re somewhere tropical,” she says, “like a minivacation.”
There are plenty of signs that this is Canada. The CN Tower rises just behind us, and there’s a maple-leaf-shaped fountain full of kids. But if you get a good seat, and angle yourself just right, all you see is sand, water, and sky.
On Sunday afternoons in July, Sugar Beach attracts a big crowd. Two middle-aged suburbanites share a flask of liquor. An attractive young blonde from a nearby condo studies for her GMATs in a bikini. And a group of gay guys with magazine-cover abs lie on a blanket in the sun.
About half of the people here are wearing swimsuits, which surprises Suzanne Heide, who is here for the first time. “I didn’t expect to see so many,” she says. You see, at Sugar Beach, there is no swimming. Sugar Beach is not really a beach at all. It is a giant sandbox. A dock wall topped by a low rail separates the sand from the active shipping lane below.
Toronto opened its first “urban beach,” HtO Park, in 2007, and there were doubts that people would embrace a beach where you couldn’t swim. Some people worried the sand would attract feral cats, remembers James Roche. At the time, Roche was working as a landscape architect at Janet Rosenberg + Associates, which collaborated with Claude Cormier Architectes Paysagistes and Hariri Pontarini Architects on HtO’s design.
As it turned out, the people came and the cats didn’t. Still, as with most prototypes, HtO had a lot of details that would benefit from tweaking. Sugar Beach takes what worked at HtO and gives it an upgrade—you could say it is version 2.0. Just a mile west of HtO, Sugar Beach uses some of the same design language—it mixes sand, willows, umbrellas, and grass-covered mounds. But although the language may be the same, the accent is not.
Three veterans of HtO’s design played key roles at Sugar Beach, which won a 2012 ASLA Professional Award for General Design. Claude Cormier, ASLA, and Marc Hallé, both landscape architects with Claude Cormier + Associés in Montreal, oversaw design, detailing, and some construction administration. And Roche also returned, on the client side this time, as a manager for Waterfront Toronto, the public corporation that oversaw the work. The Planning Partnership, a local firm, served as the landscape architect of record.
As LAM has chronicled in the past, Waterfront Toronto is shepherding its waterfront’s rebirth on a scale unimaginable in most places (see “Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront,” LAM, December 2008). Over the past 10 years, the federal, provincial, and local governments have spent more than $1.1 billion on waterfront redevelopment, and more funds are promised in the coming years. Many of the landscapes created are quite novel—wave decks, a water treatment park, and, of course, two urban beaches.
An Urban Beach for Everyone
These urban beaches have a precedent in Europe. Many rich and middle-class Parisians escape town during the summer to spend time along the seashore, but not everybody can afford that luxury. So, in 2002, Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, established the first Paris Plage. The temporary park transformed a section of the expressway along the River Seine into a sandy area with umbrellas and palm trees. Since then, that “beach” has been re-created each summer.
Many Torontonians have a similar custom of spending weekends on a lake in cottage country, north of the city. Cormier imagines Toronto’s urban beaches as a summer escape for those who can’t afford a cottage or don’t have a car to get to one. They also help to relieve the strain on the city’s natural beaches, which lie on the outer edges of the harbor. Toronto is a beach city, Hallé reminds me.
Even over the phone, you can hear Cormier’s enthusiasm for his and Hallé’s work. Cormier grew up on a farm in rural Quebec, and he talks rapidly in a French accent. Hallé, one of two associates in the firm, speaks more slowly. When they talk about HtO and Sugar Beach, neither uses the first person singular; it’s always “we” did such and such.
Hallé asks me if I’ve seen the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which inspired HtO. “This painting represents the soul of our park,” Cormier says, “by having this notion of being in the city in the summertime all looking out toward the water, all together. [It’s] very democratic.” When they proposed the second beach, they were inspired by another Seurat painting, Bathers at Asnières, that shows people lounging along the Seine and smokestacks in the background.
Though Sugar Beach is designed as an urban escape, many of its biggest design moves—most of the things that create its unique character—pull from its context. The park sits on a two-acre site, a long rectangle with water on two sides. The longer of the two sides faces southwest onto the Jarvis Slip, a large boat slip off the Toronto Harbor, and the Redpath Sugar Refinery.
Industrial Without the Chic
Before it was redeveloped in 2010, Sugar Beach was a parking lot for Redpath. In recent years, the land around the refinery has begun to transform into condos, offices, and parks, but there are no plans to relocate this factory or its 250 jobs. In fact, Redpath has recently invested in new equipment.
The 53-year-old plant is not quite industrial chic. It doesn’t have the relief of a concrete grain elevator or the intriguing silhouette of the gantries you see in Queens, New York. Visitors have a common refrain: It would be nice if the factory looked better. Yet, in its own way, Redpath helps to enliven the space, and people seem to appreciate that. Visitors come to see the large boats that carry raw sugar from Brazil and other far-off places. “When they unload the sugar, there is a sweet smell in the whole district,” Cormier says.
The designers of Sugar Beach took inspiration from this scentscape. The beach has umbrellas the color of pink bubble gum and granite formations with candy-cane stripes. The huge rocks came in pieces from the Autumn Brown Quarry in Quebec. The stripes—made with the same thermal plastic paint sometimes used for crosswalks—hide the seams. Hallé says the formations also make reference to Toronto’s Village of Yorkville Park, a design by Ken Smith, FASLA, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, and David Meyer, ASLA, which also uses a large rock formation for seating and recently won ASLA’s Landmark Award.
A tree-lined promenade cuts across the site on a diagonal and divides the sandy beach along the water from the largest rock formation, a performance area, and some grass mounds. The diagonal geometry helps direct your view away from the factory and toward the harbor, to the south.
The idea for a strong diagonal on this site dates back to a plan for the East Bayfront neighborhood from 2005 by Koetter | Kim & Associates and Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. But that plan showed the site as a rather staid plaza. West 8 and DTAH’s 2006 plan for the Central Waterfront initially proposed a landmark building on the Jarvis Slip rather than a landmark space—something along the lines of the opera house in Sydney or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It was Cormier who first imagined combining a promenade with a beach.
The promenade blends into another walk, designed by West 8 and DTAH. It continues those designers’ pattern of granite pavers in a maple leaf mosaic; though, at Sugar Beach, the color scheme changes from reddish pink and charcoal to a more neutral palette of grays. Beneath the pavement, a grid of Silva Cells with a soil designed by James Urban, FASLA, provides a continuous rooting area for the Freeman maples (Acer × freemanii) that overhang the walk, which seem to be thriving.
The performance area opens the site’s eastern edge to the new headquarters of Corus Entertainment. One of Toronto’s most popular radio stations, 102.1 The Edge, broadcasts from here, and three garage-sized windows open up onto the plaza for concerts. Crowds sit on the giant rock and the grassy mounds to watch bands like Metric and Foo Fighters.
The area may be a little too intimate to host such popular bands. Photographs show crowds overflowing into the promenade and the beach area during concerts. But putting a radio station next to a park is a really strong idea. Frequent mentions on The Edge have helped to increase awareness of the park as far away as Buffalo, New York. When I told a nondesigner friend from Buffalo that I was writing about Sugar Beach, he said he’d been thinking about going there: “That’s where The Edge broadcasts from.”
Sugar Beach improves upon HtO’s design in a number of ways. When HtO was first constructed, it didn’t have any chairs on the sand. Some people will sit directly on the sand or bring towels, but a lot of people ended up bringing their own lawn chairs, Roche says. And when the parks department purchased some chairs for that site, the demand for those seats was strong.
At Sugar Beach, based on that experience, the landscape architects placed 150 recycled plastic Adirondack chairs in the sand. Each weighs about 55 pounds, so it’s not easy to walk away with a stack, yet it is possible to move them individually with some effort. Some chairs are tied to each other in pairs, some are tied to umbrellas, and some are loose. They are left out day and night—even in the wintertime.
Getting the Details Right
Another lesson the designers drew from HtO was to provide some water people could touch, even if they couldn’t have swimming. At HtO, kids were playing with the small fountain the designers provided people to wash sand off their feet, Roche says. For Sugar Beach, the designers decided to include a much larger fountain to widen its draw. Most often kids just run back and forth through the water, but the fountain could be used to supply water for sand castles.
The sand itself has a soft feeling underfoot and compacts well. Hallé says a lot of time was spent testing it. The landscape architects went with a light beige golf course sand called Tour Grade Signature, brought by barge from Chardon, Ohio. They had looked at some sand from a local source, but they disliked the color. “When it rained, it became almost gray,” Hallé says. “This sand, even when it is rainy or cloudy, it’s still luminescent. It sort of glows.”
The sand is 40 centimeters (16 inches) deep in most places over a 50-centimeter (20-inch) granular base. The exception is under the weeping willow trees along the back edge, where its depth is only 5 centimeters (2 inches). At HtO, the sand will occasionally migrate outside its designated area, but this has not been a major problem at Sugar Beach because it is separated from the promenade by a single step.
The umbrellas at Sugar Beach are also different from the ones at HtO. The umbrellas at HtO look like most umbrellas, with metal ribs visible beneath the canopies. Their frames are mechanically fastened at many points. “With all those connections you get more of a rattle,” says Roche. “Things can come apart.” So, the landscape architects brought in an industrial designer, Andrew Jones, to come up with a sleeker and sturdier design for Sugar Beach. Jones hid the structural supports for the umbrella between two fiberglass shells, so when you are sitting under it, all you see is the bottom shell. To provide more targeted shade, the umbrellas are lower than at HtO—their fringe is only 2.4 meters (just over nine feet) off the ground.
The umbrellas are a different color too: pink instead of yellow. The designers like the way pink animates the space year-round and in all sorts of weather. “Seeing it in action against the pure blue sky, it works perfectly,” Hallé says. “When the sky is gray, it works perfectly. And when the sugar factory is in shadow and the umbrellas in sunlight, you have these hot pink disks against a dark background.” It also pops against the white snow in winter.
The use of pink was a bit controversial at first, according to Cormier. Some questioned whether it was an appropriate color for a public space—too feminine, perhaps. But Cormier and Hallé were energized by this controversy and got everybody else on board. They even wore pink hard hats to the construction site.
A Rail Barrier That Had to Be Perfect
Part of why Sugar Beach is so successful, from a visual standpoint, is the low height of the barrier along the edge of the pier. It rises just 61 centimeters (about two feet) above the sand, so when you are reclining in the Adirondack chairs, your view of the water is not obscured. You get the same sort of view of the horizon you have at a natural beach.
Cormier says the designers spent nearly a year debating the height of that rail barrier, which consists of a coping topped by a 45.5-centimeter (18-inch) toe rail. “At first, we liked the idea of no toe rail,” he says. But some were concerned that would not be safe, that babies could crawl off the edge. “The city was saying you have to have three-foot-high handrails,” he says, “but we were able to demonstrate that would have a huge negative experience on the park.”
They used various precedents to argue that the park could be operated safely without a fence or with at least a lower one. “In Quebec City, along the working port, there are no handrails,” Cormier says. There are similarly no rails along some canals in Ottawa that are publicly accessible, he says, and many of the waterfront parks built in Toronto in recent years have just an eight-inch toe rail.
Of course, if this was a real beach, no one would think twice about fencing off the water—even if it did present a danger to young children who were unsupervised. This idea came to me while I was speaking with Carlos Cortes, a young father visiting Sugar Beach with his toddlers. He said Sugar Beach was safer than a real beach.
Fences are not the only way to ensure safety. “We took precautions,” Roche says. “There are life rings and ladders along the dock wall.” He says since the park opened, there has been no issue.
A Beach in All Seasons
The space has generally been well received. “It’s one of the more iconic and creative open spaces we have in Toronto,” says a guy I met, Aaron GlynWilliams, who visits regularly. But even the beach’s biggest fans say it would be better if you could swim. Though Cormier designed the fountain for all ages, it’s mainly taken over by young kids and their parents. Yet, the absence of swimming seems not to be a deal breaker. Being at the beach is about much more than cooling off. It’s about digging in the sand. It’s about kicking back and people watching and staring off into the horizon.
Some people actually like Sugar Beach better than the natural beaches nearby, because the trip is so much more convenient. You don’t have to plan ahead of time. You don’t need your own umbrella or chair. “Just bring a book and something to eat and you can stay most of the day,” says Elizabeth Nichols, who was doing just that.
Among the people I talked to, the most common concern is the lack of a public restroom. The nearest restroom is in the Against the Grain Urban Tavern, about a block away, which is inconvenient—especially for people with kids. Another common suggestion is installing a tiki bar or a place to get frozen margaritas.
Sugar Beach attracts people in the summer, but also in the winter: “I’ve seen people down here in January, February sitting on the chairs on a sunny afternoon,” Roche says. There have been a few problems with people throwing chairs. Sugar Beach is located near some nightclubs, and a number of chairs were damaged early on, presumably by drunken vandals, though that has been less of a problem this year, Roche says. Also, not everyone is courteous about smoking. When the snow melts in the spring, the sand is loaded with cigarette butts, according to Cortes. During the summer, the parks department has to rake the sand regularly to keep it clean.
Considering the crowds, though, the department does a pretty good job. It’s no worse than a well-visited natural beach. Jim Simone likes to come to Sugar Beach with his girlfriend whenever they are downtown. He commended the beach’s cleanliness. “I think Toronto should have more of these man-made beaches,” he says.
Eventually, it will. “We’re going to have a series of beaches, all connected by pathways,” Roche tells me the following day. “We have another beach proposed just east of this precinct.” Cormier + Associés is on that team as well.
Lead Landscape Architects Claude Cormier + Associés, Montreal (Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal and lead designer; Marc Hallé, project manager). Client Waterfront Toronto, Toronto. Landscape Architect of Record The Planning Partnership, Toronto. Demolition/Rough Grading Greenspoon Specialty Construction, Brampton, Ontario. Electrical (installation of all electrical work) Net Electric, Richmond Hill, Ontario. Electrical Engineering Dillon Consulting Limited, Toronto and London, Ontario. General Contractor Aldershot Landscape Contractors Limited, Burlington, Ontario. Industrial Design Andrew Jones Design, Toronto. Irrigation Design Creative Irrigation Solutions, London, Ontario. Lighting Design Éclairage Public, Montreal. Project Manager Eastern Construction Company Limited, Toronto. Site Civil Engineering The Municipal Infrastructure Group, Vaughan, Ontario. Structural Engineer Halsall Associates Limited, Toronto. Water feature Soucy Aquatik, Quebec City. Large Rock Outcrops Granicor, Saint-Augustin, Quebec. Umbrella fabrication Soheil Mosun Limited, Toronto. Beach Chairs Loll Designs, Duluth, Minnesota.