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Toronto's city builders: President and CEO of Waterfront Toronto William Fleissig takes a long view

President and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, William Fleissig

In this special series of interviews, YongeStreet sits down for a chat to get to know some of the most prominent city builders whose work, vision and passion for the city help shape Toronto’s present and future.

As a new President and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, William Fleissig is watching over the future of the waterfront. And he likes what he sees.
From his office, a generous light-filled corner space, William Fleissig commands an enviable view over Lake Ontario, the islands and the towers of the ever-expanding residential and business district south of Union Station. Fittingly, because as the new President and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, this is his domain.

From this space, he will be leading Toronto’s waterfront revitalization plan, an ambitious transformation that will, by the time it is complete, see the creation of 40,000 residential units, one million square metres of employment space and 300 hectares of parks and public spaces, not counting the redevelopment of the Unilever factory site at the foot of the Don Valley.

Waterfront Toronto has already spearheaded and co-ordinated a remarkable roster of projects, like the redeveloped Quays Quay, unveiled last summer; the unfolding of the Water’s Edge Promenade with its quirky WaveDecks; the creation of brand-new parks (Underpass Park, HTO Park, Sugar Beach and the sensational Corktown Common), and the birth of an entirely new residential and business district at the foot of the Don—to name only part of the list.

“The progress that’s been made by my predecessors and government partners is extraordinary, truly transformative, setting a standard of excellence,” Fleissig says.

On a recent visit to the West Donlands to play ball with his children, he was impressed to see the new residential neighbourhood springing up. “You can see it emerging; it’s all exciting and thoughtful and well-conceived. I look at what’s been done and feel that the bar’s been set extremely high,” he says. “It’s a legacy, multigenerational project; it’s what we’re doing in 20 years, 30 years; it’s not just what we’re doing tomorrow.”

Although he hadn’t spent much time in Toronto before he was asked to consider moving here, Fleissig already sounds like someone who has fallen in love with the city. “My family had this magical 24 hours here in June; my daughter absolutely connected,” he says.

“Cities have these arcs of where they are in their evolution, and when things really start to move forward and accelerate, there’s a sense of purpose. I felt that from the get-go. What you don’t get when you read the documents is that sense of shared possibility in Toronto; it feels different from any city I’ve been in.”

This assertion puts Toronto in a very special category indeed, since Fleissig has worked with some of the most-praised and forward-looking cities on the continent, like Boulder, Colorado, where he served as Director of Planning and Development; Denver, where he held a similar position; Boston, where he directed a major transit development plan, and, most recently, San Francisco, where he headed a notable real estate development and advisory company called Communitas Development.

“San Francisco is a great city, but its feels like ‘us and them’ and ‘winners and losers’,” Fleissig says. “It’s like there was this tear that was happening, a deep tear about the way people felt about their futures. When I come here, I feel something different.”

He illustrates his point with a story about a conversation with a local cab driver. “He came here from Ethiopia with nothing; now his daughter is getting her degree in neurology,” he says. “This is what we’re supposed to be doing on the planet: to allow people to improve their lives and help others. For me to be in this position here as the CEO for Waterfront Toronto, I’ve been tasked to improve this incredible resource for all of Toronto and all of Canada.”

He sees the scope of the project as far greater than simply bringing about improvements to one neighbourhood in a big city. It entails looking into the future of North American life. “How will people work in 30 years? How will we live? How will we seriously address the climate change issue? I believe the waterfront will become the transformational project for the whole country, demonstrating how we address climate change,” he says.

He points out that the changes being made on the site will allow Toronto to showcase Canadian technological innovation and ingenuity: “We can bring together all these great backgrounds and cultures to help frame what this next part of Toronto is going to be, and address the climate change issues, and do this in a relatively quick way.”

Fleissig foresees using the entrepreneurial expertise of innovation centres like the MaRS Discovery District to identify new green technology products that can be helped on their way to market by Waterfront Toronto projects. “It turns out that the lowest-emitting carbon lightbulb in the world is right here in Canada, but because we’re such a small market, it’s hard to get it out there,” he says.

“We are the market, though. Let’s use these new technologies; then they can test them and make them even better. We’ve had a number of meetings with folks from the Swedish and Dutch governments—people who are pretty advanced on these issues—to see how we can partner with them. [We might also] partner with some of the larger corporations and help these nascent tech companies to grow using the waterfront as a market.”

Looking ahead, clearly, Fleissig is enthusiastic about his view of the city. “I’m very pleased to live here with my family,” he says. “I feel welcomed. It’s just a great time to be in Toronto.”
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