Tony Coombes

TONY COOMBES, 1937-2013.

Tony Coombes dedicated his professional life to city building. His fascination with the big picture and forward-looking ideas placed him at the centre of some of the most exciting and ambitious urban district development projects around the world.

At the age of 31, Tony was appointed Chief Planner for the Central Area District of the City of Toronto. In the late 1960s and through 1970s, he championed the landmark Central Area Plan which promoted mixed-use development in a city core then dominated by office buildings and parking lots, work that helped protect many inner-city neighbourhoods under threat from high-rise redevelopment.

Later, as Senior Vice-President of Development at Olympia and York, Coombes journeyed to New York and London, England to coordinate the design and development of two globally renowned waterfront renewal projects, the World Financial Center and the massive transformation of the London Docklands initiated by Canary Wharf.

Nevertheless, it was Toronto, a city that he loved deeply, to which Tony always returned. His legacy includes a report that led to the establishment of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation.

Toronto was also where he played out his final role as the founding executive director of the Neptis Foundation, a charitable organization which conducts and publishes nonpartisan research on the past, present and future of urban regions.

Tony Coombes died, at the age of 75, on Monday, 10th June 2013 in Toronto after a brief illness.

Tony was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1937 to Ben and Enid Coombes. His father ran the Macquarie radio network. Tony attended St. Ignatius College and then went on to study architecture at Sydney University.

“We were,” he later said with typical delight in the unusual, “the last group of architectural students anywhere to study the Beaux Arts; maybe it was the only place the 19th century system of teaching architecture survived.”

From Australia, he went on to study urban design at Columbia University in New York City.

When Tony arrived in Toronto in 1968, the city was at the start of a broad rethink of what it aspired to be, and within a few years he found himself immersed in major planning battles of the day. It was the city the American writer Jane Jacobs had chosen to settle in.

Tony took particular pride in his role in protecting inner-city neighbourhoods, under threat from development interests, through a set of new bylaws, while office towers were scaled back and housing opportunities were directed to the central core. The Central Area Plan, of which he was chief author, set specific density and mixed-use requirements for the downtown core, as well as height restrictions. His planning philosophy valued a vital and vibrant 24-hour downtown, rather than the nine-to-five office district that developers of the day preferred to build.

After Tony left his job at the City Planning Department in 1976, he went on to found the urban design and architecture firm Coombes, Kirkland, Berridge whose work included the original development framework for the Toronto Harbourfront.

Tony caught the eye of the large development firm Olympia and York, owned by Paul and Albert Reichmann. Between 1981-1993, as a key member of the firm, he managed two large-scale redevelopment projects: the World Financial Center at Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, a formerly derelict 40-acre landfill site, and the $9.2-billion Canary Wharf project in London.

Both projects became leading global examples of how the public and private sectors can work together to create valuable, well-functioning urban land on waterfronts. He would often cite this partnership as the key to the successful redevelopment of large urban districts.

“Flogging land is not the way for a government to do it,” he told the Australian magazine The Bulletin. “It is easy to adopt the attitude, ‘Let the big boys do it for themselves,’ but I think that is wrong. The government needs to be well and truly involved and it is reasonable to expect it to make money from the process.”

At Canary Wharf, Tony’s attention to detail and his determination to build vibrant streetscapes was legendary. He banned the use of reflective glass and imported 500 thirty-year-old trees from Germany to give the site a well-established appearance. He also ensured that all the car parks were located underground, even though each space cost five times as much as it would have in above-ground parking.

When Tony returned to Toronto in 1993, he founded another firm, City Formation International, which carried out projects in Beirut, Lebanon, Tianjin, China and Saudi Arabia. But one of his passions remained the Toronto waterfront. In 2000, he was appointed executive director of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Task Force.

The task force prepared a comprehensive revitalization plan of Toronto’s waterfront and called for the demolishing of the Gardiner Expressway as a key recommendation.

But his faith in Toronto’s ability to comprehensively develop the waterfront was tested as the plan languished without being implemented.

Not long after the task force did its work, Tony discussed his experiences with the Globe and Mail, making it clear that if Toronto, Canada’s leading city, refused to be serious about improving its waterfront, the world would notice.

“Whether you like it or not, your most important city reflects your managerial, intellectual and artistic capacities all over the world,” he said. “There's nothing more prominent than that.”

“It can be done,” he added. “But not in the halfhearted, piecemeal way Toronto is currently going about the job.”

In 1999, Tony became the founding executive director of the Neptis Foundation, which publishes non-partisan research publications on the design of urban regions, focusing on the connection between transportation and land use.

The object of Neptis is to provide reliable information to decision-makers and the public on regional planning issues, and on the social, environmental and economic consequences of growth for the city-region of Toronto which adds about 125,000 new residents every year.

The Foundation, he said, played an important role in wide-ranging government policy decisions that led to the creation of regional plans such as the Greenbelt Plan, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and the Big Move.

“It’s hard to claim credit for all of that, but our research has definitely shaped the debate,” he said. “Government doesn’t always like what you produce because the research might not accord with political agendas, but the nonpartisan nature and quality of our research has given us credibility. It’s hard to argue with the facts.”

Tony Coombes, appreciated and cherished by his many friends and colleagues, is survived by his daughter Zoe Coombes (David Boira), grandson Pau, his sister Beverley Mansbridge (Ray) in Sydney, his partner Patricia Goodwin, and his friend and colleague Martha Shuttleworth.