On Friday, in a scrum following another community clean-up photo op, the mayor confirmed that the city was looking at pulling out of Waterfront Toronto. “I have a problem with the money we’re spending and the results we’re getting from them,” he said.
Here’s the short version of what I believe is going on with this story: there is an attempt to ignite a debate about the speed and relative quality of Waterfront Toronto projects. The hope is that this debate will inspire a populist desire for reform which will, in turn, lead to an opportunity to sell off city-owned assets and use the proceeds to balance the city’s operating budget.
How else to explain the all-out assault we’ve seen toward Waterfront Toronto this week from the mayor, his brother, and their assorted hangers-on? Why did Denzil Minnan-Wong take to his Twitter account (seen above) to publicly bash communications staff at Waterfront Toronto for having the gall to defend their work?
The narrative we’re starting to see here is actually very similar to the one that marked the TCHC story: demonize an agency as wasteful, whip up populist support for reform — without actually conducting an investigation or working through the necessary processes — and, finally, enact policy that makes it easier to sell-off or privatize things.
The difference, of course, is that the TCHC narrative began with an actual scandal.
Doug Ford’s conversation with the Globe & Mail’s Marcus Gee about his “vision” for the waterfront is worth reading, as it’s completely off-the-wall ridiculous:
Doug Ford has a vision: a football stadium on the waterfront. He says the NFL stadium might be built on the site of the abandoned Hearn generating plant in the underdeveloped Portlands.
The stadium would be the anchor for a massive redevelopment of the Portlands that would “turn this dump site into a wow factor.” It would include dramatically designed residential buildings and high-end retailers such as Macy’s department store. A monorail elevated transit system would link it to downtown.
He also proposes a giant Ferris wheel. Because how better to define our city on the world stage than to steal that thing that London has?
Any discussion of the relative quality or progress of Waterfront Toronto’s projects only serves to distract from the real intent. If the Fords wanted to put their own stamp on the future of these projects, they would have at least attempted to meet with Waterfront Toronto. To talk about their issues with timeline and scope. Instead, Rob Ford has missed every meeting the agency has held.
Worse, the conversations we’ve had this week have spooked the private sector developers who are involved.
The big not-so-secret about development in areas currently controlled by Waterfront Toronto is that these are former industrial sites, in many cases built on landfill. The soil is contaminated. Flooding is hugely problematic. Engineering and construction work are challenging in the best of cases.
Without public sector involvement and support, the private sector is not going to build the kinds of things we’d like to see in these areas.
Anyone who looks at the history of these sites knows as much. In the 1980s, the provincial government had a plan to take the land they owned in the West Don Lands — a very similar area to the Port Lands — and build an affordable housing neighbourhood modelled after the successful one in the St. Lawrence area. They called it Ataratiri, because vowels are great. The money required to clean up the area never materialized. The Bob Rae government put the land up for sale to the private sector. (For about 30 million — a far cry from the hundreds of millions we’ve heard the private sector would pay.) No buyers materialized; no one wanted to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the land and making it developable.
In 1997, the Mike Harris government got desperate and did find a buyer. Without any consultation, negotiations began to sell the land to a developer who would use it for a horse racing track. Only after a wave of opposition was this sale halted.
This is the kind of thing the private sector is willing to do if we sell this land on the open market: build cheap, achievable projects that can turn a quick profit. We can help them do that, or we can continue on the sensible track we’re on, which is already beginning to pay dividends. Using public investment to make these lands more appropriate for neighbourhood development and working with the private sector to design and build world-class projects will see a return on investment that could define this city for decades to come.
The alternative, I suppose, is to go with the private sector and bet it all on the horses.
You can read this 2006 story from The Bulletin for a decent summation of the history of the West Don Lands and the provincial government’s attempt to sell the land to the private sector. Resident Cynthia Wilkey was one of the leaders in opposing the development, and it was her message to the Corktown Residents Google Group that partly inspired me to research and write this story.