The Fords have a terrible, no-good, very bad plan for Toronto’s Port Lands

From a 2006 report by Waterfront Toronto, a look at the site plan for the Port Lands. The renaturalized Don River, flowing through the neighbourhood, is the defining feature.

After months of posturing and bleating about slow development timelines and the superiority of the fabled private sector, the mayor’s office has finally made a move on waterfront development with an item on next week’s Executive Committee agenda that would see the City re-establish control over the Port Lands project. All of this is seemingly being driven by Councillor Doug Ford, whose ward in the northern part of Etobicoke decidedly does not contain anything resembling a waterfront. He’s also not — seriously — the Mayor of Toronto. That’s another guy.

Doug has been rambling on about the huge potential for development in the Port Lands and the need to kickstart things. He’s promising a monorail that zig-zags across the city with little regard for the actual physical location of attractions it would connect to. Also, we’d get the world’s biggest ferris wheel, which would need to be over 541 feet high to beat the current ferris wheel champ in Singapore. And if novelty trains and gargantuan amusement park rides aren’t enough to get you excited, how about this: a mega-mall! The pitch includes a bunch of heretofore America-only chains, like Macy’s & Bloomingdales. We can only pray for a Jamba Juice.

And guess how much it’s going to cost us, the taxpayers? Zero dollars! The private sector is going to pay for everything, Doug Ford says. And it’s not like the Fords have given us any reason to doubt their claims that the private sector will gladly fund insanely expensive and risky infrastructure projects.

It’s hard to find words to describe this move that aren’t epithets like “short-sighted” or “foolish” or “monstrously stupid.” But I’ll do my best.

Why do the Fords care about the Waterfront?

Others have done a great job this week tearing down the specifics — such as they are — of the Ford plan, but I keep coming back to the question of motive. Why does this Rob Ford-led administration have such an immediate interest in spurring waterfront development? During his campaign, he had very few thoughts on Toronto’s waterfront, except to say that we couldn’t afford development right now.

But less than a year into his term of office, we’re hearing all about the need to cast off the established planning done by Waterfront Toronto and immediately drive development forward. Given that the political messaging we’re being fed going into the budget process has been all about cutting the “nice-to-haves” and focusing on core services, it’s bizarre that a revitalization project would be deemed a priority by anyone associated with the Fords.

So why this? Why now?

The answer goes back to the budget process itself. It’s money. Quick money. Easy money. Doug Ford is Vice Chair of Build Toronto, a Miller legacy project that has been successful in managing the sale of Toronto’s real estate assets. Last month, the agency’s CEO told the Toronto Star that the Fords had asked him to expand his mandate and look more aggressively at selling city property.

The Port Lands, in terms of location and potential, are enormously valuable. The sale of some or all of these lands won’t do much to contribute to the end of the City’s structural budget problems, but they will contribute one-time revenues that can plug giant holes in operating budgets and facilitate things like property tax freezes.

What does the Ford plan really look like?

Let’s start with the obvious: if the Port Lands were such an amazing opportunity for the private sector, they would have already developed the area. It’s not like the opportunities haven’t been there. Instead, what we have — aside from the very nice Cherry Beach and the Martin Goodman trail — is a T&T Grocery Store with a massive parking lot, a couple of restaurants, a driving range and go-kart track, and Toronto’s only drive-in movie theatre.

This is the kind of thing the private sector is interested in. Quick, low-risk business opportunities that don’t require much design, engineering or construction. They’re not looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars rehabbing polluted soil or diverting a river, nor do they see much point in paying for water mains or traffic signalling or — as we’ve learned — public transit. And we can’t really hold this attitude against them, because it’s not really their role to pay for these things. That’s what government is for.

Remember that when the Province attempted to do a similar deal with the West Don Lands neighbourhood a decade ago — divesting themselves of the responsibility to rehab the area and make it suitable for development — the only private sector partner they could find was a company that wanted to build a venue for horse racing.

To imagine Doug Ford’s revisioned Port Lands, start by taking the status quo and expanding it. The City isn’t contributing any funding, apparently, so expect no changes to the street grid or to infrastructure: no realigned Cherry Street, no major new bike paths, no streetcar that connects both to Union Station and to King Street East. Nobody’s talked about a plan for the dump site on Commissioners Street, so let’s assume it stays there, giving the area a nice musky scent. Most notably, expect no changes to the path of the Don River, eliminating what was to be the crown jewel in Waterfront Toronto’s plan.

Instead, add a few more seasonal and amusement-oriented businesses. Some middling restaurants and tourist-focused shops. A ferris wheel is actually achievable, though maybe not desirable unless you’re some kind of enthusiast for slow-moving rides or ignorant of the other major attraction in the city that lets you go up high. The wow-factor,  I guess, would be some kind of Smart Centre-type commercial development, anchored by a couple of box store retail tenants. And since underground parking is mostly a logistical impossibility and most developers would see a parking garage as an unnecessary expense given the space available — not to mention the lack of public transit to their doors — we’d probably see surface parking. And lots of it.

Sure, we might get reassurances that the Fords will play tough with developers to ensure they build projects that better fit our collective vision — whatever that is — but those calming words will ultimately prove toothless when developers own the land and start appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board to build whatever they find to be most cost effective.

Port Lands: What We’d Lose

Opponents of the Fords can wax on about the particulars of Waterfront Toronto’s current plan: how it creates public greenspaces and provides opportunity for affordable housing. And, yes, we’d lose all that if the political winds blow that way, but the real, bottom-line impact we’d face harkens back to the reason the Fords have embarked on this quest in the first place. It’s money. A lot of money.

Because despite all his bluster and enthusiasm, what Doug Ford has proposed will ultimately bring in far less tax revenue and development charges than what we’d get with the Waterfront Toronto plan. A dense, populated, mixed-use neighbourhood is incredibly valuable, certainly more so than the collection of commercial novelty businesses and mall retail we’re looking at as an alternative.

Doug Ford speaks as if he has a grand vision, but what this proposal really amounts to is selling control of one of Toronto’s most potentially valuable real estate assets to fund a few years of budgetary tricks and to hold the line on property taxes. It’s a bad trade, a bad deal, and an immeasurable loss for Toronto’s future.

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