Victory on the waterfront (for now)

The Toronto Star’s David Rider:

Mayor Rob Ford and his councillor brother Doug have abandoned their dream of seizing the Port Lands from Waterfront Toronto and replacing neighbourhood-based development with glitzy attractions.

Faced with public uproar and a revolt among council allies, the Ford administration was forced to reach across political divisions and has reached what one councillor calls “a consensus, not a compromise,” for council to vote on as early as Wednesday.

via Toronto News: Ford gives up goal of seizing Port Lands –

Rider goes on to describe the consensus outcome — someone has been very clear that this is not to be described as a compromise — as “a stunning defeat for the Fords.”

And it is. Despite the sure-to-be-a-good-time displays of bravado we’ll see from the mayor and his brother over the next few days, there’s no way to conclude this as a victory for the Ford brothers. This battle was never about a monorail or a ferris wheel or a competing vision for Toronto’s waterfront: it was about wrenching control of land away from an established agency — Waterfront Toronto — in order to ensure all development revenues would go directly to the city. Under the current scenario, Waterfront Toronto will retain virtually all those revenues and use them to fund further development.

This crazy gambit in the Port Lands didn’t emerge because Rob Ford rolled over one day and decided to make city building a priority. It was a calculated move designed to play a significant part in fixing the city’s long-term budget problems.

Hell, the budget chief even admitted as much in an earlier story by Rider:

Councillor Mike Del Grande, the city’s budget chief, noted Tuesday that, under the current arrangement, the proceeds of land sales go to Waterfront Toronto.

If the city gets out of the Waterfront Toronto agreement, every dollar from sales of the city’s 263 hectares in the Port Lands would go straight into the city’s coffers.

via Waterfront Toronto ‘keen to collaborate’ on Port Lands | Toronto Star.

As the consensus decision coming to council tomorrow apparently leaves Waterfront Toronto in place as the lead agency responsible for Lower Don Lands & Port Lands, the city isn’t going to be able to look to the water’s edge to solve their apocalyptic budget crisis. The Fords lost the only part of this battle they probably ever cared about: they’re not going to be able to use our waterfront as an ATM.

What next?

I think it’s safe speculation to say that selling the Port Lands was probably one of a number of options bandied about in the mayor’s office as a strategy for improving the city’s fiscal outlook and potentially for allowing the reduction or elimination of the Land Transfer Tax prior to 2014. Ford seems very serious about honouring that campaign promise, despite the logistical challenges associated with its removal.

With the Port Lands now firmly in the hands of Waterfront Toronto — for now, anyway — Ford will have to turn his attention to other assets. This is where things like a potential sale of Toronto Hydro — Rocco Rossi’s big budget fix-all — could work their way back into the discussion. More ominously, this is also where we could see a fight for the future of Toronto’s streetcar system.

A half-hearted defence of all this

Over at the Globe, Marcus Gee, doing that contrarian columnist thing, tries to spin a tale that tells this saga as a good thing for this city. “We may thank [the Fords] some day,” he writes, because they’ve “shook us out of our complacency about progress on the city’s most valuable asset”, which is, of course, our undeveloped waterfront lands.

And, yeah, I guess the groundswell of support for Toronto’s waterfront and the current planning process has been a good thing. It’s raised awareness. It’s engaged people. But if the Fords really gave a crap about developing the waterfront, they would have expressed their vision and desire in a way that wasn’t so much a transparent attempt to cash-in on valuable property. Portraying the Fords as well-meaning types who just wanted to build a great Toronto waterfront is, I think, a charitable take.

If the mayor really wanted to create a legacy on the waterfront, he could have engaged himself in the process of working with Waterfront Toronto. He could have attended board meetings instead of skipping them. He could have discussed a vision for these lands in his campaign, instead of telling the crowd at a waterfront debate last year that he didn’t feel the city could afford to develop its waterfront right now. If you want to contribute to building a great waterfront, surely leveraging a bureaucratic turf war between two agencies and getting your brother to play the huckster for ferris wheels and monorails is not a good or sensible way to do it.

The power of council

If nothing else, I think this is worth stating clearly. Let’s look at this saga in three parts: 1) the mayor tried to do something; 2) the people of Toronto rose up and expressed outrage; 3) councillors effectively blocked the mayor by opposing him.

This is a beautiful example of how city council can work — and should work — to protect our interests. Let’s hope it continues.

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