Sep 11

Six Years of Budget Balancing Strategies: Rob Ford’s 2012 approach presents false choice

For the last six years, City Council has dealt with each budget shortfall with a mixture of surplus funds, new revenue projections, property tax increases, investment income and spending cuts/efficiencies. The 2012 approach under Mayor Rob Ford has been different.

Update: I’ve made a minor edit to the chart above to clarify how the implementation of the Land Transfer Tax & Vehicle Registration Tax changed the city’s financial situation. Quick summary: in 2008, both new taxes combined to take about $175 million in budget pressure off the city’s books. That new money was folded into expected revenues for future years, but LTT revenues tend to surpass staff estimates, resulting in extra cash in 2009, 2010 and especially 2011.

Through this Core Service Review process, the (growing) group of councillors opposed to Mayor Rob Ford’s fiscal strategy has continuously complained about a lack of information. While Budget Chief Mike Del Grande and assorted hangers-on have been quick to cite a figure of $774 million as the opening “pressure” for 2012, they’ve been less forthcoming with revenue figures that will significantly reduce that pressure.

Increased revenues from the Land Transfer Tax in 2011 alone look to total almost $80 million. And remaining surplus dollars from the 2010 and 2011 budget years could total another $100 million or more. Add in potential investment revenues, dividends from Toronto Hydro, assessment growth and other miscellaneous revenue lines and that big scary $774 million figure looks to drop down to something a lot more manageable.

The chart above reveals why this revenue information is so critical: each year, that opening pressure figure — which, it should be noted, was bigger in 2010 than it is this year — is brought down through a variety of strategies. Yes, there are spending cuts and efficiencies — Rob Ford’s favourite things — but also other revenues. Each year — until this one — the budget has been balanced without apocalyptic talk of slashing childcare, closing libraries and decimating public services or else raising property taxes by 35%.

That’s a false choice. It’s one that ignores the balancing strategies used over the past five years that have kept the city moving forward.

A note on sustainability

Critics would point to the chart above and say that the budget balancing strategies employed by Mayor David Miller, Budget Chief Shelley Carroll and the rest of the the left on council were largely unsustainable, short-term fixes, relying too heavily on reserves and other one-time funding sources.

And, for the most part, that’s true.

That said, if you believe — as even right-leaning councillors like Giorgio Mammoliti and Doug Ford seem to these days — that the city’s structural deficit is due in part to the province, who reneged on its responsibilities for supporting things like transit, child care and welfare, then one-time strategies tend to be the best Toronto can hope for these days. Unless the province comes to the table and commits to uploading more transit costs, a truly sustainable 2012 budget — one that doesn’t completely destroy the kind of public services that contribute to the economic viability of our city — is nearly impossible to achieve.

An Alternate Path

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t paths Toronto can take toward fiscal independence.

  • A service review process and efficiency study — like the one we’ve just been through — was a good idea, but the timeline needed to be longer. Set annual goals to increase across-the-board efficiency and work with management to achieve them. You’ll save more money this way than you will with layoffs.
  • Set a long-term path forward for residential and commercial property tax rates. A multi-year strategy to put the average residential tax levy on par with, say, Markham would bring in vastly more revenue. Commercial rates should continue to decrease relative to residential. Review tax increase deferral and cancellation policies for seniors and disabled residents to ensure we’re not kicking anyone out on the street.
  • Consult with Metrolinx on their upcoming revenue strategy to ensure that a fair percentage of revenue from road tolls — an inevitability in this province — go toward transit operating costs, in addition to capital.
  • Review parking rates and increase them in downtown, high demand areas. Think like the private sector.
  • Look at new revenue sources, including a City of Toronto sales tax. Big cities across the world have one, and they’re not dying because of it. We keep hearing about the necessity of hard choices: here’s one.

The key is to think long-term and not to rush toward slash-and-burn fixes. More than any other level of government, municipal public services are directly tied to economic success. We can’t afford to risk that.

Sep 11

Ford cuts his own staff, then suffers the consequences

The Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle:

By his own frugal doing, Ford’s office is short-staffed. Since his victory last October, they’ve struggled to establish an overarching communications strategy and a post-campaign narrative. The Ford brand is murky at the exact moment it’s needed most: selling unpopular cuts to a public that doesn’t want to take its medicine.

The mayor’s spokesperson, Adrienne Batra, spends most of her time managing the brother’s screw-ups.

via Toronto News: Has Rob Ford lost his grip? – thestar.com.

John Lorinc got people talking on Friday with a story on a potential rift between the mayor and his brother Doug , stemming from discontent over the way this administration lost control of the waterfront story. The Star’s David Rider, in a blog post, went so far as to report a rumour that the elder Ford ditched His Worship after a Lingerie Football game, forcing the mayor to take the subway home. (Yeah, that’s a sentence you just read on a political blog.)

But I don’t think a Doug/Rob split is the real story. I’m not even sure such a rift is conceivable. Instead, I think Doolittle nails the underlying issue facing the Ford administration with her quote above: this mayor simply does not have the staff complement in his office to implement the kind of communication and political strategies necessary to effectively navigate the storms he’s been facing.

And the storms are only going to get worse over the next few months.

If you listen to Ford’s (rare) public speeches, they’ve been relentlessly repetitive for months now. He essentially just lists a bunch of mostly-token accomplishments, nearly all of which were achieved in his first couple of months in office (eliminating the vehicle registration tax, cutting council expense budgets) or, in actuality, have not yet been achieved at all (privatizing garbage collection west of Yonge Street; building more subways). He’s a mayor in desperate need of a new message: one that resonates in the current political climate. One that doesn’t seem so stale.

But the people he needs to craft that message appear not to have the capacity to do so. And that capacity isn’t there because the mayor chose to cut it, taking $700,000 out of the mayoral office budget this year.

In other words: the mayor cut a government program — his own office budget — and there were immediate, far-reaching consequences that impacted said government’s ability to effectively do its job. If the mayor needs an example of why cutting staff or resources from a department might be a bad thing, he’s got one viewable from his own desk.

It’s almost poetic.

Sep 11

A lack of leadership, coherence and action in aftermath of Marathon Meeting sequel

Marathon Meeting 2: Electric Boogaloo is the obvious joke, or maybe Marathon Meeting 2: Judgment Day, but I kind of like Marathon Meeting 2: The Legend of Rob Ford’s Gold.

But let’s move on.

On Monday, the mayor’s executive committee held yet another marathon meeting. This one was a bit shorter, wrapping up around 5:30 a.m on Tuesday morning. And, despite continuing to build the good will I have toward the people who live in this city and the lengths they’ll go to defend the things they value, the meeting ultimately suffered from the same drawbacks that most sequels to blockbuster movies do: it felt a bit repetitive and maybe a little unnecessary.

This isn’t a knock on the hundreds of citizens who — once again — took time off work to show up and make their case for cuts. They spoke and, for the most part, effectively delivered the message that Toronto never voted for cuts to service. But, as the hours and deputations piled up, there was the sense that this setting — the executive committee – was no longer an important battleground. That, given the mayor’s maybe-declining popularity and the increased willingness of councillors to move against Ford’s once-iron grip on council, the message voiced again and again by deputants in Committee Room 1 at City Hall is already being heard.

That’s not to say that Ford is defeated or being made irrelevant. Far from it. But any fear that the Rob Ford-led administration would simply be able to steamroll through their agenda over the next three years has been effectively erased. The anger is getting to people: popularity is waning, slogans long forgotten. Political alliances are splintering — even, I’d speculate, within the executive committee itself — and tempers are flaring like never before.

The mayor relented this week. Both on the waterfront and on service cuts. That’s big.

What the executive committee approved

For the most part, the executive committee on Monday continued their pattern of being a lame duck group that continues to pass the buck and dither. There seems to be a concerted effort to drag things out in such a way that staff and consultants can shoulder the blame for any service cuts. For a mayor who ran on his purported ability to effectively and easily manage the city’s budget — buoyed by his experience watching a decade’s worth of similar budgets — the mayor has been mostly absent through this process, waiting for others to toss out ideas.

In Rob Ford’s fiscal plan documents, revealed late in last year’s campaign, he promised to save $695 million in the 2012 budget year. He said he could find $409 million in efficiencies — which would presumably not negatively impact service levels — and $200 million through staff reductions. I guess we’re just supposed to accept at this point that these numbers, presented by his campaign, were complete and total fabrications with no connection to the city’s real fiscal situation.

Anyway, Reporter Don Peat at the Toronto Sun has a nice list of the few things the committee actually signed off on as potential cuts in next year’s budget. They’ll be debated at a special meeting of council this Monday:

– Closing some museums funded by economic development’s cultural services activities

– Reducing community and neighbourhood development activities

– Eliminating the public realm’s neighbourhood improvement program

– Cancelling the requirement for paid-duty officers at construction sites

– Trying to sell the Toronto Zoo, the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts, the Sony Centre, the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and Heritage Toronto

– Try to privatize Riverdale Farm, High Park Zoo and Far Away Farm but, if no interested parties can be found, do not close.

via Mayor-a-thon meeting aftermath | Toronto Sun.

As a collection of cuts goes, it doesn’t look all that fearsome. There is an unfortunate lack of detail attached to most of these, which will probably cause the most anguish come Monday. How are councillors supposed to approve closing museums if they don’t actually know which museums they’re talking about? Similarly, what’s the economic cost to eliminating public realm and neighbourhood development activities? The City didn’t implement these programs one day because they were bored: these things exist to make local businesses happy and more profitable.

The paid-duty item is probably a slam dunk, as no one seems altogether happy with the current status quo. (Councillor Doug Ford did defend the practice earlier this year, though.)

Other contentious issues: a buyout offer for city staff and a new user fee policy. The staff buyout covers about 700 employees, and the plan is to use some of the 2011 budget surplus — which won’t be a small chunk of change — to cover the immediate costs associated with the buyout. The challenge here is, again, a lack of detail: which departments will lose people? Can they afford to be short-staffed? What sort of institutional knowledge and skill will leave the building when these buy-outs are approved? And is there a more effective way to make use of 2011 surplus dollars?

The new user fee policy seems to be, essentially, “let’s have higher user fees!” We’ll see how that goes.

An enormously unsuccessful budget process

If it’s not clear by now, this whole core service review process amounts to a colossal collection of screw-ups from the Ford administration. Even if you support the quixotic quest for cuts and efficiencies, a prolonged, public-facing approach — one that left every public service the city provides on the chopping block for several months — is not a good way to go about things. It’s left the mayor unpopular, councillors nervous and residents wondering if there’s anyone at City Hall with an actual, honest-to-god plan for this city.

One that doesn’t involve slashed public services, more crowded buses, a dirtier city and the installation of El Toro Disney at the water’s edge.

Sep 11

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 – thestar.com.

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.

Sep 11

The week Rob Ford unravels

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate just how critical this week is to the continuing success of Rob Ford’s mayoralty. Either he and his backers find the workable strategies they need to navigate the coming obstacles or all the political capital built over the last ten-and-a-half months will simply and spectacularly blow up in the mayor’s face.

Here’s some thoughts on the stories that will shape the week ahead:

Marathon Meeting 2: The quick, cash-in sequel

Damned reruns. In an echo of that thing that happened six weeks ago where hundreds of people signed up to give deputations and contribute to the longest committee meeting in amalgamated Toronto’s history, we’re looking at yet another marathon-length meeting Monday. The circumstances are almost identical: executive members — and, yes, the public — are only nominally closer to having any real sense of which program and service cuts are actually on the table. The mayor continues, as a point of communication policy, to deflect blame and point fingers at consultants and staff whenever anyone accuses him of supporting cuts to service.

Committee members will undoubtedly complain about both the length of the meeting and the lack of workable solutions brought forth by those giving deputations. The latter is a familiar refrain at this point: those lefties just want to keep the spend-spend-spend status quo but we have a massive budget hole, so we need to make cuts, so where are their ideas and suggestions for cuts?

But it’s insane to demand that the bleary-eyed guy speaking at 5:30 a.m. in support of libraries should also give a three-point summary of his preferred fiscal strategy for the city. We elect councillors to handle the fiscal strategy — to look at the numbers and the charts –, with the full faith and understanding that they work for us and will defend the things we care about. It isn’t crazy, far-left socialism to demand that the mayor and the executive committee start doing the job the voters hired them to do.

I’m in no position to give advice to the mayor, but if I was it would go like this: step up and be a leader. Speak confidently about your fiscal plan for the city. Be plain about the programs and services you feel need to be reduced. Stop trying to scare people with talk of a 35% tax increase and instead start focusing on truth.

The Waterfront Saga

The Port Lands item goes to council on Wednesday. It will play out one of two ways. Either the mayor’s office has been successful in brokering some sort of compromise motion — moved in the form of an amendment — that they know will pass with support from the usual gang, or they’ll simply make a quick motion to defer the item and it will come off the agenda without a significant amount of debate. The latter is the better outcome, though the best thing would be an up-and-down vote that would rightly see council reject any notion of change to the current plan.

A compromise that violates any of the guiding principles of the process up until now is a very bad thing.

No matter how things shake out on the floor of council, however, this whole item has to be chalked up as a major defeat for the Fords. Every move they attempted on this file was a bad one, starting with Doug Ford’s monorail dream and continuing through to today’s revelation that the mayor’s brother apparently tried to get Councillor Josh Matlow to trade a supporting vote on this item for a guest spot by Ford on Matlow’s radio show.

In contrast to the previous contentious battles that have marked the run-up to every council meeting since Ford took office, this one had the immediate effect of pissing off an audience of older people and business types. Whereas it’s easy to dismiss those who would rage about bike lanes and affordable housing — the young! the poor! — an angry cabal of planners, businesspeople and seniors is way harder to sweep under the rug.

The vanishing Ford Nation

One poll last week had the mayor at a ridiculously low 42% approval rating. A second poll revealed that only 27% of Toronto residents would vote for the guy if an election were to happen tomorrow. The same poll also pointed out that the mayor has shed more than a quarter of his core support, when compared to the October 2010 election results.

Some have tried to dismiss these numbers as irrelevant, but it was clear late Friday that the mayor’s office is taking them pretty seriously. A hasty email was sent out to Ford’s old campaign mailing list reassuring people that “[this core service review process] is what you elected me to do as Mayor.” Someone is panicking. (The Toronto Sun is also playing defence, publishing a Ford-praising column by Joe Warmington that can only be fairly described as remarkably terrible.)

Ford is never going to be the kind of politician to draw broad, across-the-board support. He made his political fortune by demonizing certain groups across the city, including essentially all of downtown. But that his popularity is flagging with the core supporters — the true believers — is the thing to note from all of this. Without the highly-mobilized base, Ford is nothing.

The loss in popularity amongst those who bought into the stop-the-gravy-train, respect-for-taxpayers sloganeering also goes back to an issue of leadership. As a generalization,  right-leaning voters tend to appreciate a more paternalistic approach to government. Think Stephen Harper, wearing his sweater, making us feel like he’s got a plan for the economy. Ford’s erratic and irresponsible behaviour on fiscal issues — blaming others; focusing on scare tactics instead of workable solutions — isn’t giving anyone any sense of security or confidence. There’s no authority there.

In theory, the mayor’s popularity doesn’t matter. He won the election and that fancy chain is his for the taking until 2014. But the only real leverage Ford has had over council in these early months is that spectre of popularity. Without it, the only tools he has left are the confusing procedural powers of the mayor’s office, which can’t take him that far.

Sep 11

The Port Lands vote: the first significant defeat for the Ford administration

Updated Sept 16, 2011 — 9:27 p.m. The Toronto Star has now reported that Michelle Berardinetti and Karen Stintz are likely ‘no’ votes. I’ve also moved Frank Di Giorgio to the ‘maybe’ column. The remaining 15 ‘yes’ votes are the most bedrock Ford supporters, so I don’t expect to see much change from this point onward. It’s obvious at this point that the item as originally presented is doomed. The mayor’s office must now scramble to find a face-saving compromise motion.

A quick update on the voting chart from last week:

Lots of movement on the chart: previously up-in-the-air Councillors Colle, Bailão, and Lee were switched to presumed ‘No’ votes. Councillors Berardinetti, Lindsay Luby and Parker have been re-listed as questionable votes after sources indicated they are all feeling rather conflicted about things.

The big news, though, is Councillor Jaye Robinson who, despite sitting on the mayor’s executive committee, announced that she would not be supporting the Ford-driven item to seize the Lower Don Lands and Port Lands from Waterfront Toronto. This is an important development not only for waterfront watchers but for council as a whole, as it severely weakens the mayor’s ability to obtain a majority going forward.

It remains to be seen whether this is only a minor blip in the relationship between Councillor Robinson and the Mayor — which has always felt a bit awkward and forced, she a rather centre-left type with an interest in the arts and he an iconoclast with a hate-on for government programs — or a significant sea change. How the mayor’s office responds to this outburst of independent thinking is the thing to watch. (When former councillor Brian Ashton, as an executive committee member, voted against one of Mayor David Miller’s key items, Ashton was quickly cast into the wilderness and removed from the committee.)

The Fords now face a looming council vote that looks very challenging for them to win. With 22 likely ‘No’ votes, their only hope is that all of the remaining available votes go their way without any absences in the chamber when the bells ring. This is a very unlikely scenario.

Councillor Peter Milczyn — a Ford guy — has been rather frank about their failure on this one. He told the Toronto Star’s Royson James that this “blew up in our faces” and, also, that “there is egg on our faces for allowing this.” Their collective faces have definitely seen better days.

So what happens now? It’s unlikely the item will make it to vote when council meets next week, unless something drastic or daring happens. Expect a deferral motion or another stall tactic to send this to staff for further study. A 1,333-word epic of an email from Milczyn’s office appears to lay out a future compromise that would see Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Port Lands Company work together to review the collective plan for the Port Lands. Why TPLC needs to be involved at all is a fair question at this point.

It continues to amaze me just how many political missteps the mayor and his brother are making these days. There were probably dozens of workable strategies that would have resulted in the technical and contractual changes necessary to wring more value for the city out of Port Lands development. None of those strategies involved the councillor from North Etobicoke trotting out to the media with visions of a giant ferris wheel and an honest-to-god plan for a monorail. What kind of political strategy is that? What kind of meeting ends with everyone agreeing that the answer is sending Doug Ford out there to really wow ’em with some razzle dazzle?

Despite all this good news, I will caution that nothing is set in stone and a lot can change in the week ahead. Keep watching CodeBlueTO for further updates, and — if you haven’t already – sign the petition.

Sep 11

A visual journey through Doug Ford’s Port Lands

Future Bird's Eye View

As was widely expected, the Executive Committee today took the first procedural step toward seizing a wide swath of land in Toronto’s Port Lands from the purview of Waterfront Toronto. The item will now go to City Council on September 21, where the fate of these lands will ultimately be decided. More on that later.

The meeting also saw the unveiling of a new “vision” for the Port Lands, as created by the Toronto Port Lands Company, and a handful of development partners from CivicArts, &Co and LEA. Because TPLC’s presentation is as of yet only available online in the form of a one gigabyte Quicktime movie file, I’ve pulled out some choice screenshots so people can get a better sense of what we’re looking at.

Before we get to the pictures, let’s address the pivotal question: is this thing any good? The only fair answer to that is sure, of course it is. It’s a decent enough vision for the neighbourhood with some fun features. It also has some flaws. But there’s not a ton to complain about in terms of built form.

Setting that aside, however, it’s important to remember two things: first, this isn’t a plan at all. We’ve been told it’s a ‘vision.’ Which means detailed analysis hasn’t been done: no costing, no detailed engineering, nothing. It’s fantasy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. City-building fantasies are fun to look at and can be useful in contributing good ideas. But until there’s an actual design and process behind them, they’re not real.

The second thing to remember: this whole Port Lands debate isn’t about comparing two competing visions — these visions aren’t competing at all — but rather deciding whether there’s a reasonable case to be made for taking land away from Waterfront Toronto and selling it to the private sector. I still don’t think anyone from the mayor’s office or the executive committee has made that case.

Sep 11

Selling Toronto on a new vision for the waterfront, before selling the waterfront

CBC News:

Toronto Coun. Doug Ford’s vision of developing a monorail, ferris wheel and mega-mall in Toronto’s Portlands may be closer to reality than a blue-sky concept.

The city’s economic development department has been working on the idea for months and a leading architect and a designer have also been retained.

An architect regarded as one of Toronto’s finest, Mark Sterling was hired by the city-controlled Toronto Portlands Company about two months ago to see if the plan was possible.

via Portlands plan may be closer to reality | CBC News.

Not to speculate too much, but this Port Lands story is going to take an interesting turn next week when the Doug Ford-endorsed plan is finally released with details. Because, despite a week of fun jokes and ridicule, Doug’s plan isn’t going to suck. In fact, it might actually look pretty good.

If private sector developers are good at anything, it’s making pre-construction plans and renders look really good.

For example, here’s what developer Concord told us CityPlace would look like:

CityPlace, located just north of the Gardiner on lands around Spadina Avenues, isn’t fully built out yet, but it is widely regarded as an imperfect development. It’s revealed itself to be a development plan driven and defined by profit motive, resulting in tightly-packed residential units squeezed into mostly bland towers. Despite the growing population, street life is still pretty sterile.

CityPlace, and the Central Waterfront developments that came before it, represent the clearest analogues for what Doug Ford has proposed for the Port Lands, though his plan apparently swaps out residential development for high-end mall retail. Those ‘plans’ started with nice renders packed with greenspace and happy-looking people too. That’s why this is so frustrating: we’ve gone down this exact road before and no one was particularly enthralled with the outcome. The eastern waterfront was our glowing opportunity to learn from our mistakes and do something better.

But, sure, let’s sell out on that. It’ll get us a few extra years of low property tax increases.

That’s not a vision; it’s a joke

The Toronto Star’s Royson James:

The key question will be put to the city’s executive committee Tuesday — by Paul Bedford, the city’s former chief planner who conceived the waterfront vision and defended it before the Ontario Municipal Board in 1999 when Home Depot wanted to locate there.

The developer-friendly OMB agreed with Bedford, city council and waterfront advocates that a big box retail store was not appropriate for the Port Lands; that suburbia on the waterfront was a non-starter; that retail with large parking lots was not an appropriate use.

“I am totally mystified by this,” Bedford says of Ford’s plan. “Ten years later and it’s ‘Never mind a big box, you’ll have a West Edmonton Mall by the lake.’ Where are the values of city building? They don’t get the concept. The last thing we need is a mall surround by asphalt. That’s not a vision; it’s a joke.”

via Ford’s developer friends are all smiles | Toronto Star.

Bedford sums things up pretty well. Also expressing concern — to put it mildly — over this week’s turn of events is the quickly-formed activist group CodeBlueTO and the John Tory-led Greater Toronto CivicActon Alliance, though I wish the latter was a bit more intentional and forceful with their words.

Following the money

I’ve had a couple of people point me to some research done in May by a YorkU professor who says that the Hearn Generating Station in the Port Lands is controlled by an influential Vaughan developer, who donated a significant amount of money to help pay down Rob Ford’s campaign debts.

Is there a possible link between this developer, Mario Cortellucci, and Doug Ford’s enthusiasm for Port Lands development? Maybe, but I’d discount any thought of corrupt dealings or backroom deals designed to funnel money toward campaign supporters. The Fords just aren’t the type, and I sincerely believe that their motivation these days is almost purely budgetary. Rob and Doug have never expressed much of an appetite for engaging in city building, instead limiting their priorities to maintaining and enhancing a low-tax environment.

This situation almost surely came up as part of a frantic search for workable strategies that would fulfill the mayor’s campaign promise to eliminate the Land Transfer Tax within this council term. The only realistic way to do that is to sell off valuable assets, pay down some of the city’s capital debt, and thus reduce the debt charges that are part of every operating budget.

Doug Ford is a decent enough showman, but even he can’t hide the fact that, to him, the Port Lands represent nothing more than big, flashing dollar signs.

Aug 11

Parallel Port Land Plans: No reason to abandon Waterfront Toronto

As part of this week’s Posted Toronto Political Panel, Chris Selley does that thing where he tries to get everyone to just calm down a little bit and consider the other side:

Look, the Fords’ hair trigger on big ideas is obvious. But the major impact of these staff recommendations would concern yet-to-be-begun projects that are contingent upon a $634-million flood-protection plan. There’s no money for it. “It appears,” say City staff, “that Waterfront Toronto is not in a position to co-ordinate a comprehensive revitalization program … that would allow for significant development within the next 10 years, at a minimum.” If developers are willing to foot some of that bill — which is, at least, far more realistic a prospect than the Sheppard plan — in exchange for building something that actually exists outside the Waterfront Toronto Holodeck, then I think it’s entirely worth exploring. Why not judge any ensuing development plans on their own merits? Also: What the hell is wrong with Ferris wheels?

via Political Panel: Exploring the port lands through the power of imagination | Posted Toronto | National Post.

In answer to his last question: nothing, but why ferris wheels? That seems to be little more than a me-too gesture from a city that is already too often criticized for trying, with various gimmicks, to look “world class.” We might as well throw up an Eiffel Tower replica, too. Maybe  a little Statue of Liberty holding a Tim Hortons coffee cup.

On Selley’s larger point, there is some merit to what he’s saying. Port Lands development is slow with a capital SLOW, and there’s a large unfunded liability for flood protection. But as guest panelist and noted luminary Steve Murray says, wouldn’t the prudent move be for the city to work with Waterfront Toronto to push forward timelines and find investors? Why not make an effort to work within the established framework — that is producing results in the East Bayfront and the West Don Lands — before you decide to go out on your own with a whole new plan?

Is it still true now, as it was a few months ago, that Rob Ford has never attended a Waterfront Toronto board meeting? And what about the question of motive: is this about building an amazing waterfront neighbourhood or making a quick buck through a fire sale of land that’s currently only suitable for ramshackle tourist attractions, big box stores and parking lots?

The Fords very much seem like the types who are prone to overturn the board and all the pieces the minute they find themselves looking at a stage of the game they don’t like. They did it with Transit City, and they’re doing it now with the waterfront.

More waterfront tidbits:

  • One of the fun undercurrents to the story as it develops is that it’s becoming difficult to determine which parts of the waterfront Doug Ford is actually talking about. Is it the Port Lands, the Lower Don Lands, the East Bayfront or all of the above? As the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle notes, “This ‘wishy-washy’ language that is typical with the Ford administration has left no one sure what’s being proposed, said one individual involved with waterfront redevelopment.”
  • Ford has tried to present his plan as something that could work in concert with the other work being done by Waterfront Toronto, but his proposed monorail — which would require a clear right-of-way, plus stations, plus vehicle storage and probably a maintenance yard — would likely require changes to any and all current plans for everything east of the Corus Building.
  • Doug Ford isn’t the first politician to present an out-of-the-blue, comprehensive and unworkable plan for Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront. In 2004, Liberal MP Dennis Mills ran an election campaign at least partially centred on such a plan. You can still view most of his ideas on the plan’s website; they include things like an aquarium and a campus for the United Nations University for Peace. There was also talk he was looking at casinos, backed by companies who would step it and contribute funds to the project. Mills was defeated in his riding, Toronto-Danforth, in the 2004 Federal Election by a former Toronto City Councillor by the name of Jack Layton.

Aug 11

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.