Nov 11

The unlikely (and welcome) return of the Fort York bridge

Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan:

Though it wasn’t originally on the agenda for today’s meeting, the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee will be considering whether to revive plans for the once-planned Fort York bridge—plans that were killed without notice earlier this year. The proposals being examined today are for some cheaper alternatives, ones that would bring the cost of the bridge down, say staff estimates, by anywhere from six to eight million, depending on which design the committee opts for.

via The Return of the Fort York Pedestrian-Cycling Bridge? | Torontoist.

Soon after Dotan’s article was published, the Public Works Committee approved a new design with a projected cost of $19.7 million.

Back in May of this year, I published a series of posts on this topic, concluding that Council’s decision to kill the original design for this bridge meant that we’d probably never see the project completed. (At least not under this administration.) “If we don’t build this thing on the planned schedule,” I wrote, all wide-eyed and sure of myself,  “it’s essentially never going to happen.”

So, for the record, let me say a couple of things. First: I was wrong. And second: this is good news.

There are still a bunch of questions to ask about this whole process. Given that $1.7 million had been spent on the original design — see page 13 of this staff presentation — are we to assume that that money was, essentially, wasted on nothing? And then there’s the new timeline for construction: is a capital savings of (potentially) $8 million — presumably less the $2 million in sunk costs on the previous design — worth a delay of three years?

And most importantly: was there any reason, aside from spite, that the motion to kill the original design was introduced at the last minute, without informing the local councillor?

I guess these questions are mostly irrelevant at this point. Water under the bridge.

It’s about selling city-owned land, stupid

Last May, Councillor David Shiner — seemingly the guy behind both the surprising death and unlikely rebirth of this project — told us rather plainly why the original bridge design was killed:

Building the bridge eliminates two future sources of cash, Shiner said.

He estimated 10 Ordnance St. — the property where the bridge’s centre columns would be placed — could fetch more than $50 million if sold, while the Wellington St. city-owned property where the bridge would start is worth around $20 million to $25 million.

via Pedestrian bridge to Fort York latest casualty of war on waste | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

Lo and behold, the new design allows for redevelopment opportunities that weren’t possible with the original plan. More public land can now get sold into private hands, with the proceeds used either to pay down capital debt — thus freeing up some of the operating budget that currently goes to debt servicing — or, in a pinch, to cover an operating budget gap directly.

Jun 11

Something to be managed, not something to be built

Jake Tobin Garrett has done some terrific writing for Torontoist over the last while. His latest looks at the demise of the Fort York Bridge, and what it means in an era where “city building” is seemingly a dirty word:

The greatest mistake of this administration, and the one that will leave the most lasting legacy of harm, is the simplistic view of the city as something to be managed and not something to be built, or fed, or nurtured. The view that aspirational projects are elitist and thus not worthy of consideration. The view that public spaces suck money and offer nothing back. The view that if we just squeeze our public services tight enough a few pennies will pop out.

via This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things – Torontoist.

A city that is not being built up — that isn’t growing — is inevitably one that is declining. It’s not possible to just hit pause for a few years while you ‘fix’ the city’s finances. We’ll be left behind.

Related: Ken Greenberg’s Requiem for a bridge at The Globe & Mail.

May 11

The second city of the British Empire

Last week, council voted against moving forward with construction of a $22 million pedestrian and cycling bridge, that would have spanned the rail tracks near Fort York. Speaking on the item, Councillor David Shiner remarked that the mere commemoration of the War of 1812 — the city will mark the 200th anniversary of the war next year — was not sufficient reason to build this piece of infrastructure, which would have provided the kind of architectural flourish on our waterfront that helps to define cities.

Also in the news last week? A story about an item coming before the Executive Committee today, that would see the city assume control of management of Casa Loma. For 75 years, the urban castle has been in the hands of the Kiwanis Club. With attendance levels dwindling, the city must now determine new strategies for the facility.

Taking these two items — and others — and putting them side by side, the Toronto Star’s Brett Popplewell wrote an absolutely vicious, satirical screed on Sunday, cutting to the heart of our current political divide. A divide that pits those who believe in a grand, urban vision for Toronto against those that believe we must put off any notion of city building until we reach some arbitrary point of popular satisfaction with the city’s finances:

But for the odd occasion when tree-hugging architectural lovers have stood before the bulldozers to protect things like Old City Hall or Union Station (as they did in the 1970s) this city has generally chosen to either demolish its history or neglect it.

Yet now we struggle, [General Manager for Economic Development & Culture Michael] Williams says. Struggle over who’s going to pay for the footbridge to Old Fort York. Struggle over who’s going to pay to sandblast the graffiti off the bricks inside Casa Loma.

And for what?

So the children can enjoy Old Fort York? It’s a grassy knoll with a few cannons on display.

And Casa Loma? It’s a drafty old relic, but one Hazell and others recognize as a symbol. A symbol of a town whose citizens once dared to dream that Toronto might actually stand as the second city of the British Empire.

What could they have possibly been thinking.

via Why are we trying to save Casa Loma when we could just tear it down? – thestar.com.

So good. See also this reddit thread, where someone takes the headline a little too seriously.

May 11

Burning bridges at Fort York

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale:

Despite the support of developers, history buffs and hundreds of local residents, Councillor Mike Layton’s effort to save the Fort York pedestrian and cyclist bridge was rejected by council Wednesday.

City staff will now try to find a lower-cost alternative to the $23 million bridge that had been scheduled for completion in 2012, the bicentennial of the War of 1812. But a different bridge could not be built until 2015, and Layton said he considers the project dead.

via Fort York bridge dead, councillor says – thestar.com.

So it’s dead. They killed it, following a 22-23 vote. (It wasn’t as close as it might seem — a two-thirds majority was required to save the item.) It was obvious that, despite near-heroic efforts, Councillor Mike Layton wouldn’t be able to command the votes after Councillor Michelle Berardinetti twittered the following:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/CouncillorMB/status/70698817103728640″]

Berardinetti, along with Councillor Jaye Robinson, has served as a good indicator of the strength of the mayor’s whip on any given item. With her on side, it was clear that this was going to come down to the same old left-versus-right divide.

Very disappointing, and not a good sign at all for those of us who value the innovative and ambitious work going on across the city’s waterfront.

May 11

The Fort York Bridge: it’s now or never

At Spacing, Luca De Franco has an interview with activist Richard Douglas, who’s been working to save the proposed pedestrian/cycling bridge that would span the rail tracks near Fort York.

The mayor and his allies have presented their opposition to the bridge as simple fiscal prudence. The bridge is over-budget, they say, so we must study cheaper alternatives. The reality is a bit more complicated, as Douglas explains. If we don’t build this thing on the planned schedule, it’s essentially never going to happen:

The returning of the Fort York Bridge project to Committee at Council effectively eliminates this project. The situation becomes even more time-sensitive when you consider that Metrolinx has provided a small window of opportunity to build this bridge.  Once that window closes, surrounding communities and the City of Toronto will have lost out on a tremendous opportunity.

via Headspace: The Fort York Pedestrian Cycle Bridge « Spacing Toronto.

A commenter to the article also shares an automatic response sent to him by Councillor Mike Del Grande, received after he emailed the Budget Chief regarding the bridge:

I now have too many e-mail messages to read each and every one. So my answer will be automatic. Bridge yes but not at any cost. But… does not carry the day. This kind of thinking has caused a great financial problem for the City. We spend more than we bring in and I have to find $774 million.

Post Script- Sat May 14th I visited the area. This bridge will cost 22 + the opportunity to gain 25 million from proper usage of the site. So it will really cost 47 million at the end of the day. Sorry, that is very poor use of limited funds the City has. I also noted that there were a total of 2 people in City park and a few people in the dog park and on the other side of King there was one person. Does not strike me as demand usage, at least not for today.

In addition there is concern about City land which if the bridge is built in a certain fashion will increase the value of City Lands by millions and this cannot be ignored. An overage of 4+ million and other planning considerations does not justify the just spending because it is a nice bridge. What I am more open to is how about a special levy on all those properties to pay for the overage?

I added some paragraph breaks for clarity. Also added some emphasis.

Councillor Del Grande recounts visiting the area where the bridge will be built on Saturday, May 14, which was not a particular nice Saturday in Toronto. At best it was overcast and drizzling. Regardless, he feels observing the area for a brief window on an unpleasant day is enough to declare that there is no “demand usage.”

As Richard Douglas puts it in a follow-up comment to the article on Spacing, “Aside from the poor weather conditions and the muddy, water logged parking lot as deterents did he really expect to see citizens standing at the roped off opening of the parking lots waiting for the bridge to be built?”

If this is the way Del Grande is going to judge the necessity of infrastructure projects, I’d hope he’ll soon pay a visit to Sheppard Avenue to gauge the need for a multi-billion dollar subway project.

Councillor Mike Layton has put a motion on the agenda for this week’s City Council meeting that would, if passed, essentially reverse the earlier decision by the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee to kill the project. It will require a two-thirds majority, which I initially dismissed as an impossible requirement. Layton has been working really hard to get the votes, however.

Apr 11

Our new city-building strategy: sell downtown

Let’s start with this: At the Toronto Standard, Ivor Tossell writes about the recent hullabaloo surrounding Team Ford’s comments on waterfront development:

There are a few undercurrents beneath this goofiness. One is the distinction between the city as a place that people visit, and a place that people live. Urbanists want to turn the Port Lands into a breathable (and maybe even breedable) habitat for those who enjoy city living. The middle of a city is a pretty good place to do that. The Fords seem to want downtown to be a fun destination for weekend visits.

via Castles in the Sand | Toronto News, Media, Art, Business, Technology, Fashion, Events.

Downtown as a place to visit versus a place to live. That’s a critical distinction. It brings to mind some of the arguments made by G20 apologists after the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. “Why would anyone go downtown on G20 weekend?” they asked, ignoring that for a hell of a lot of people — a growing number — they don’t go downtown, they live downtown.

Mayor Ford, himself an apologist for all things G20-related, echoed the argument in the immediate aftermath: “Personally, if you didn’t want to be down there, then you shouldn’t have been down there. I didn’t take my family out when there is a riot downtown.”

A place to visit versus a place to live.

Then there’s this: this week, the city’s public works committee voted to essentially kill an ambitious plan to build a pedestrian and cyclist bridge over the rail tracks at Fort York. This was a critically important piece of infrastructure for the thousands who have recently moved into the area. It also would have looked very cool.

Why kill it? Nominally, it’s because the bids for the project came in about four million dollars above the allocated budget. But Councillor David Shiner made his real reasoning known in a comment he made following the vote, as reported by the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat:

Building the bridge eliminates two future sources of cash, Shiner said.

He estimated 10 Ordnance St. — the property where the bridge’s centre columns would be placed — could fetch more than $50 million if sold, while the Wellington St. city-owned property where the bridge would start is worth around $20 million to $25 million.

via Pedestrian bridge to Fort York latest casualty of war on waste | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

Translation: why invest in public space and infrastructure when we could just sell it?

You would think that city politicians would have moved past the belief that Toronto’s downtown is little more than a destination. There’s more to our city centre than various weekend attractions and athletic events, things that you load up the car and take the kids to, stopping for dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory.

Downtown is neighbourhoods. Downtown is homes and families and community. Different from the suburbs, sure, but not so different that it should be tossed aside as some rogue other.

With the debate over the waterfront and now this recent killing of the Fort York bridge, we’re starting to see a political climate where the mayor and his allies can’t or won’t look beyond the immediate dollar signs that downtown property represents. They’ll skip out on public spaces in favour of private ones — canyons of condos.

And if those private developments end up choking all the life and character out of downtown neighbourhoods? No big deal. They’ll just find somewhere else to take the family on the weekend.