Sep 11

“The item as amended carries unanimously, 45 in favour”

As expected, Waterfront Toronto’s plan for the Port Lands is — more or less — safe. This is nothing less than a major defeat for Rob Ford, with significant implications for the power dynamics on council going forward.

A big day.

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

2012 Budget: Trading tax cuts for service cuts in Rob Ford’s Toronto

After months packed with a weak, barely-heard consultation process and a maddeningly non-specific communication strategy employed by the mayor’s executive committee — who told us that nothing, specifically, was on the table for cuts, except everything —, today we finally received, by way of the city manager, a list of concrete recommendations for service cuts in the 2012 budget.

They amount to, at best, $300 million worth of cuts over the next three operating budgets. For 2012, the best case scenario sees $100 million worth of cuts, mostly coming in areas like transit, planning & heritage, parks & recreation, street cleaning & snow removal, policing and libraries. We could see further cuts to both policing and libraries (including branch closures) in 2013 and 2014.

That $100 million in cuts does very little to fix the city’s perennial structural budget gap. It actually only barely covers the damage done in last year’s budget, when Council voted to significantly reduce revenues by cutting the vehicle registration tax and freezing property taxes. In essence, this fills the hole Rob Ford created and leaves us staring, rather fruitlessly, at the remaining shortfall — the same one that has dogged us since amalgamation.

Ford and his executive committee will attempt to make up the remaining difference — they’d peg it at $664 million, but really it’ll be closer to $350 million — through the forthcoming user fee review (which will undoubtedly recommend that user fees go up sharply) and the so-called efficiency study, which might end up being yet another set of veiled cuts to services. There will also be the inevitable TTC fare increase and a perfunctory property tax increase, though Ford has said he’d like to keep any increase on the low side. (To make up for last year’s freeze, we should probably be looking at something in the neighbourhood of at least four percent, but Ford has floated numbers in the two percent range.)

If it wasn’t clear already, this morning’s announcement should kill any lingering doubt that Ford has, rather spectacularly, violated his campaign promise not to cut city services. Ford voters now must look square in the face at a fiscal reality that says that damn near every dollar of revenue — taxes — removed from the city’s coffers must be complemented with an equivalent cut to service. Most of the 2012 savings come from proposed TTC cuts, including to Blue Night service, which would have a devastating effect on low-income people across the city, particularly in suburban neighbourhoods. Many of the remaining cuts are nickel-and-dime stuff, and little analysis seems to have been done to measure the financial impacts cuts to services can have to other departments or agencies.

City Manager Joseph Joseph Pennachetti has also passed the buck on a number of items, ensuring that we’re still several months away from a real debate about what to cut. Pennachetti recommends sending nearly all of the KPMG budget considerations back to various boards, committees and agencies, where they can be further debated, deputed on, and probably once again referred to executive committee. It’s an endless cycle, which cries out for the kind of fiscal leadership from the mayor’s office we were promised on election night. Rob Ford has sat in council chambers for over a decade’s worth of city budgets: it’s time we heard his ideas for plugging the budget gap. No more hiding behind expensive consultants and endless process.

Deputants to committees, left-leaning councillors and progressives in the city have been called out several times by those in power for merely championing existing programs, instead of proposing solutions to the city’s budget shortfall. What became clear today was that those running the city — Rob Ford, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande, assorted council hangers-on and staff — have no real idea how to balance the budget either. Their last, best hope is to skate through 2012 with assorted surplus revenues, these cuts, and user fee hikes, and then begin a fire sale of city assets — including, as we learned last week, the Port Lands — in the inane hope that using those revenues to pay down capital debt gives them enough room in the operating budget to make things balance.

It’s a bad idea that could significantly damage our city, and it continues to ignore Toronto’s only real path to fiscal sustainability: a coordinated approach to intergovernmental relationships, new sources of revenue — which must include consideration of road tolls and a sales tax — and a massive push for the provincial government to take back the funding responsibilities that rightfully belong to them.

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.

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.