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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s try to save the world with spreadsheets. Again. If the people of Toronto want to stop the mayor and his brother from seizing control of the Port Lands and pushing forward with a new vision controlled by private developers, we need five votes.
As with the Jarvis vote in July, the above is a best-guess breakdown of how councillors will vote on item EX9.6 when it comes before council on September 21. Again, it’s important to remember that this isn’t written in stone — some councillors could very well change their mind. Some councillors may even hit the wrong button when voting. It happens.
The first column above refers to item EX45.15, considered by council way back in the halcyon days of Mayor David Miller. It represents the only noted instance I can find in recent history of right-wing councillors attempting to slow or stop work by Waterfront Toronto. In this instance, which took place at the July 6, 2010 meeting of council, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong rose and asked for an amendment on an item related to the Don Mouth Naturalization and Waterfront Toronto’s plan for the Lower Don Lands, a parcel of land within what the larger Port Lands area.
Minnan-Wong’s amendment called for two things: first, that Waterfront Toronto “submit to Council, a Business and Implementation Plan for the Lower Don Lands with priority for Phase 1 (Don River Mouth), addressing capital costs, revenue and expenditures, funding, project phasing and land management.” That language is similar to what we saw in the report associated with the Port Lands item that came before Executive Committee yesterday. The second thing Minnan-Wong asked for was that “no further funding of consultants and studies be undertaken until the funding sources and Business and Implementation Plan are approved by Council.” I’ve included the voting results from the second part of his amendment in the chart above.
More notes on methodology: Councillors who are on the Executive Committee will all presumably vote with the mayor at the upcoming Council Session. The only exception could be Jaye Robinson, who was notably absent when the vote took place in Committee Room 1 yesterday. Watch her closely. Councillors close to or at 100% “Ford Nation” percentage are virtual locks to support this Ford-driven motion, though I’ve left Gary Crawford as a question mark as a long-shot hope. I’m working off the assumption that the traditional left-leaning bloc will all vote against the item, which seems pretty safe. Both Josh Matlow and Mary Margaret-McMahon have tweeted their support for Waterfront Toronto, the latter enthusiastically so.
So, what next? Email or call the councillors identified as undecided or potential swing votes. Their contact information is below. Your voice is especially important if you live in their ward. (But if you don’t, and happen to know someone who does, spend some time informing them of the issue and ask them to contact their councillor.) Consider contacting neighbourhood associations, ratepayer groups and local BIAs as well, and ask them how they feel about a new mall opening up in the Port Lands and the impact that will have on small-scale retail space in the city. CodeBlueTO has a great letter you can use as a starting point for your communications. If you get concrete word on how any councillor plans to vote, please let me know so I can update this chart.
Councillor James Pasternak (Ward 10 – York Centre)
Councillor Josh Colle (Ward 15 – Eglinton-Lawrence)
Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18 – Davenport)
Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25 – Don Valley West)
Councillor Gary Crawford (Ward 36 – Scarborough Southwest)
Councillor Chin Lee (Ward 41 – Scarborough-Rouge River)
Councillor Ron Moeser (Ward 44 – Scarborough East)
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.