May 11

Jim Flaherty praises “boondoggle” waterfront development

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was put in a bit of an akwkward position yesterday, as he attended the official groundbreaking for Waterfront Toronto’s anticipated Underpass Park. Flaherty, a long-time family friend of the Fords, expressed his support for the project, which is part of a larger plan by Waterfront Toronto that the Fords and their council allies have been highly critical of in recent times.

The Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume:

“This is transformative,” declared federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. “It’s important not just for Toronto, but for Canada.”

On hand for the ceremonial shovelling of the earth Thursday, Flaherty joined a gaggle of dignitaries that included provincial Minister of Research and Innovation, Glen Murray, and local municipal councillor Pam McConnell.

Conspicuous in his absence was Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, whose doppelganger, Doug Ford, has been happy to share his thoughts about the waterfront, as half-baked as they may be.

via Hume: Underpass Park will change the city forever – thestar.com.

If even someone like Jim Flaherty can understand the importance of public investment along the waterfront, why can’t Rob and Doug Ford?

May 11

Private sector waterfront development is short-sighted, says private sector

This weekend saw architect Jack Diamond take to the Globe & Mail to absolutely tear into recent comments made by Doug and Rob Ford, wherein they referred to Waterfront Toronto as a boondoggle:

To call such wise public-sector investment a boondoggle is, at best, to exhibit a profound lack of understanding of the role that government should play. At worst, it is a result of the myopia caused by an ideological disease. It demonstrates a total lack of appreciation of the different roles that should be performed by government and the private sector. That the two can operate to mutual advantage is the ethos of Canada at its best. To act contrary to that precept is to diminish our political patrimony. To complete an often incompletely quoted aphorism – history repeats itself if we don’t learn from it.

via Ford’s short-sighted vision of Toronto’s waterfront – The Globe and Mail.

Damn. Remember, too, that Diamond works primarily with private sector developers. He very much is the private sector.

Still, though, I’m sure there’s someone out there in the private sector — someone who probably doesn’t use as many big, complicated words — who shares the dream of turning a heritage generating station into a football stadium.

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.

Apr 11

No Waterfront Gravy

John Lorinc has done a hell of a job staying on top of the Waterfront Toronto story since the mayor and his pals started their assault last week. His latest column at Spacing serves as an incredibly well-researched defence for the agency and its work:

The remarkable point about all this back channel maneuvering is that the target of their opprobrium, Waterfront Toronto, has been scrupulously, and sometimes frustratingly, transparent about the way it has gone about its business.

They consult relentlessly, follow regulatory procedures to the letter, expose their plans to extensive public and professional scrutiny, and rely on a meticulous approach to procurement, which is how they’ve attracted, in the past three years, developers with very deep pockets, including Houston-based Hines, one of the world’s largest real estate firms, with $23 billion in property assets.

Despite the mayor’s wearying rhetoric about sole-sourcing and respect for taxpayers, the brothers’ boundless contempt for public process and transparency continues to astonish, and stands in stark contrast to the way WT operates.

via LORINC: Let’s Play Ball with the Waterfront (Again)! « Spacing Toronto.

So well said.

Apr 11

The mayor wants to sell the waterfront

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/DenzilMW/status/59215129186795520″]

On Friday, in a scrum following another community clean-up photo op, the mayor confirmed that the city was looking at pulling out of Waterfront Toronto. “I have a problem with the money we’re spending and the results we’re getting from them,” he said.

Here’s the short version of what I believe is going on with this story: there is an attempt to ignite a debate about the speed and relative quality of Waterfront Toronto projects. The hope is that this debate will inspire a populist desire for reform which will, in turn, lead to an opportunity to sell off city-owned assets and use the proceeds to balance the city’s operating budget.

How else to explain the all-out assault we’ve seen toward Waterfront Toronto this week from the mayor, his brother, and their assorted hangers-on? Why did Denzil Minnan-Wong take to his Twitter account (seen above) to publicly bash communications staff at Waterfront Toronto for having the gall to defend their work?

The narrative we’re starting to see here is actually very similar to the one that marked the TCHC story: demonize an agency as wasteful, whip up populist support for reform — without actually conducting an investigation or working through the necessary processes — and, finally, enact policy that makes it easier to sell-off or privatize things.

The difference, of course, is that the TCHC narrative began with an actual scandal.

Doug Ford’s conversation with the Globe & Mail’s Marcus Gee about his “vision” for the waterfront is worth reading, as it’s completely off-the-wall ridiculous:

Doug Ford has a vision: a football stadium on the waterfront. He says the NFL stadium might be built on the site of the abandoned Hearn generating plant in the underdeveloped Portlands.

The stadium would be the anchor for a massive redevelopment of the Portlands that would “turn this dump site into a wow factor.” It would include dramatically designed residential buildings and high-end retailers such as Macy’s department store. A monorail elevated transit system would link it to downtown.

via Doug Ford sees stadium in waterfront’s future – The Globe and Mail.

He also proposes a giant Ferris wheel. Because how better to define our city on the world stage than to steal that thing that London has?

Any discussion of the relative quality or progress of Waterfront Toronto’s projects only serves to distract from the real intent. If the Fords wanted to put their own stamp on the future of these projects, they would have at least attempted to meet with Waterfront Toronto. To talk about their issues with timeline and scope. Instead, Rob Ford has missed every meeting the agency has held.

Worse, the conversations we’ve had this week have spooked the private sector developers who are involved.

The big not-so-secret about development in areas currently controlled by Waterfront Toronto is that these are former industrial sites, in many cases built on landfill. The soil is contaminated. Flooding is hugely problematic. Engineering and construction work are challenging in the best of cases.

Without public sector involvement and support, the private sector is not going to build the kinds of things we’d like to see in these areas.

Anyone who looks at the history of these sites knows as much. In the 1980s, the provincial government had a plan to take the land they owned in the West Don Lands — a very similar area to the Port Lands — and build an affordable housing neighbourhood modelled after the successful one in the St. Lawrence area. They called it Ataratiri, because vowels are great. The money required to clean up the area never materialized. The Bob Rae government put the land up for sale to the private sector. (For about 30 million — a far cry from the hundreds of millions we’ve heard the private sector would pay.) No buyers materialized; no one wanted to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the land and making it developable.

In 1997, the Mike Harris government got desperate and did find a buyer. Without any consultation, negotiations began to sell the land to a developer who would use it for a horse racing track. Only after a wave of opposition was this sale halted.

This is the kind of thing the private sector is willing to do if we sell this land on the open market: build cheap, achievable projects that can turn a quick profit. We can help them do that, or we can continue on the sensible track we’re on, which is already beginning to pay dividends. Using public investment to make these lands more appropriate for neighbourhood development and working with the private sector to design and build world-class projects will see a return on investment that could define this city for decades to come.

The alternative, I suppose, is to go with the private sector and bet it all on the horses.

You can read this 2006 story from The Bulletin for a decent summation of the history of the West Don Lands and the provincial government’s attempt to sell the land to the private sector. Resident Cynthia Wilkey was one of the leaders in opposing the development, and it was her message to the Corktown Residents Google Group that partly inspired me to research and write this story.