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Are The Port Lands About to Be Privatized?

The mayor's executive committee will consider a proposal to wrest the Port Lands from Waterfront Toronto, apparently to accelerate development.

The view from the Port Lands. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrew_snow/5188537209/"}Andrew Snow{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

In April, reporters learned that there was a general consensus among Mayor Ford’s close allies that the City, in partnership with private companies, could do a better job of redeveloping Toronto’s shoreline than Waterfront Toronto, the arms-length agency created by all three levels of government in 2001 to do exactly that. Now we have some evidence that the mayor’s team meant business.

At its September 6 meeting, the mayor’s executive committee will be considering a new approach to development in the Port Lands, which is the City-owned stretch of land south of Lakeshore Boulevard, between Ashbridges Bay and the inner harbour. The plan would give the City—and, by extension city council and the mayor—more direct control over development in the Port Lands, and would also open the door to a much more aggressive development timetable, funded by private dollars.

Waterfront Toronto has spent a decade laying plans for the area, including a yet-to-be-realized $634 million project to naturalize and flood-protect the mouth of the Don River, to make the surrounding land viable for development. In 2004, they launched an environmental assessment of the Lower Don Lands, followed in 2007 by an international design competition whose winner was approved by council. The plan as currently conceived would result in the area being being built into a mixed-residential neighbourhood with parks, and would unfold over the course of 25 years.

The proposal that will be going before the executive committee on September 6 calls for a radical realignment of all these plans. It proposes altering the City’s standing agreement with Waterfront Toronto so that the Toronto Port Lands Company—a City-owned corporation that handles real estate and leasing on the waterfront but currently does not act as a development lead—would have control of development in the Port Lands.

The plan also calls for TPLC’s existing board to be replaced with a “strategically composed board” (yes, that is the actual terminology used by City staff) of nine directors, including five citizen members and two city councillors. Currently, TPLC’s board only has four members, all of whom are civil servants.

By changing the composition of TPLC’s board in this way, city council could bend the corporation’s decision-making processes toward almost any goal. What the goal may be, in this case, is not entirely clear, but the staff report (a type of document that city council uses to inform its decisions) that outlines the plan offers some hints.

The main reason for turfing Waterfront Toronto from the project, as described in the report, is the fact that the $634 million naturalization and flood protection project (and other remediation needed for the area) isn’t funded within Waterfront Toronto’s existing long-term budget and therefore, according to City staff, “it appears that Waterfront Toronto is not in a position to coordinate a comprehensive revitalization program for the Port Lands that would allow for significant development within the next ten years, at a minimum.” The terms of the City’s agreement with Waterfront Toronto allow them to renegotiate in cases where there is “insufficient commitment, financial or otherwise.”

Under the proposal, money for flood protection would be sought from the private sector.

Waterfront Toronto already partners with private developers, and so it would seem that this proposed realignment of the existing designs is calculated primarily to speed development up.

This would mean, at minimum, big changes to a carefully laid plan that was many years in the making. And the impetus is coming not from Waterfront Toronto, but from somewhere in City Hall.

Speedier development, coincidentally or not, is exactly the result Doug Ford told reporters he wanted, earlier this summer.

Waterfront Toronto’s media spokespeople were difficult to reach for comment, because when the City released the report, at about 4:45 on Friday, they had already left their desks for the weekend.

Think about that.

“All I can really say at this point is that Waterfront Toronto, in 2001, was given a mandate by three governments to revitalize the waterfront and the Port Lands, and to develop the Port Lands around this vision of a renaturalized Don,” said Marisa Piattelli, VP of communications at Waterfront Toronto. She thinks about $19 million of public money has been spent, to date, on planning in the Port Lands.

“If there is a desire for change in vision or approach, then there’s a desire for change in vision or approach,” she added. “And we take our direction from those three levels.”

If executive committee approves the plan on September 6, it will still need final approval by city council.

Read the full staff report here.

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