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A Hot Time in the Old Town Hall Meeting Last Night

Scarborough's transit desires and the St. Clair construction bogeyman loomed over last night's transit forum in North Toronto.

Left to right: John Parker, Anna Pace, Andre Sorenson, Karen Stintz, Josh Matlow.

“This is going to be a heated meeting,” an audience member confided to us before last night’s transit town hall meeting began at the North Toronto Memorial Community Centre. That prediction was prompted by an angry woman at the opposite end of our row, who bemoaned the number of business bankruptcies tied to the construction of the St. Clair right-of-way and suggested that meeting organizers Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) and Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton–Lawrence) have disgracefully spread lies about the benefits of LRT.

The attendee’s rage was revealed to the rest of the overflowing room early in the question-and-answer period, when she asked if there was a plan to handle potential lawsuits from businesses affected by construction of the new transit lines. When Stintz attempted to respond, the questioner yelled over her, causing the rest of the audience to urge her to respect the TTC chair (“Let her talk!”). Stintz noted that planners had learned from mistakes made along St. Clair, and, as she would throughout the night, assured the audience that St. Clair–style construction issues would not recur: “I want to make sure people don’t leave the room with the notion that we’re building St. Clair all over the city. That is not the case.” As the audience cheered, the questioner yelled, “you’re a liar,” then repeatedly called Stintz a liar as she fled the room amid a chorus of boos.

Though that was the most dramatic incident, tensions were evident between supporters of the transit plan approved by City Council on February 8 and those backing Mayor Rob Ford’s call for subways and a fully underground Eglinton crosstown line. Most speakers from Scarborough fell in the latter camp, their questions couched in feelings that the eastern suburb deserved better than a transit system they perceived as second-rate. Matlow, responding to a question about why people keep coming back to the subway option asked by a man representing a LRT-friendly coalition of BIAs, said that Scarborough residents and their desire for improved service had been exploited by Mayor Ford, in the “the most cynical type of politics” he had ever witnessed.

Former Scarborough councillor Kurt Christensen listens to the response to his question.

Among the voices from Scarborough, one of the most amusing was a doctor who surveyed his fellow east-end physicians and found that nearly all agreed subways were needed. Far more bellicose was former Scarborough city councillor Kurt Christensen, who believed high-rises built around Scarborough Town Centre justified a subway, traffic at busy intersections along Eglinton would be nightmarish, and LRT shouldn’t be built because both the Scarborough RT and St. Clair line have, in his mind, been disasters. Stintz’s response was blunt: there is no money to build an underground line to Scarborough Town Centre.

Using money wisely was a recurring theme for the organizers, as was examining the evidence backing city council’s plan. Throughout the meeting, Matlow urged the audience to forget promises or rhetoric they’d heard and carefully consider city council’s option, a fiscally responsible plan that he feels would “use every dollar to increase, enhance, and expand public transportation for every corner of the city.” Matlow also reiterated a message he posted on his website on Monday: that if anyone devised a sound, feasible plan for building a subway, he would support it (though he admitted his subway preference was a downtown relief line).

Stintz’s opening remarks were brief. She noted that when the town hall was being planned in December, she and Matlow had imagined they’d be updating their constituents on the Eglinton project and not hosting a forum on recent transit developments. She stressed that financial resources were limited, and emphasized the need to provide the most service to the most residents. “Modern cities have subways, buses, LRTs,” said Stintz. “That’s how modern cities work. That’s how our city works.”

Following the introductions, University of Toronto professor Andre Sorensen gave a presentation on “Transit and Density.” His slideshow depicted a gridlock-clogged future for Toronto, with potential productivity losses of $6 billion if current infrastructure isn’t improved by 2031. Maps showed areas of residential and job density better connected by the original Transit City plan than later, Fordian revisions. He noted that Eglinton was better suited for a rapid-transit line than Sheppard, due to its large chunks of mixed-use, low-density land that would be easier to redevelop. By contrast, existing residential neighbourhoods bordering Sheppard would be difficult to raze for higher-density developments, like condo towers, if the subway were extended west of Yonge.

Part of the town hall audience.

The second presenter was Anna Pace from the TTC’s Transit Expansion Department, who gave updates on construction and design work on the Eglinton LRT. After her slideshow, Pace offered to show a video about LRT in Phoenix, but by this point the session had only an hour to go and the testy audience was eager to move on to the Q&A. Cries of “Enough!” settled the issue.

Audience members raised concerns about emergency-response times, traffic flow, the type of vehicles being built for Eglinton by Bombardier, ease of converting the line to a subway, funding methods, suitability of LRT for winter conditions, implementation of “Shop Local” programs during construction, street beautification, and the timeline for a final decision. Despite occasional heckling, the responses from the councillors and presenters were treated respectfully—sometimes with loud cheers from the pro-LRT contingent.

Among the supportive audience members was Councillor John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West), who told several reporters that he hoped the session cleared the confusion surrounding Toronto’s transit future. Parker noted that much misinformation had been spread, and said that David Miller’s close association with the original Transit City plan made any LRT line toxic in the eyes of those who despised the former mayor.

The next crucial dates for transit planning are March 5, when council will debate whether to change the composition of the TTC board (switching from the current nine councillors to a mix of five private citizens and four councillors), and March 15, when a special council meeting will be held to consider a blue-ribbon panel’s report on Sheppard Avenue transit. (The panel is widely expected to endorse light rail rather than a subway.) Until then, the conversation will remain a heated one. “Don’t go for the bumper-sticker rhetoric or false-promise rhetoric,” Matlow urged during his conclusion. “Look at the facts and you’ll come to your own conclusion.”

UPDATE, 4:58 PM: The full slidedeck of last night’s presentation is now online [PDF].

Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.


  • jennifer

    It was certainly an interesting meeting, especially the kooky yelly lady.

    I really wish that people would stop trashing St. Clair as a “disaster zone”. Syria is a disaster zone. Haiti is a disaster zone. St. Clair is a wonderful street that went through a few years of construction. I lived through it, and while it was annoying at times, I quite simply got on with things and went about my usual business despite the mess. We now have a much nicer streetscape, faster transit, and the area has attracted lots of new residents, shops, restaurants and cafes. Property values are going up and everywhere I go I see people out and about enjoying themselves. Not exactly a disaster.

    • Anonymous

      My daughter moved to the St. Clair and Bathurst area a year and half ago. She absolutely loves it there and would agree with you Jennifer. I’m beginning to think those most opposed to LRT’s have never been anywhere near St. Clair or Spadina, and are just buying the lines feed to them by the mayor and and LRT opponents.

      The mayor push to bury public transit in an effort to reduce gridlock, isn’t well thought out. Especially if we’re considering 50 years down the road. We need to improve transit that moves the most number of people, the shortest distances with the least amount cost and energy use. LRTs, bike lanes and localized communities, do that. Ribbons of roads and highway with single passenger cars – Don’t! Subways are great for moving more people greater distances, but not much better than LRTs for shorter distances. I have relatives living in Scarborough who need to get in a car to get a jug of milk. They would love to be able to walk, but the nearest store is about 15 minutes away. Yet they live 2 minutes away from a major artery. Rezoning those arteries for commerce with good, local public transit could change the middle suburbs completely. Why is it so difficult for people to see that?

      End of Rant!

    • Anonymous

      I also wish people would stop picking on St. Clair. I’ve lived one street south of it for the last 7 years, and the ROW brought a big improvement to the area. That being said it was a pain when it was being built, but construction pains are going to happen regardless of what you build.

    • Anonymous

      I live in the neighborhood, and I think the new ROW is kind of meh: it’s adequate, neither awesome nor terrible. It’s an improvement, but certainly less than was promised: design features like far-side stops, and the lack of transit priority, make the line slower than it should be. In places I find the new design kind of ugly, but it is leading to new development; design-wise, the most positive change was burying the hydro lines, rather than the ROW itself. So it neither deserves complete vilification by the mayor’s allies, nor does it deserve rapturous adulation from the railfans.

  • Anonymous

    Did any of these people see or use Sheppard during the construction of the subway. St Clair was smooth by comparison. The subway took five years, St Clair two.

  • Anonymous

    St. Clair and Bathurst was a scary place previous to the St. Clair ROW.
    St. Clair and Bathurst has been a lovely place to go since construction ended.

    1+1 does not equal 3

  • Anonymous

    What about the other businesses in the city that were not on St. Clair that went bankrupt or went out of business? Do we blame all bankruptcies and retirements city wide on it as well?

    I would instead blame the landlords for raising the leases too high or too fast on St. Clair because of the increased business and activity that arrived on St. Clair after the construction finished.

  • RJR

    i attempted to drive through st.clair west from avenue road to keele street, where i was going. never again. it is convenient for local residents, but not for people trying to do east west crossing.