Yesterday, council's Executive Committee met to discuss the future of Toronto's waterfront. And it ain't pretty.
As the battle begins over a new vision for Toronto’s waterfront—where everybody’s going to shop by the lake—what it all comes down to is a fight over the very idea of the public realm. The Fords have no taste for such a thing, and might not even understand what it means. Those who have been in on the process since Waterfront Toronto’s inception more than a decade ago believe it should be the driving force behind the development.
Invest in the public realm, and private investment is sure to follow. That’s the view of former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford. Meanwhile, if you put the private sector before the public realm, you get Queen’s Quay. Now adjunct professor of city planning at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University, and senior associate at the Canadian Urban Institute, Bedford came to City Hall yesterday to speak before council’s Executive Committee, which was meeting to discuss the mayor’s new plan for the Port Lands.
This idea, of investment in the public realm coming first, lies at the centre of the current flood control plan. (The Port Lands surround the mouth of the Don River, which like all rivers can sometimes overflow its banks. Flood protection measures must be implemented before any building on the surrounding land can occur.) Team Ford says that there’s no money in place to fund it. Ipso facto, they go on, let’s hit up the private sector—their go-to answer for almost everything. In return for a sweetheart deal on any nearby land, said private sector would, maintain the Fords, happily build the needed infrastructure. Just like they’re lining up to do for the Sheppard subway line. (Cough, cough. Cough, cough.)
Conversely, those who favour investment in the public realm before selling to developers argue that if the public sector builds the flood control infrastructure, the nearby land will increase greatly in value, and the City won’t have to unload properties at a cut rate price. This means more money flowing into government coffers to help offset infrastructure costs. (This is the exact opposite of the argument the Ford administration made about their proposed Sheppard subway line. Of course, they are now having to go to the province, cap in hand, to ask for some seed money to get things rolling. Cough, cough. Cough, cough.)
Never mind the fact that some might argue that it’s the role of government to build infrastructure and not to leave such a vital element of a healthy society to the vagaries of the marketplace. Unless, like the Fords and their neo-con herd of sheep on the Executive Committee, you believe the less a role government plays, the better. Period.
Mayoral brother Doug Ford’s disregard of the public realm is such that he couldn’t be bothered to stick around after the entirely predictable Power Point (and not at all jaw-dropping) presentation of this new proposal and defend his vision to just one or two of the 30 or so deputants who were there to stand up for the current plan. Instead he took to the friendlier environs of a media interview/infomercial and take on “ferris wheel hypocrites.” (You heard it here first, folks.) This allowed the councillor to get out ahead of the sense of dismay and alarm that was building amongst the deputants and crowd at his half-baked, half-cocked waterfront plan in Committee Room 1.
Whatever it is going on in their noggins seems to be completely contrary to the actual facts on the ground. If Tuesday’s Executive Committee meeting showed us anything, it’s that whoever is behind this move to blow up 10 years of planning and replace it with something slapped together under the cover of darkness has no idea what is actually going on on our waterfront. Or if they do, they don’t want their supporters, who they’ll need to push this thing through council, to know.
They tell us that nothing’s going on down there. (There is.) They claim that the whole entirety of Waterfront Toronto is the biggest boondoggle they’ve ever seen. (It isn’t. In fact, it isn’t a boondoggle at all. Don’t believe me? Ask a real life, honest-to-God conservative, former mayor David Crombie. Or even a less than honest-to-God conservative, federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty.) They say the cupboard’s bare and there’s no money anywhere to proceed any further. (Wrong, wrong, wrong.) All of it wrong.
It’s almost as if they can’t stand to see government in action actually succeed. To have to admit that a slow, deliberate, inclusive, democratic process is able to create something special that this city can truly be proud of. That the so-called public realm not only needs to be nourished but if it isn’t, everything else becomes simply a crass, sterile money grab.
Yesterday’s Executive Committee meeting did not show us two competing waterfront visions. What it revealed was two competing visions of urban planning. One, which deputant after deputant advocated for and defended, is a strong, vibrant public realm as the basis for strong, vibrant communities, neighbourhoods, and cities, and a fundamental belief that planning must involve engaging the wider community at every step of the process. The other vision sees only the dreary, time-consuming aspects of public consultation, the ones that gives the appearance of “nothing being done” to those who take citizens’ views to be little more than an afterthought. Those who see planning as nothing more than grand announcements with little substance and much ad hockery. The ones who are working for a desiccated public realm, picked clean and sucked dry by those needing and looking for a quick buck.
It’s city building versus city exploiting. The first isn’t always pretty, but the second masks its ugliness behind bright lights and shiny baubles until it’s too late for us to get a good look at it.