Uncertainty over the Port Lands: something’s off on the waterfront

Waterfrontfriendly

So to no one’s great surprise, Team Ford has carried the day at the city’s Executive Committee with its new vision of how Toronto’s waterfront should look. Barring any more surprises (never a safe bet with this crowd), it will land in city council’s lap in a couple of weeks.

On the surface, it’s relatively easy to suss out the motive for it, even if the official narrative still needs some polish. (Is this a “plan” or a “vision?” And what’s the difference?) It’s natural to want results when so much has been invested and we’ve been waiting so long. That the future of the waterfront and the port lands has been tied up for decades in political disputes and competing visions shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

In this light, Team Ford’s entry seems predicated on impatience with the slow pace. You can also discern clues in the language they use – note Brother Doug’s use of the pejorative term “boondoggle,” for example. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve resorted to shallow and emotionally loaded terms at odds with reasoned discussion. Nor shown a somewhat flexible approach to history, as Doug’s apparent dismissal of all the work done to date suggests.

One can’t really condemn them for impatience. I’m sure we’ve all wanted, at some point, to wave a magic wand and make it all happen NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW.

Understandable, if you’re a spoiled five-year-old. In the world of adults, however, things don’t just happen overnight.

Once again, some historical context might be worthwhile. (Has anyone noticed yet how almost every utterance from Team Ford seems devoid of any appreciation of local history, or worse, informed by a mutant and distorted version of history predicated less on facts than on resentment?) Anyone remotely familiar with what’s been happening on the Toronto waterfront over the past few decades knows about the interjurisdictional squabbles, the political paralysis, the disruptive influence of various commissions and authorities, the continuing questions about the island airport and the island residential community, and the repeated distractions tied up with real or notional Olympic bids. In that context, it’s a wonder that anything’s been accomplished at all.

Getting all three levels of government – not to mention the other stakeholders – to agree on a common set of principles is an enormously complicated thing. That’s why it takes time. Most worthwhile things do. One wants to think that whatever progress Waterfront Toronto has made over the past few years – and I’m not arguing that they’re perfect – has likewise been informed by the sober realization that the various levels of government need to pony up the cash, ensure that the right decisions are being made by the right people for the right reasons – and then get the hell out of the way. Sane, rational planning can’t take place when the future of the waterfront is tied up in short-term politics.

As several observers have already pointed out, Team Ford’s sudden intrusion into the process threatens to take years of planning, consultation, standard-setting, consensus-building and a provincially mandated environmental assessment process – and render it irrelevant. We’re not just talking about nice architectural renderings. We’re talking about soil remediation, water quality, building standards, land-use planning, zoning, community consultation, and long-term rehabilitation. Does anyone know how much it’s going to cost to start from scratch?

While it’s been tempting to milk the culture-war aspect of this (has anyone counted the number of Simpsons references?), it’s not a question of cheap shots about monorails or giant Ferris wheels. It’s about hundreds of millions of dollars invested in a rational, deliberative process. It’s about producing the best long-term outcome for the city and avoiding the mistakes of the past. Once again, we have to wonder – why derail it? Who benefits? It can’t just be impatience with process or a desire to trash David Miller’s legacy.

It’s easy to take cheap shots about greed, ignorance and revenge, given the way the Fords have conducted themselves, but ultimately one can’t help but think that the answer is both deeper and more sinister. The clues are already there for anyone who cares to look.

And what you find when you look doesn’t exactly do much for the comfort level. It’s not just a question of disagreement or differing visions. Team Ford’s seeming disregard for the formal rules and established conventions of governance has already been on display, most notably with the recent blindsiding of local councillors. One would think that if you’re contemplating a major event in someone’s constituency, you’d at least want to give him or her a heads-up; one hand washes the other and all that. You never know when you’re going to need his or her support for an initiative of your own. It’s common courtesy, and while it’s not guaranteed to produce perfect results, it’s how productive legislative bodies function despite the partisan leanings of their individual members.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, well, just look at the saga of the Jarvis bike lanes. Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s work with residents and businesses on a long-term revitalization of the street is cast aside. In its place, we got a rash short-term decision motivated, apparently, by little more than a desire to make cars go faster. Two councillors representing other wards carried the ball on this, aided by on-the-fly procedural rulings from the speaker, without any regard for Ms. Wong-Tam.

You can seen a similar dynamic at work in the Port Lands. The area in question is in Paula Fletcher’s ward, but was she consulted? Did anyone on the mayor’s team talk to her before Brother Doug (who represents a ward in Etobicoke, nowhere near the site) dropped his bombshell? Nope. She wasn’t involved in the discussions. Doug, was, however, for months – raising the question: Isn’t this just the sort of thing that would have had Councillor Rob Ford on his feet yelling about corruption?

What next? Who’s the next councillor to be sideswiped? How can anyone predict?

Then there are the questions about the Fords’ relationship with an influential developer who controls a long-term lease on land in the area. As research by York University’s Robert MacDermid shows:

An influential Vaughan developer, who donated generously to Mayor Rob Ford’s pre- and post-election fundraising drives, controls a long-term lease on the Port Lands’ Hearn Generating Station, which has been proposed as a site for an NFL stadium by the mayor’s brother Doug, wrote The Globe and Mail April 29.

Developer Mario Cortellucci, together with various relatives and individuals who listed his company’s premises on their donor forms, contributed $30,000 to the mayor’s campaign, about half of which was raised following the election as part of a multi-candidate effort to eliminate campaign deficits. He also secured a private meeting with Rob Ford, according to scheduling documents released under access to information laws.

And more recently, did Brother Doug attend meetings he shouldn’t have been allowed into? Aren’t there rules about that sort of thing?

Again, all of this gives an air of entitlement, impatience, and a sense of “rules are for the little people, not me and my rich and powerful friends.” Regardless of whose vision you prefer – Waterfront TO or Doug’s friends – you can’t help but wonder about the attendant turbulence and instability.

It doesn’t matter whether your primary concern is private investment or public planning and consultation. Neither can thrive in an atmosphere of risk and uncertainty.

Update: The indispensible Ed Keenan uses even stronger language.

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