A bridge too far, apparently, for a city not ready for the big time.
Toronto City Council on Wednesday deferred approval of a long-planned pedestrian and cycling bridge across railway tracks giving access to historic Fort York just west of downtown.
The motive force of the deferral is Councilor David Shiner. Between the two of them, Shiner and Esther Shiner, his mom who also served for an eternity on council, advanced the progress of Toronto in some way. As a lifelong Torontonian, I just can't think of a single instance of it. Recalling that one of worst mayors - one of Canada's worst-ever mayors - also came to us by way of North York (that would of course be Mel Lastman), I think of FDR's father's poor regard for Democrats. "I'm not saying all Democrats are horse thieves," FDR would tell friends with a roaring laugh. "But all horse thieves are Democrats."
That's how I feel about North York's contribution to the governance of the larger Metro Toronto.
The proposed bridge's completion was timed for an anniversary of the War of 1812-14, a milestone in Canada's path to independence. The occupying British were uncertain whom Canadian settlers would side with in the dispute. The aboriginals of the region and the Canadians of European descent chose Britain, chose to fight for the future independent Canada rather than seek union with the newish United States.
British forces over-ran Washington, setting fire to and gutting the White House, which was hastily whitewashed and that's how it got its current name. In retailation, the Yanks burned down most of what there was of the settlement of York (later Toronto).
Thanks to Shiner, the bridge now will now be completed at 2015 at the earliest, well past the anniversary. Its current estimated cost of $22 million will rise. If the bridge isn't built, the three years and $1.5 million that has already gone into its planning will have been thrown away.
This is the un-vision that so often characterized Toronto's past, prior to David Crombie's mayoralty beginning in 1972. Only then did we stop tearing down our historical heritage for "box-on-box-on-box" office towers (Frank Lloyd Wright's dismissive expression). Not that we've entirely stopped giving our predecessors' hard work the back of our hand. Even now our neglect for where we came from is evident in Fort York bridge controversy and the 11th-hour rescue of Casa Loma.
What folks like Shiner don't get is that iconic structures define a city. Both locally and on the world stage. The proposed bridge is not some frippery. It would serve a rapidly growing forest of condo towers and other new residential neighborhoods which, no matter what you think of the "curtain of towers" now blocking the view of the waterfront, is an improvement over the derelict former industrial lands on which they've been built.
Cycling is the future, for fitness, recreation, commuting and fresh air for all of us to breathe. Enabling and encouraging Torontonians to form a stronger attachment with our history is the future, as we gain a better appreciation of how differently things could have turned out. Iconic structures obviously are attractions for domestic and external tourism. They signal a city's embrace of innovation, in design and engineering, among other virtues.
Shawn Micallef at spacing toronto has an angry call to action on the Fort York bridge I commend to your attention:
The Fort York pedestrian and cycling bridge is the kind of thing that makes a city a real city. This isn't just some neighbourhood bridge (though it's at the centre of 30,000 residents) or a fey Jane Jacobs cuddly urbanist's wet-dream project or more dipper waste. It's the the big boy and big girl kind of thing cities that matter all have. A Fort York bridge is a prerequisite to being a real city the way, when I was a kid, I only really respected cities with teams in all 4 major North American sports leagues (Toronto was an exception because I knew [and know] we'd get that goddamn NFL team one day).
Every city that matters has a Fort York bridge. Some of them were poor, some had their empires run out, some were bombed to dust during the war, and some are economic embarrassments, but they all built their own Fort York bridges, and we keep talking about them.
What's Micallef he talking about? Among other things, the many world cities defined by their bridges. To wit:
The Charles Bridge crossing the Vitava river in Prague, begun in 1357. (Photo by Paolo Margari.) Like Vancouver's Lions' Gate, San Francisco's Golden Gate and Paris' Pont Neuf and Pont Alexandre III, this bridge defines the Czech capital perhaps more than any structure save the castle that terminates one end of it. The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge made an end of that community's long-held status as America's second-largest city, since the connection now made physical and legal union with Manhattan and the other three boroughs inevitable. Bridges make history.
Pittsburgh, which wins The Economist's vote as America's most liveable city, has gradually emerged from the decline of its mainstay steel industry with a new industrial base of medical and tech research and two of the world's great universities. It has also long fancied itself "the City of Bridges," which fair enough: It boasts more bridges than any city but Venice.
Canadians do "get" bridges.
The planners of the Bloor Street Viaduct (1918) are locally famous for their far-sightedness in planning a double-decker span to someday accommodate a subway - and the Bloor-Danforth TTC line now does traverse the Don Valley thanks to that foresight.
The Amsterdam Bridge at Harbourfront is named for one of Toronto's sister cities. It provides a unique view of one of the waterfront marinas by enabling pedestrians to walk over and look into the sailboats, a vicarious experience not to be missed. And the bridge itself is a visual delight in the subtle way it's lit at night.
The Humber River Arch Bridge, designed by local architects Montgomery and Sisam Architects and Delcan Corporation (bridge engineers) in the style of Santiago Calatrava, is an aesthetic joy in every respect, as EB commentor Darwin O'Connor has noted elsewhere. It has not incidentally boosted the economy of west-end Toronto, reinforcing a western counterpart to the east-end Beach conceived by creative city planners who built an elegantly lit Beach-like boardwalk with a a very few tasteful concessions that has tangibly improved the city's standard of living.
Calgary has recruited Calatrava himself to build the Peace Bridge that will become an integral part of that city's remarkable existing network of pedestrian and cycling trails, a rapid, easy link between the busyness of Canada's second-largest head-office town and the respite of parkland once far beyond the reach of a lunch-break seeker of serenity.
As the Peace Bridge is the future, so is Manhattan's High Line (a.k.a. "a park in the sky), originally an elevated commuter line dating from the 1930s, is a relatively new addition to New York's favourite attractions. Given its unusual location, much of Manhattan's industrial heritage is visible only from this prospect. It also offers a treasure trove of amenities, from flowerbeds tended by the city and by local residents to discreet ampitheatres and seating areas.
It's notable that the High Line, now a must-see for urban planners worldwide, was a citizens' initiative. The persistence required of local residents to transform this long-standing eyesore into a civic jewel is documented here.
We continue in this town to suffer at the hands of people who do not "Dream big, act big," as Daniel Burnham, that greatest of architects and urban planners, long ago exhorted us to do. With few exceptions, such as those shown above, we wallow in mediocrity and a staid status quo. I think we must have fewer statues, gardens and fountains than any city of our size on the planet. (Recent visits to Detroit, of all places, have re-confirmed this.)
Public will can change all this on a dime. Toronto writer and resident Stephen Williams described Toronto in the 1950s as "an outdoor Woolworths." I wish I could report that we have progressed mightily from that time and that accurate description of it, but we have barely begun. It doesn't have to be this way. We can write our 44 city councilors and say enough to second- or third-best for our city.
I'll be writing to mine, and here's a list of who you might contact. Actually, I'm going to let all 44 of them know how I feel, and I'd encourage you to do the same.