Supporters of Mayor Ford's Port Lands plan, and other waterfront reflections
It was a busy week on the Port Lands file. Despite writing several stories, many of my interviews never made it into print. Below are some of them. They were conducted Thursday and Friday.
But first, two points that sometimes get lost.
1. While the visions of Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Port Lands Co. are very different in terms of components (parks, flood protection, retail, etc.) perhaps the most critical difference is in their business models. Waterfront Toronto is using its seed money to service -- put in sewers, water, roads and other infrastructure -- land in the centre of the Port Lands with the first neighbourhood. That will raise the value of the land. After it's sold to developers, the proceeds will be used to service the next parcel. The more services, the more development, the more people living and visiting, the higher the value of the land. That's most true for residential, less so for commercial. The model proposed by the Fords and Toronto Port Lands Co. is to sell unserviced land, at cheaper prices, to developers who will pay to put in the infrastructure. They argue that the more intense commercial development in their plan will lead to higher tax revenues for the city, more job creation for residents and more revenue from tourists, lifting the eonomy as a whole. Proponents of Waterfront Toronto's model say you use seed money to maximize the value of the land and get a livable, sustainable vibrant waterfront community.
2. For the Fords, the key is that proceeds from the land sales flow into city coffers and not to Waterfront Toronto. Look for any amendments coming from the mayor's office or its proxy to preserve that goal. The budget chief, Councillor Mike Del Grande, has linked the need for revenue from land sales to the city's budget shortfall that he pegs at $774 million. When councillors have raised concerns with Doug Ford that his plan is a fire sale of land to plug the budget hole, he denies it, but they note both he and the budget chief have publicly linked the opportunity and the problem.
Here are the interviews:
Councillor Norm Kelly, Ward 40 Scarborough-Agincourt, chair of the parks and environment committee and member of Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee: "Absolutely" supports negotiating with senior levels of government to regain sole land of the Port Lands from the intergovernmental Waterfront Toronto. "I want an area that's livable, commercially viable and affordable, and creates more jobs faster than in the projected roll-out of Waterfront Toronto's plan." Kelly, a former chair of history at Upper Canada College, used the rallying cry from Quebec's Quiet Revolution "Maîtres chez nous" (masters of our own house) to describe Toronto's need to take back full control of its eastern waterfront from Waterfront Toronto. However, he applauded Waterfront Toronto for creating some "fabulous" parks. "I think that, given the changing context in the city (referring to the budget shortfall) the government of Toronto has an obligation to review everything at its disposal." When asked about the 147 planners, architects, designers and other experts who wrote an open letter to councillors asking them to stick with Waterfront Toronto's Port Lands plan, Kelly said: "There seems to be an orthodoxy out there and orthodoxies need to be challenged. We can accelerate the value of this land sooner rather than later, and what's wrong with that?"
Councillor Paul Ainslie, Ward 43 Scarborough East, chair of the government management committee and a member of Ford's executive committee: "I support the new vision. We need to get the private sector involved, create new partnerships. It's a vision, it's not set in stone. I fully don't expect to see a ferris wheel on the Port Lands." Ainslie said he's willing to look at the idea of a monorail. He said he had asked proponents of the Waterfront Toronto plan where they would get the $654 million needed to implement its flood protection plan, which includes a new "naturalized" mouth for the Don River. They didn't know and suggested the federal and/or provincial governments, but little had been done to press the senior Waterfront Toronto partners, he said. (Waterfront Toronto says council will next week see its plan to pay for flood protection. Since the ageny has no ability to borrow, it's believed they will suggest the governments guarantee loans against the future value of the land.) Ainslie said people talk about what a great job Waterfront has done on projects including Sugar Beach ("there's sand but you can't swim there") but the ageny has done nothing attention-grabbing to get his Scarborough constituents to make a point of visiting them. "We can go to Rouge Beach and actually swim in Lake Ontario. Today, after 10 years, what have we got that makes me want to go to the Port Lands? Absolutely nothing." Ainslie said he's willing to consider a compromise between the two visions "but I want to see things get built."
Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, Ward 12 York-South Weston, a council centrist who generally backs Mayor Ford.He said Thursday he was trying to assess both sides, adding "there's an element of time and public investment that needs to be looked at very closely." All kinds of schemes can be put forward for the waterfront "but at some point we need realistic costing and ask, is it doable?" He said Waterfront Toronto's plan might not be doable and "we may proceed in a slightly different way, looking at reviewing the situation, reducing the costs overall in grandiose schemes. Waterfront Toronto is heavily reliant on public investment before anything can happen." He favours the Fords' approach, where developers who buy the land pay for infrastructure, rather than Waterfront Toronto's, where the agency services the land to raise the value of it, then sells it and uses the proceeds to service more of the land. He said the Waterfront Toronto vision "will take two lifetimes, maybe three to come to fruition." Di Giorgio said Waterfront Toronto's plans for mixed-income condos are not realistic, that the economics don't work and only wealthy people will be able to afford to buy on the waterfront. "It's a fallacy, it's pie in the sky to sell this based on mixed communities."
Councillor Gary Crawford, Ward 36 Scarborough Southwest, a rookie conservative who often backs Ford: Interviewed on Thursday, he was unsure how he would vote and was waiting to talk to Waterfront Toronto representatives that afternoon. "I'm assuming there is going to be amendments or compromise, I haven't made any decisions yet. What's coming before council isn't this wonderful grand design. We're not voting on a ferris wheel. I, like everyone else, have concerns about that vision. "It's about the environmental assessment and the watershed aspect. Am I comfortable with Waterfront Toronto on its environmental assessment. Once the watershed questions are decided, that determines where we go." He expected there to be attempts at compromise. "I'd like to see the two sides work together." He would like to see Waterfronto Toronto move quicker with its plans. "Is there an opportunity to develop that entire parcel quicker than 25 years? Waterfront may come back and say they can do it quicker."
Mary-Margaret McMahon, Ward 32 Beaches-East York, a rookie centrist who is a fiscally conservative environmentalist. She is organizing council opposition to Ford's plan to turn control of waterfront development over to Toronto Port Lands Co., which is charged with leasing waterfront land and cleaning polluted soil but has, apparently at the behest of the Mayor and Councillor Doug Ford, presented the alternate "vision." She believes their plan would be a planning and environmental disaster and that putting a huge shopping centre ("They say it's a town centre but whether it's outdoor or whatever it's a megamall - we're talking thousands of parking spaces on the waterfront) in the Port Lands is madness. She says she formed her opinion after taking office and going to Waterfront Toronto and seeing their plans and projects and being extremely impressed with their soil remediation works. When the alternative waterfront vision became public, she started organizing "field trips - I used to be a teacher" taking councillors to Watefront Toronto's Bay St. office to get their side of the story. She is targeting centre and centre-right councillors -- the swing votes. Those who have gone or are scheduled to go before the council vote include Chin Lee, Ana Bailão, Michelle Berardinetti, James Pasternak, Frank Di Giorgio, Raymond Cho, Jaye Robinson and Mary Fragedakis. On the thorny point of compromise, McMahon says she could live with "some more retail, some more boutiques along the canal", but not much more. Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Port Lands Co. "are so far apart in their visions I have trouble seeing how co-operation would work. Doug Ford really wants to really develop the Port Lands. I mean, a megamall! I don't like malls anywhere but on our precious waterfront? I would like to see the agencies work together but I can't compromise Waterfront Toronto's vision." Doug Ford has lobbied McMahon. Asked if she thinks Ford would be willing to compromise on his vision -- "he really believes in developing this as a destination, an entertainment district, full on" -- McMahon sees one critical sticking point. Ford is adamant that the money from land sales must flow into city coffers. Under the current plan, the revenue would go to Waterfront Toronto to spend on servicing new parcels of land for sale. Asked if she thinks she has the votes at council to defeat the motion to start negotiating with senior governments to regain sole control of the land, McMahon says: "I don't know. I think it's going to be very, very close."
Michael Thompson, Ward 37 Scarborough Centre, chair of the economic development committee and a member of Ford's executive committee. Thompson says he believes both the Fords' vision and Waterfront Toronto's vision can be accommodated, and public consultation is needed to strike the right balance. He says he would vote to start the process of regaining complete control of the Port Lands. He suggested the memorandum of understanding with senior governments that governs Waterfront Toronto could potentially be renegotiated so that some of the money from land sales would flow directly to the city treasury, and some would stay with Waterfront Toronto.
A final observation gleaned from the interviews above and others: Nobody is more responsible for the current debate than Doug Ford. Councillors of all stripes said his interview on CBC Radio, laying out a detailed malls-and-monorail vision, and revealing that the vision had been presented to people, was a tactical error in revealing the alternate Port Lands vision before it was ready. The Toronto Port Lands Co. representatives briefing councillors on the merits of their vision have admitted as much and so, to a degree, has Ford himself. The result was a half-baked presentation to executive committee, a headache for the Ford administration while it's trying to get support for deep cuts to city services, and the alienation of Ford allies including two members of his executive committee. But councillors of all stripes also commented that, painful as it is, the debate is a good thing in that it thrust Toronto's waterfront to the top of the city's mind at a time when most people were, at best, only vaguely aware of development plans. No matter the outcome of next week's council meeting, nobody can say Torontonians looked away from the lake.