Wednesday 3 August 2011

Visions of Toronto in the Ford Administration

The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna Toranna are now all that remain
-Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna
When David Miller assumed office in 2003, the legacy of Mel Lastman provided a great challenge. Toronto had a crumbling infrastructure from years of deferring maintenance in favour of property tax freezes and the city’s signature cultural achievement in this time was a series of fibre-glass moose, an idea taken from Chicago.
In his inauguration address at City Hall, Miller recognized existing challenges but struck an optimistic, forward looking tone:
“So, my first appeal to you as Mayor is this: Let this Council -- let us -- be guided by that spirit of openness, which is built into the very walls that surround us. Our challenges are great. The opportunities are greater -- let us start today.”
Miller unveiling the City Hall green roof, a symbol of a newly green city.
Although he inherited a city marred by corruption and limited accountability, whose governance was most marked by gaffes and short-sightedness, Miller saw the potential for something larger. He had a vision that Toronto could be a better place, the aspirational world-class city to which he often referred.
His vision was that with civic engagement - active buy-in to dialogue and ideas from citizens and stakeholders- an open and transparent foundation could be laid to provide opportunities to exercise community-building.
The same cannot be said for Team Ford. The Ford inauguration was filled with the blustering divisiveness of Don Cherry criticizing left-wing pinko cyclist kooks, a marginalizing tone that has continued in various forms throughout the administration.
In contrast to Miller, Ford’s vision is not about building of any sorts, but cuts. As David Rider persuasively writes in a column for the Toronto Star, these cuts are more representative of an animus towards government than the fear of structural deficit. After all, why freeze property taxes and cancel the vehicle registration tax before balancing that deficit?
Rob and Don give the thumbs up at inauguration. National Post.
Granted, Rob and Doug have revealed glimpses of vision here and there. However, the projects they mention include a monorail leading to an NFL stadium, a triple decker Gardiner and compounding Lastman’s Shepperd subway to nowhere.
These proposals, all of which have claims that the private sector will love to pay for them, are laughable enough that satire seems unneeded. Actionable, forward-looking projects like the Fort York bridge or the Jarvis redevelopment have been spitefully killed (the latter due to bike lanes) while Team Ford has mused about selling off Waterfront assets. 
But earnest, realistic city-building can still be found at City Hall. Three councillors, Adam Vaughan, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Josh Colle, currently have projects underway at different stages of development. These projects are each private-public-partnerships (P3s), a favoured form of engagement by the Fordites. While the structure of each deal is appealing to the administration and provide strong value for development money, there are shallow reasons that Team Ford could find to oppose each proposal.
Adam Vaughan and the John Street Cultural Corridor
Artist's rendition of proposed John Street corridor.
Adam Vaughan has been working on the John St. development for some time now in an effort to capitalize on an identified cultural corridor. The street has a lot going for it in terms of different cultural landmarks. It runs from Queen’s Quay and the Rogers Centre Skydome in the south, touching on: MuchMusic, the National Film Board, the Bell Lightbox, Scotiabank Theatre, Princess of Wales and Royal Alex theatres, Roy Thomson Hall and CBC headquarters before ending at Grange Park in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The idea is to link Toronto’s cultural institutions together in a way that encourages people to make the connections as they engage with the street. John is currently broken up by stretches with narrow sidewalk, a disengaging streetscape and little infrastructure.
Partnering up with the local BIA for the $50 million project ($10 million to be paid by the city) the proposed plan seeks to preserve historic buildings, promote business and tourism. More controversially, it would also ‘pedestrianize’ the street (although with removable bollards to allow necessary traffic through) while lining the street with trees and stylized benches.
It’s a pretty good plan that has local business and institutional support and would be a good goal to have complete for the 2015 Pan Am games. It’s not perfect either; Dave Meslin rightly took issue with the cycling stats compiled by consultants in the environmental assessment for instance. The biggest challenge though will be passing the perception test that the project is not ‘gravy’ and doesn’t represent a ‘war on the car’.
Kristyn Wong-Tam and Downtown Yonge's Public Space
Kristyn Wong-Tam’s nascent project will face similar challenges. Working closely and remarkably quickly with the Downtown Yonge BIA, Wong-Tam co-ordinated with local business owners and hired urban planner Ken Greenberg (all money paid by the BIA). The idea is to decrease traffic lanes between Dundas and Gerrard in order to increase room for pedestrians which their study shows is the dominant user of the area. It would also give potential to block off the road for festivals or events and aims to re-vitalize the declining stretch of businesses from Dundas to Gerrard. As with Vaughan’s plan, it uses the P3 structure encouraged by the administration but likewise would limit car use. Also, there’s the fear that as Wong-Tam is another left-leaning councillor the project could be spitefully nixed.
Rendition of Yonge closure by KPMB Architects. 
It’s a fear that would be nice to dismiss as misplaced paranoia but the record on the Jarvis bike lanes and Fort York Bridge shows otherwise. It’s something that Mushy Middle councillor Josh Colle has most certainly noticed. The newly elected councillor for Eglinton-Lawrence had a hold placed by Rob Ford on the Lawrence Heights Revitalization project in advance of the Jarvis Bike Lane vote. (The project aims to renew the neighbourhood through strategically placed mixed housing). The hold was somehow lifted after Colle voted in favour of the bike lane removal, an idea he previously opposed. The message was sent: approve our vision of cutting this part of the city down or we will cut your ward down.
Josh Colle and Cynical Games with Lawrence Heights
Having a vision is difficult. It requires nuanced planning, forethought and engagement. This is not how Team Ford rolls. They operate on divide and conquer strategies as they did with Colle, not collaborative stakeholder buy-in. They operate on slogans like ‘gravy train’ and ‘the war on the car’, ephemeral taglines designed to dismiss actionable, forward-thinking project like John St. and Yonge St. They threaten or axe projects not for policy but for political gamesmanship. 
But most of all, they operate without a vision. Miller wasn’t perfect, but unlike Ford he exhibited this quality. If Toronto is to have a vision during the Ford years, it will be led from the darkness by the wisdom of councillors and citizens who see the shortcomings in the administration’s outlook. Politicians are expected to be leaders, and the hallmark of leadership is the ability to see beyond.      

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