The brothers Ford launched a big boulder in the direction of Waterfront Toronto last week, first denigrating the agency’s efforts as a “boondoggle” and a waste of taxpayers money, and then signaling that its budget is under review.
I’m guessing there’s an unspecified end game here, one that has little do to with the administration’s insinuations about corporate misspending (e.g., Denzil Minnan-Wong’s snide tweets about WT’s “high salaried communications staff”).
It’s worth having a quick look at the agency’s spending plans and track record, because the numbers, all nicely audited and approved by the three shareholders, tell a substantially different tale than the Ford’s fictional version.
Between 2001 and 2010, the agency’s latest statements [PDF] indicate it has spent $725 million on a range of capital projects, including $182 million on utilities and flood plain protection (a provincial regulatory requirement before any private sector development can take place in the West Donlands); $177 million on public spaces; $120 million on land acquisition (i.e., assembling parcels that will be attractive to developers); and $197 million on transportation, the bulk of which has flowed through to GO Transit expansion and the Union Station-Pearson link.
According to the city’s own budget documents [PDF], Toronto’s contribution to WT’s total corporate costs from 2011 to 2019 runs to about $28 million, or just under 7% of the total outlay. Yes, some of the senior staff appear on the sunshine list, but the actual figures — as opposed to the fantasy version — suggests the gravy train didn’t spend a lot of time at WT’s headquarters.
Indeed, the city’s budget documents offer some much more revealing clues about the Fords’ intentions. A Queen’s Quay LRT, for example, is still part of the long-term capital plan. The reason it’s there, despite the Fords’ well-known aversion to streetcars, is that WT’s plans are subject to the agency’s tripartite approvals process, meaning the brothers can’t just hit the delete button, as is their wont.
It is interesting to note that on March 9, a team of three in-house lobbyists from Rogers — including the president of Rogers Media, the division that owns the company’s sports properties — paid a visit to Doug Ford, ostensibly to talk about cell phone towers.
Now, as far as I know, city bureaucrats rubber-stamp cell phone tower applications, so it’s difficult to know why Rogers — which owns the Blue Jays and the Rogers Centre and is famously on the prowl for an NFL franchise — would need to dispatch a platoon of high-ranking arm-twisters to chat up Doug on such a quotidian matter. Perhaps something else came up in the course of a congenial conversation.
Lo and behold, as my colleague Marcus Gee reported in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, Doug a month later has found himself musing publicly about the Hearn Generating Station as a venue for a NFL football stadium. He’s certainly not the first businessman to think about building such a facility on the portlands. Various schemes have surfaced over the years, including a smelly gambit by the former city agency TEDCO to extend grocery magnet Steve Stavros’ lease on a large chunk of waterfront real estate that looked to be a potential stadium site (the secret deal was later nixed).
Tactically, then, the Fords’ conspicuously public aspersions about WT may in fact be aimed at prompting the other two shareholders to crack open the agency’s plans so they can re-arrange the long-range capital budget and cancel the sorts of investments the Fords don’t care for. After all, an NFL stadium certainly won’t get built without a generous dollop of gravy from the public sector, and it seems as if Doug’s had some ideas on where the city can find those dollars.
The remarkable point about all this back channel maneuvering is that the target of their opprobrium, Waterfront Toronto, has been scrupulously, and sometimes frustratingly, transparent about the way it has gone about its business.
They consult relentlessly, follow regulatory procedures to the letter, expose their plans to extensive public and professional scrutiny, and rely on a meticulous approach to procurement, which is how they’ve attracted, in the past three years, developers with very deep pockets, including Houston-based Hines, one of the world’s largest real estate firms, with $23 billion in property assets.
Despite the mayor’s wearying rhetoric about sole-sourcing and respect for taxpayers, the brothers’ boundless contempt for public process and transparency continues to astonish, and stands in stark contrast to the way WT operates.
Maybe a football stadium on the Hearn site is a good idea. Certainly, the SkyDome played an unexpectedly important catalyst role in the redevelopment of the rail lands. But if the gambit here is that the brothers want a football stadium, and if they want Waterfront Toronto and the other two shareholders to re-direct waterfront revitalization funding for such a venture, why not take the high road?
Even though he skips the meetings, Rob Ford does have a seat on the Waterfront board, and of course he has close personal ties to the federal minister in charge of the agency (Jim Flaherty). Yet instead of engaging the agency and the public in a straightforward debate about the idea on its merits, Doug and the ventriloquist dummy in the mayor’s office seem to be trying to, well, fake right.
The hypocrisy is stunning.
photo by Sam Javanrouh