Amidst the torrent of objections to Doug Ford’s backroom Port Lands plan, a central theme stands out: that Waterfront Toronto deserves enormous praise for its deep commitment to consulting the people of Toronto.
At this juncture, however, I would argue there is one person in this city who desperately needs to be engaged – thoroughly and constructively – in the efforts to rebuild the Port Lands, and his name is Rob Ford. He’s our mayor (yes!), and he, more than anyone else right now, must find his way to a place where he can embrace what will eventually rise on that vast expanse of reclaimed, polluted land.
With the extraordinarily fluid political situation at City Hall, it’s become possible to imagine that Item EX 9.6 – “The Toronto Port Lands Company – Revitalization Opportunities for the Port Lands” — could fail on a close vote this week. Many in the rapidly growing ranks of the anti-Ford Nation would like to see such an outcome, as do respected voices, such as former chief planner Paul Bedford.
On the merits alone, EX9.6 deserves to be buried in a landfill and forgotten forever. As many commentators have noted, the back-handed way the mayor’s brother foisted this hare-brained scheme onto Toronto residents reveals a deep current of contempt for the institutions of municipal government in this city.
But I’d argue that a straight-up defeat, though politically cathartic, fails to address a key medium term issue: Waterfront Toronto must have the ability to secure financial and in-kind contributions from the City of Toronto, which has invested far less in the $1.5 billion revitalization efforts than its federal and provincial partners. If the mayor – and I will explain in a moment why I’m not talking about the brothers Ford in this context — continues to position himself in opposition to WT, his administration will have every incentive to use bureaucratic measures to gum up the agency’s work and block its future funding requests.
So what could a compromise look like?
Here’s one: Council endorses Waterfront Toronto’s plan for naturalizing the mouth of the Don River, as well as a motion calling on the provincial government to rapidly approve the environmental assessment that’s been gathering moss on a desk at Queen’s Park for six months. The motion further rejects the recommendation, contained in EX9.6, to install TPLC as the lead agency for revitalizing the Port Lands.
But a compromise deal also involves an amendment asking city manager Joe Pennachetti (i) to initiate a preliminary market study on the potential for a new tourist attraction, to be situated somewhere on the Port Lands; (ii) to review the approved land use plan for the Port Lands to determine how to increase commercial and/or office employment uses within the context of the approved estuary/flood plain configuration as well as the Waterfront Secondary Plan; (iii) to propose a public consultation strategy for the foregoing.
The point is to jettison the worst and most damaging elements of EX9.6 while allowing the mayor’s office to engage with Waterfront Toronto to find ways of updating the land use strategy to address his objectives (e.g., more retail) and accelerate the development process where possible.
Does this mean we’ll see a mall floating in a sea of blacktop at the foot of Poulson’s Quay? Certainly not if the Don mouth EA remains in tact. What’s more, the Ontario Municipal Board has shot down lakefront mall proposals before, and will do so again. But it’s also important not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. The Port Lands is a huge area; Commissioner Street itself is about the length of Queen between Spadina and Parliament. There’s room for all sorts of things.
Which brings me to Doug. Over the past two weeks, we’ve watched as Doug, the allegedly smarter older brother, blithely inflicted a major political wound in his brother’s hide. It is, after all, Rob Ford’s approval ratings that are going off the cliff, with the Port Lands debacle playing an obvious role as the tipping point moment.
Does the mayor understand what’s happened here?
I have no special insight into their relationship. But there are always power dynamics between older and younger brothers, a complicated psychological terrain that extends deep into childhood. Does such a dynamic exist between Doug and Rob? You can bet your boots. Do we know how it works when no one else is around? No. Does the state of their relationship bear on the city’s well-being? I’d say so.
In many ways, this is the stuff of literature, not journalism. But it’s hard to imagine that the mayor didn’t have his eyes pried open just a little bit in the past two weeks. He’s had to watch members of his executive committee bolt. He’s read the polling data. And maybe — just maybe — the mayor is now asking himself how Doug factors into this torrent of bad news, and whether he can, in fact, trust his judgment in the way that he’s done up to this point.
More than anything, a compromise engages the mayor while signaling Doug that he’s got a thing or two to learn about this new hobby of his called politics.