LORINC: The case for compromise on the waterfront

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.

photo by Wylie Poon

11 comments

  1. Well said. Rob needs to shut Doug up before more damage is done. I’m amazed no one else has.

  2. Good points, John. I’d be willing to give him his Ferris wheel if that is enough to keep him happy and play nicely with the current waterfront plan. It is a very symbolic thing that he can point at to claim “victory”, but not nearly as damaging as other parts of his plan. A bit touristic thingy on the waterfront can actually be a good thing.

  3. Just because Doug Ford does things that are politically ill advised doesn’t mean the Rob Ford isn’t as bad or worse. The difference may be that Rob Ford has more people around him keeping him from saying so many dumb things.

  4. Couldn’t agree more, John.

    What bothers me, and John has kinda brought this up in this article, is that Doug Ford SHOULD NOT be doing any of this kind of work since he is a rookie councillor. Doug Holyday is the deputy mayor, not Doug Ford.

    Doug Ford has absolutely no experience in city building or at city hall; he spent the last decade in Chicago working in the biz world. Every rookie councillor needs time to figure out how the city works; Ive heard most councillors say it takes up to 2 years to understand how to make your office work effectively for the residents of your ward and the for the greater good of the city. It is a hard balance.

    From what I can tell Doug is solely concentrating on the mayor’s job and is doing absolutely nothing for Ward 2 residents. His ego might not like it, but THAT IS HIS JOB.

  5. I agree that having the mayor on side with Waterfront Toronto’s main framework for the port lands is a desirable situation for the next three years.

    But since his interest has been sparked by the potential for a quick sale of assets to fill this year’s budget gap, and may not yet have progressed beyond that yet, I hope all councillors are very, very careful.

  6. I’m going to disagree with you on this one, John.

    Watching Obama extend an olive branch to Republican lawmakers only to have them gain the upper hand has taught me that we should not seek compromise with bullies. It is the same here. The Ford plan is an urban planning disaster: a regressive scheme, born in sleazy backroom deals and almost universally panned. It makes a mockery of our democratic process, and consigns years of painstaking collaborative engagement between all levels of government, developers and local residents – which is a miracle in the world of urban planning – to the dustbin. There is nothing redeeming in the Ford’s waterfront plan, and only hardcore Ford supporters would lament watching it die. What do we gain, politically or substantively, from working hand-in-hand with the Fords? Given their manipulative nature, how can we guarantee that a compromise is not a sneaky invitation for them to stab the original WT plan in the back?

  7. @Leonard — that’s why we need the Lower Don EA signed, sealed and delivered as soon as humanly possible. Waterfront Toronto can then beginning marketing the north side of the Keating Channel, and those development agreements/land sales can start to finance the river mouth reconstruction.
     

  8. I have to agree with Leonard on this matter: Rob Ford has had plenty of time to seek real engagement with the board of WT, but he has not done so. That speaks volumes.

    Furthermore–I hope I’m not mis-remembering things here–the EA was to be approved this autumn, but there was a delay introduced this spring. Was this just WT politely bending to the request of one level of government (Toronto) in the WT trio? Without further explanation? Were the behind-the-scenes consultants already working for the TPLC on an alternate plan at that point? Were WT informed of the intent to rescind the MOU at that point?

    We *really* need TO journalists to execute a detailed, serious municipal information request on all correspondence and communication surrounding the TPLC’s consultant contracts and their interaction with the mayor’s office, his brother, and WT to determine what exactly has gone on and whether it meets the good standards of governance *expected* from the Fords. A proper exposé.

    Anything less and the Toronto media are simply twiddling their thumbs in the Waterfront breeze.

  9. I side with Leonard. Until I am convinced that “accelerating” the Port Lands plans, or changing the land use, is really a good idea, any modification takes the decision before the research and public input.

    The Fords are in free fall, and the last thing we need to give them is a net.

  10. Maybe if Doug hadn’t spent the last 10 years in Chicago he would have a better sense of what people want for their waterfront here.

  11. I too am for compromises — but I’m put off compromising with somebody who pulled something out of the backroom ie their ass. Even with political opponents, you fuck with good faith, you don’t get any good will or bending.

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