In the wake of the intense session at the public works committee, the Gardiner East battle was joined by North York councillor James Pasternak, who is said to be shopping around a toll proposal, and then city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who on Friday set planning tongues a wagging by publicly breaking with Mayor John Tory and backing the remove option.
It’s not clear whether either of these will influence undecided councillors.
Pasternak’s move looks to me like a half-baked ploy meant to assuage right-of-centre suburban councillors who are feeling squirmy about the high cost of the hybrid. Perhaps Pasternak reckons he can firm up the pro-hybrid faction with some kind of motion asking for a study on tolling options/revenues, etc., etc. But I’m guessing his supporters would go to ground at the first sign of trouble – e.g., directed robocall campaigns, talk radio call-in sessions, etc.
As for Keesmaat, my feeling is that she’s preaching to the choir, and everyone at 100 Queen West. understands that fact of council life. Initially, it seemed vaguely scandalous that such a senior official would break with the chief magistrate. But her views on planning issues are nothing if not well known. In any event, she would have been asked the question when the Gardiner debate starts in council. Unless her boss John Livey decides to bench her for the duration, Keesmaat would have expressed her professional opinion. She just did it a few weeks early.
The question I have is whether council is prepared to consider some kind of middle ground – an art-of-compromise deal that splits the difference by assuaging the suburban right’s concerns about traffic and cost, and the downtown left’s critique of highway building.
Interestingly, public works chair Jaye Robinson told me a few days after the committee session that she wants to see a third option emerge. “I’m hoping there’s some kind of middle ground. That would be exciting to find.” And, as she added at the time, “We have three full weeks, so there’s lots of time.”
Robinson’s view is significant. She was one of the first councillors to break with former mayor Rob Ford when his brother Doug sought to commandeer the waterfront revitalization file. Robinson’s critique flowed from her concerns about the fate of the lower Don revitalization, and the way the Fords’ scheme ran roughshod over years of intensive public consultation.
Her council status is also significant. Then, as now, she was a member of the executive committee, and thus constrained in her capacity to break with the mayor on a major issue while maintaining her status in his inner circle.
There’s little question in my mind that Robinson is uncomfortable with the hybrid option. During private briefings before the committee meeting with the mayor and senior staff, she said she needed to understand the impact of the hybrid on the Lower Don Revitalization, which is expected to cost almost $1 billion. “That was the first question out of my mouth.”
As for the proposed configuration of the hybrid, she told me she’s “not crazy about” the fact that it now swings down to the Keating, an alignment that did not figure in developer First Gulf’s original conception, circulated last fall during the election campaign. Lastly, Robinson said she was surprised by the fact that the hybrid route would pass through land slated for private development – a detail Robinson claims she didn’t discover until developer Alfredo Romano and his lawyer deputed at the committee meeting.
Okay, so what does middle ground look like?
Robinson’s information requests, which are appended to the motion that has been forwarded without recommendation to council, offer a few clues: she wants to know more about additional lane capacity and measures such as pedestrian overpasses for the portion of the boulevard that cut through the Keating precinct before meeting up with a tamed Lakeshore Blvd. near Cherry Street.
At first glance, such moves are hardly ideal and point to the prospect of a large, over-engineered arterial road. But it seems to me that if we take the long view, it’s better for the city to build a wide surface road that’s set back from the water and can be narrowed later on, as opposed to an extremely pricey elevated highway that permanently compromises the viability of the water’s edge.
Shelley Carroll, in fact, offered up a thought-provoking way of reconceptualizing the planning implications of a broad boulevard in a note to constituents sent out after the committee meeting:
“The Committee is made up of staunch Tory supporters—most of us are—but they heard a strong case for the ‘Boulevard’ option (also known as the ‘Removal’ option) and a weak case for the expensive ‘Elevated’ option. I call the ‘Removal’ option the ‘Boulevard’ option because it is important to note that under this option we are talking about a completely redesigned, high capacity boulevard that offers the City a new downtown business park…. [italics added]”
I’ve certainly never heard anyone at or around Waterfront Toronto describe the northern portion of the Keating precinct – i.e., the part that hugs the rail corridor and would be bisected by the boulevard — as a “business park.” Quite the contrary. WT’s vision is one of mixed use residential development, streetscapes and public spaces.
The question implicit in Carroll’s description is this: what would happen if that area was developed in a more workaday way, with light industry, unremarkable commercial buildings, back-office uses, and maybe even a few smaller box stores? Is there anything wrong with that kind of development?
Absolutely not. Cities aren’t just made up of condos and Class A office buildings, even though it often seems like we only care about those forms in this day and age. We need zones like Eastern Avenue or Adelaide Street West or Dupont Avenue — lunch bucket urban spaces that aren’t designed to be lively pedestrian/retail zones populated by the slim-legged denizens of Photoshop Nation.
Indeed, if we re-think the mandate of that cramped corner of the Keating precinct, and resist the temptation to shoe-horn pedestrian-friendly building forms into every nook and cranny of the waterfront, then we can begin to think differently about what — and what not — to expect of this new surface road. Perhaps, for the time being, a big ol’ noisy bit of road is okay, as long as it sits on the ground. Not great, but better than the alternative on the table.
Over time, the city will figure out how to grow into this challenged landscape. Eventually, desultory low-rise buildings may yield to better buildings, which will beget streetscape improvements and perhaps even lane reductions. But the trade off, from where I sit, seems to be more than worth the price: an unobstructed Keating, continuous residential/recreational development along the waterfront, where it belongs, and lower capital costs that allow the city to spend on other things.
Kumbaya redux? Who knows? But in a tough, city-building contest in which so much is at stake, I’d say that a broadly supported compromise is preferable to a narrow and divisive victory.