Ferris Wheel Of Fortune

September 11, 2011

(Repurposing of our Wednesday post over at Torontoist, with bad grammar and possibly poor spelling reinserted from an earlier draft.)

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As the battle begins over a new vision for Toronto’s waterfront, the Fort Sumter shot fired by Councilllor Doug Ford’s commercial heavy, where’s everybody going to shop by the lake dream, what it all comes down to is a fight over the public realm. The Ford’s have no taste for such a thing, might not even understand what it means. Those who have been in on the process since Waterfront Toronto’s inception more than a decade ago believe it should be the driving force behind the development.

Invest in the public realm, and private investment is sure to follow. That’s the view of former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford. Meanwhile, if you put the private sector before the public realm, you get Queen’s Quay. Now adjunct professor of city planning at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University, and senior associate at the Canadian Urban Institute, Bedford came to City Hall yesterday to speak before council’s Executive Committee, which was meeting to discuss the mayor’s new plan for the Port Lands.

This idea, of investment in the public realm coming first, lies at the centre of the current flood control plan. (The Port Lands surround the mouth of the Don River, which like all rivers can sometimes overflow its banks. Flood protection measures must be implemented before any building on the surrounding land can occur.) Team Ford says that there’s no money in place to fund it. Ipso facto, they go on, let’s hit up the private sector– their go-to answer for almost everything. In return for a sweetheart deal on any nearby land, said private sector would, maintain the Fords, happily build the needed infrastructure. Just like they’re lining up to do for the Sheppard subway line. (Cough, cough. Cough, cough.)

Conversely, those who favour investment in the public realm before selling to developers argue that if the public sector builds the flood control infrastructure, the nearby land will increase greatly in value, and the City won’t have to unload properties at a cut rate price. This means more money flowing into government coffers to help offset infrastructure costs. (This is the exact opposite of the argument the Ford administration made about their proposed Sheppard subway line. Of course, they are now having to go to the province, cap in hand, to ask for some seed money to get things rolling. Cough, cough. Cough, cough.)

Never mind the fact that some might argue that it’s the role of government to build infrastructure and not to leave such a vital component for a healthy society to the vagaries of the market place. Some might argue. Unless, like the Fords and their neo-con herd of sheep on the Executive Committee, you believe the less a role government plays, the better. End stop.

Mayoral brother Doug Ford’s disregard of the public realm is such that he couldn’t be bothered to stick around after the entirely predictable Power Point (and not at all jaw-dropping) presentation of this new proposal and defend his vision to just one or two of the 30 or so deputants who were there to stand up for the current plan. Instead he took to the friendlier environs of a media interview/infomercial to take on “ferris wheel hypocrites.” (You heard it here first, folks.) This allowed the councillor to get out ahead of the sense of dismay and alarm that was building amongst the deputants and crowd at his half-baked, half-cocked waterfront plan in Committee Room 1.

Whatever it is going on in their noggins seems to be completely contrary to the actual facts on the ground. If Tuesday’s Executive Committee meeting showed us anything, it’s that whoever is behind this move to blow up ten years of planning and replace it with something slapped together under the cover of darkness has no idea what is actually going on on our waterfront. Or if they do, they don’t want their supporters who they’ll need to push this thing through council to know.

They tell us that nothing’s going on down there. (There is.) They claim that the whole entirety of Waterfront Toronto is the biggest boondoggle they’ve ever seen. (It isn’t. In fact, it isn’t a boondoggle at all. Don’t believe me? Ask a real life, honest to God conservative, former mayor David Crombie. Or even a less than honest to God conservative, federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty.) They say the cupboard’s bare and there’s no money anywhere to proceed any further. (Wrong, wrong, wrong.) All of it wrong.

It’s almost as if they can’t stand to see government in action actually succeed. To have to admit that a slow, deliberate, inclusive, democratic process is able to create something special that this city can truly be proud of. That the so-called public realm not only needs to be nourished but if it isn’t, everything else becomes simply a crass, sterile money grab.

Yesterday’s Executive Committee meeting did not show us two competing waterfront visions. What it revealed was two competing visions of urban planning. One, which deputant after deputant advocated for and defended, is a strong, vibrant public realm as the basis for strong, vibrant communities, neighbourhoods and cities. A fundamental belief that planning must involve engaging the wider community at every step of the process just as Waterfront Toronto has done. The dreary, time consuming aspect of public consultation that gives the appearance of `nothing being done’ to those who hold citizens’ views as little more than an afterthought. Those who see planning as nothing more than grand announcements with little substance and much ad hockery. A desiccated public realm, picked clean and sucked dry by those needing and looking for a quick buck.

It’s city building versus city exploiting. The first isn’t always pretty but the second masks its ugliness behind bright lights and shiny baubles until it’s too late for us to get a good look at it.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


Another Thought on Toronto’s Governance

September 18, 2010

Just in case anyone thinks it’s Cityslikr who does all the heavy lifting/seminar going around this office, I too was in attendance at Tuesday’s Rethinking Toronto’s Governance session at U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance. Simply because he doesn’t have a life and rushes home to immediately put fingertips to keyboard, doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has thoughts on the event. Some like to allow time for percolation and reflection before popping off. Coffee and thinking. Coffee and thinking.

One interesting angle from the session which my colleague did not touch upon was a statement Paul Bedford made about a visiting urban thinker to Toronto. (I don’t take notes. Check the IMFG website when the webcast is posted for exact details.) After a walk throughout the city, this particular individual told Mr. Bedford (and I’m paraphrasing here) that while Toronto was most definitely a city of neighbourhoods, there was no overall cohesive whole.

What?! But that’s the kind of city we are! A city of neighbourhoods. Please don’t call our identity into question.

It’s an interesting observation even if perhaps apocryphal, given how well it aligned with the gist of Mr. Bedford’s talk especially when taken with Kyle Rae’s view that council remains ward-centric and many citizens refuse to let go of ‘old’ Toronto (and Etobiocoke and North York et al) and embrace the amalgamated entirety. How do you build one city from six? Is it possible to unite around a place called Toronto when many of its components (Etobicoke and North York et al) resent and dislike the very name of it unless it precedes the words `Maple Leafs’?

The Board of Trade’s Richard Joy was pessimistic that it could be done. Saying that it was strictly his opinion and not that of the TOB and refusing to use the word ‘de-amalgamation’ (there are precedents for that sort of thing, ie Montreal), he did wonder if the megacity was a failed experiment. In a peculiar twist from that thought, he expressed more interest in a region wide approach to governance. 416 and 905. Big and small. Small and big.

These are interesting times, here in Toronto. Living in a city that isn’t comfortable in its own skin. Factional about urban planning. Jealous like siblings over how our resources are spent. And now preyed upon and exploited by mayoral candidates who campaign within the fault lines while vowing to lead us, followed, of course, by a disingenuously heart-felt I Love My City coda.

This divide we’re dealing with is, like the supposed red state-blue state division expounded upon endlessly in the U.S., what I think is called a heuristic technique. (At least I hope so because the other word that comes to mind is `hirsute’ and that puts a different spin on the matter, entirely.) I’m quoting E. Barbara Phillips here, heuristic: “a model, assumption or device that is not necessarily scientifically true but is a useful tool to aid in the discovery of new relationships.”

Or perhaps in the case of our mayoral campaign, a model, assumption or device not necessarily scientifically true but useful to divide and conquer.

Are there differences between the downtown core and the inner suburbs? No doubt. Some are desirable; the unique cogs that make up this thing we call diversity. But what about those differences that are less positive? Can they be overcome? Well, that’s the 11.6 billion dollar question. They certainly can’t be if whatever inequities and imbalances do exist aren’t addressed directly by those wanting to be our next mayor instead of being used as a wedge to drive the two solitudes further apart merely for electoral gain.

If we can’t outgrow this largely mental divide — that there’s a war on cars, that downtown elites are dining on caviar harvested from the sweat of toil of hardworking suburban regular Joes, that Scarberians only want to be left alone to sit in their underwear eating BBQ on their John Deeres – we should just call it a day, cut our losses and go our separate ways. After asking permission from the province, of course. It isn’t possible to coalesce into a more unified entity when our fledgling leaders endeavour to lead by promoting disharmony.

That’s what we call a lack of vision, and the absolute last thing Toronto can endure at this juncture in its existence. We need to see what it is that makes us one city. Those commonalities unique to this place that differentiates us not from each other but from other places, other cities, other regions. The civic glue holding Toronto together in good times and bad.

Is there any aside from following professional sports teams that suck? If not, well then, these municipal elections amount to little more than futile exercises that occur every four years, serving only to get everyone’s hackles up before we all retreat back into our 44 little enclaves, telling each other to stay the hell off our lawn.

neighbourly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Conservatives ♥ Smitherman

September 16, 2010

Conservatives For Smitherman!

Strike you as odd? Really? Like how odd? Jews For Jesus odd? Red Sox For Yankees odd?

When some prominent local conservatives signed a letter in support of George Smitherman’s mayoral candidacy yesterday, the interwebs concerned with such matters lit up. The Rob Ford/Rocco Rossi right wing base (or, in the case of Mr. Rossi, let’s call it Sue Ann Levy) were all up in arms, defining themselves as true or real conservatives as opposed to those who’d signed the Smitherman pledge who were.. how’d Sue Ann put it ..? “the fah-fah Rosedale crowd”. The same “fah-fah Rosedale crowd” Ms. Levy sought to represent when she ran in last year’s provincial by-election under the Progressive Conservative banner, proving once again that the new conservative mind has no institutional memory whatsoever; replaced entirely by a simple binary yes, no, yes, no, thought that can’t recall the events of the previous day let alone year.

For their part, supporters of Joe Pantalone waved the letter about as proof that Smitherman was, to use their candidate’s own nifty campaign catch-phrase, just another mini Mike Harris. An easy leap to make since the letter was signed by some former members of the Harris government. This was the smoking gun to show that Smitherman was a Liberal in name only.

The surprise of all this was that there was any surprise about this in the first place. Anyone who’s followed Smitherman’s political career at the provincial level must know that to succeed as he did in climbing the ladder of the Dalton McGuinty government, he had to be a dyed in the wool red Tory. (I’ve hyperlinked the term for all you youngsters out there unfamiliar with it.) In my day, Progressive Conservatives like John Robarts, Bill Davis, Robert Stanfield, Joe Clarke were what you’d call red Tories. Conservatives not viscerally anti-government and pathologically opposed to the notion of taxation. They were closer in spirit to one of the original conservatives, Edmund Burke, who thought society should conserve those aspects that were working while gradually changing those that weren’t.

When the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario successfully lurched radically right, the Liberal party tip-toed in that direction with them, ending up occupying the centre, centre-right. Thus becoming Red Tories. As a very high-powered member of that government, it should hardly be surprising then that Smitherman has attracted the support of socially liberal, fiscally conservative types like Isabel Bassett.

What we should know by now is that, at his most fundamental, George Smitherman is a political animal. He will be whatever he needs to be to get the number of votes needed to win office; listening to him earlier today being interview by Matt Galloway on Metro Morning proved that point again. The topic was governance and reform. As Smitherman showed last night at the urban issues debate, he comes prepared with appropriate talking points for the event at hand and will dispose of them as soon as he needs to.

Lifting an idea straight out of Paul Bedford’s talk on Tuesday, Rethinking Toronto’s Governance (which we talked about here yesterday), Smitherman floated the notion of keeping all 44 councillors but having 22 of them elected in expanded wards and the other 22 voted in on an at-large, city wide level. What about expanding the numbers of councillors, Galloway asked, as another solution to helping citizens reconnect with the local representatives. Less constituents/councillor. Scoffing, Smitherman responded — and I’m paraphrasing here — With the prevailing, anti-government winds out there? Proposing more politicians?!

You mean, actually lead, Matt?! Come on! That’s crazy talk. Even if more politicians might be good for the city, you don’t think I’m going to possibly suggest that now? In this anti-incumbent, anti-City Hall environment that I helped stir up? I could lose votes if I suggested that!

Red Tory. Blue Liberal. Centrist. George Smitherman can be all these things if he needs to be. As we have written previously here, he possesses an empty core that is constantly refilled with the fluid of the moment. An automaton, programmed to do nothing other than to win elections. No reason to think it’s not going to happen again.

unsurprisedly submitted by Cityslikr


Rethinking Toronto’s Governance

September 15, 2010

There’s a curious cross-current of municipal political… thinking, let’s call it, at work during our present election campaign. One, which is why I hesitated to use the word ‘thinking’, is the actual campaign. Not so much a struggle of ideas as it is a monkey like flinging of feces to see what sticks to both walls and opponents. The other, conducted off-site and largely away from the glare of the hepped-up media spotlight, occurs under the auspices of academics, former politicos and private citizens involved in the generic field of city building. The pointy-heads and fat cats, to use the vernacular of Rob Ford and Rocco Rossi.

Such an event was yesterday’s Rethinking Toronto’s Governance sponsored by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Held just prior to the Jane Jacobs Prize presentations, it consisted of a talk by former Toronto Chief Planner, Paul Bedford, on ideas for changing the structure of the city’s electoral map. Ward numbers and boundaries, community council size and numbers, were all put out on the table for examination by Mr. Bedford. This was followed by responses to the proposals from Councillor Kyle Rae and Richard Joy of the Toronto Board of Trade.

I’ll spare you the details but highly encourage everyone to check out the IMFG website over the next couple days when they post the webcast of the session.

In a nutshell, however, I’ll sum up Mr. Bedford’s presentation like this: a dozen years into it and Toronto remains amalgamated on paper only; there’s still precious little real citizen participation and the tools for addressing these issues are within the city’s control both with the City of Toronto act as well as legislative powers it already possessed. The last point is of particular interest to us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke as we have constantly railed about the intrusion of the province in Toronto’s business. Maybe too much at the expense of letting our municipal politicians off the hook, although we did find this an interesting read this morning.

Mr. Rae’s response to this was very revealing. The outgoing councillor for Ward 27, he’s been at it for 19 years now and has become the focus of the campaign as a symbol for all that is wrong with City Hall and its wasteful spending ways, what with his $12 000 retirement bash. While very enthusiastic about many of the ideas being tossed around the room, he expressed some serious reservations about implementing them. Some of it came across as self-serving and little more than a justification for inaction on the part of council. He seemed beaten down by the process after nearly two decades of contending with it and his stance may be the best argument for the idea of term limits. Governing is a war between competing interests and no one should be at war for too long.

However, Mr. Rae delivered a couple key points. City council is still a ward-centric, parochial body that often undercuts city wide planning and vision for the sake of local sensibilities. Not only are the councillors guilty of this, in Rae’s view, but many citizens hold on tightly to their pre-amalgamated view of the ‘old’ Toronto. They are resistant to and suspicious of change regardless of the merits and possible contribution to city-wide progress.

This is coupled with a municipal bureaucracy also allergic to change or innovation according to Mr. Rae. Nothing new to that complaint from an elected official, and one that is being trumpeted out on the campaign trail. But here’s the thing. Like it or not, the bureaucracy is an integral part of any successful public entity. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. A necessary evil, if that’s the particular angle you want to take. The thing is, belittling the bureaucracy, taking it to task or threatening it with dire consequences if it doesn’t bend to your almighty will seems petulant, patronizing and, most importantly, counterproductive.

A bureaucracy consists of people. Like most people, it reacts best to positive reinforcement, to be considered part of the process and integral to the building of a better organization, a better city. It needs direction and a reason to carry out change not to resist it. That can only come from bringing it a forward looking vision, an affirmative and invigorating mission statement for you more business oriented types.

None of this have we seen from the pool of candidates we are being told will spit forth our next mayor. So it’s tough to imagine how we will build a stronger, more unified city in the future with any of those we are threatening to elect to lead us. It just seems, regardless of what is being touted on the campaign trail, we will have more of the same ol’, same ol’.

thoughtfully submitted by Cityslikr


Architecture Of A Debate

August 31, 2010

Seated in a packed Great Hall on the 3rd floor of the St. Lawrence Hall last night awaiting the most recent mayoral debate, this one hosted by Heritage Toronto, I took in the (mercifully) air-conditioned magnificence of the room. Its salmon coloured walls… or were they pink? Hard to tell in the dim light cast by the gas-powered chandelier and wall sconces. Is that what they’re called, sconces?

Politics runs deep in this building, having hosted the likes of John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, George Brown and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Maybe tonight we’d witness a politician rising to the occasion to match the august surroundings. A breakout performance that would signal a turnaround in the so-far dreary race. One has to maintain hope in such possibilities if one doesn’t want to become totally disillusioned with the process.

After two hours, it was obvious nothing of the sort was going to happen but… but… Let me say this as we head humidly toward Labour Day, the unofficial end of summer and beginning of the campaign’s witching hour where carriages turn into pumpkins and us Prince Charmings run around in a desperate attempt to find someone who fits into the glass slipper. George Smitherman looks as if he’s getting into fighting form.

There were flashes during the debate where, for the first since he declared his intentions to run for mayor, we actually caught glimpses of humanity in George rather than a political machine. Hey, I found myself thinking a couple of times last night, the man actually likes this city he wants to lead. Maybe City Hall isn’t just a stepping stone for him on his way to a higher profile political gig. Who knows how much smoother the campaign trail might’ve been had he embraced a more conciliatory stance toward the current governance of this city from the get-go instead of joining the chorus of blind ragers looking to do nothing more than stir-up a pool of discontent with loud bellowing.

Smitherman was primed and ready for a healthy debate, having released his 5-point Heritage Plan earlier in the day. He came across as one-step ahead of everyone else on stage (football fields ahead in some cases), weaving policy talk in with personal anecdotes of living a heritage related life, not always seamlessly but more often than not effectively. His response to the question about the disparity between heritage preservation in the downtown core versus the suburbs, slyly extended an olive branch to the suburbs with his vow to empower community councils to deal with such matters. There was the odd political swipe, left and right, here and there. He also expressed a surprising antagonism to the idea of putting a Toronto museum into the old City Hall building ‘sometime in the future’ after the courts had been moved elsewhere which seemed an unnecessary shout-out to the fiscal conservatives surrounding him.

Still, to our eyes, it was Smitherman’s strongest debate performance to date and should make Team Rob Ford look down from measuring for new curtains in the Mayor’s office (paid for entirely by Rob Ford, of course) and realize that it may take more than name-calling and scandal mongering to put their candidate into office. For his part, Mr. Ford once again looked out-of-place and ill at ease addressing one of them downtown, elitist crowds. Although he did zero to help his cause like, maybe, brush up on the topic at hand a little. He seems pathologically unable to veer from his script and eventually drew derisive groans, mocking laughter and the odd heckle as he refused to answer many of the questions asked of all the debaters, and drifted off onto inane non sequiturs and pat responses.

It’s almost painful to witness over the course of 2 hours. Almost. To the point where I wonder why he participates in these particular debates at all. Then I remember this is primo campaign strategy. The laughing and jeering has nothing to do with Rob Ford being ill-informed and thick-headed and all about the smug, condescending downtowners who’ll get theirs when Rob Ford becomes mayor. So far, it’s been working for him but they may have to add to the repertoire if Smitherman continues to perform like he did last night.

As for the others?

Rocco Rossi, despite his campaign team shake up over the weekend, remains almost as single-mindedly fixated on a ‘single money for value’ issue as Ford although he’s added another neo-conservative trick to his… wherever you add a trick. A trick bag? Voter Recall which has done wonders for places like California. Rossi just seemed louder than he usually does but did pronounce his love of the city’s ravines. Loudly.

Joe Pantalone was performing in front of a supportive crowd and, as usual, had nice moments especially when he responded to a question of ‘cultural landscapes’. But he seems unable to deliver a sustained performance over the course of an entire debate, lapsing back into soft platitudes when he doesn’t appear all that interested in the topic. He’s also developed an annoying tic of punching a single point relentlessly from the morning’s strategy meeting. Last night? The Fort York bicentennial, coming up in 2012. Again and again. Yeah, we get it, Joe. Fort York = Heritage.

Once more, Sarah Thomson appeared out of her depth, saying little more than ‘let’s preserve old buildings’. How can a candidate (aside from Rob Ford) seem continually surprised and caught off-guard at a debate on Heritage by questions about, well, heritage? Last night might represent the weakest we’ve seen Ms. Thomson.

For the second time we watched Rocco Achampong take a spot alongside the front running candidates and are now convinced that it should be his last. While chalking up his underwhelming performance at June’s Better Ballots debate to a case of nerves, once again last night he displayed a knack for not delivering a succinct point in his allotted time. Ever. There’s no focus to his campaign and as a candidate, he seems torn between two instincts: a fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. They seem at war with one another and render him conflicted and ineffective. It’s time to turn over the one measly chair to another outsider candidate.

Debate moderator, former Chief City Planner of Toronto and professor of City Planning at U of T and Ryerson, Paul Bedford, closed out the debate saying that cities need to grow on purpose not by accident and implored all those in the Great Hall to go out and “make passionate love to the city”. Well, we didn’t see a lot of that on display from the candidates but it was interesting and more than a little heartening to watch George Smitherman’s iciness toward it begin to thaw, just a little. With it not even Labour Day yet, we may be seeing signs of the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


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