A Diminishing Debate

June 5, 2015

“This is really a transportation issue, not a planning issue,” said Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair, Jaye Robinson, after a particularly prickly press conference she called to announce her support of Mayor Tory’s “hybrid” option for the Gardiner east section of the expressway.

stiflingdebate

It’s difficult to know what to make of that quote. Champions of the “hybrid” option, like the mayor and Councillor Robinson, regularly trot out the claim that their choice opens up the Unilver site for massive redevelopment (hinting by omission that the other option, the boulevard option doesn’t which it does). How exactly then is this not a “planning issue”?

Well apparently, it isn’t when it’s pointed out that the “hybrid” option also locks out possible other development potential, some 12 acres of it, worth in the neighbourhood of a cool $2 billion. The boulevard option keeps that development open but also may slightly increase commute times for a small fraction of car driving commuters. Thus, for our mayor and chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, “This is really a transportation issue”.

If the councillor truly believed that, you’d think then, she’d be more open to understanding the transportation issue of this debate. dontbelieveitfaceThat doesn’t appear to be the case. During the press conference, Councillor Robinson played up the traffic havoc that would result if the 1.7 kilometre stretch of elevated expressway came down, replaced by an 8 lane at-grade road. A 5 minute increase in driver commute time. Each way. Negating that would be a “windfall”, the councillor claimed.

Never mind that the numbers in relation to the drive times are contentious. No one knows for certain what they’ll be. What we do know, as rigorously studied and researched examples of other cities that removed expressways have shown, traffic tends to disappear with diminished road capacity. People find other ways to get around the city.

When asked about that fact at the press conference, Councillor Robinson simply replied, “I don’t believe it.”

Just like that. I don’t believe it. I know what I know.

When you refuse to grasp what may be counter-intuitive, you wind up spinning the counterfactual.

While some may be in their element doing that – our current mayor has grown comfortable, trolling in that territory – others wind up diminishing not only the bogus case they’re trying to make but their reputation also. elephantCouncillor Robinson brightened her rather tepid presence at city council last term by stepping up to defend waterfront plans from the incursion made on them by Doug Ford. Now she seems prepared to return to the pod of obedient soldier, stumping for Mayor Tory’s ill-advised assault.

Highly respected urban planner and architect, John van Nostrand, did similar disservice to his reputation with an aggressive performance at the press conference yesterday. A well-regarded name with years of experience, working with the city on waterfront plans and the Gardiner expressway specifically, van Nostrand is the lone ace up the administration’s sleeve in terms of the planning side of the debate. Rather than try to pitch his vision of waterfront development with the Gardiner east remaining elevated, he played pitbull instead, gracelessly attacking the opposing side as simply wrong.

What he tried to do was sell the idea that a better urban form could be developed under and around an elevated expressway than could be with an 8 (or possibly 10) lane, at-grade roadway. granvilleislad“Specious”, he waved off any comparison between the boulevard option and University Avenue while straight-facedly suggesting we could have something similar with the Gardiner east as they have in Vancouver with Granville Island. Counter-intuitive? No. Just counterfactual.

John Lorinc showed John van Nostrand to be an innovative and bold thinker in an article from more than 10 years ago. He was all about enhancing the public realm that had been denigrated by the presence of elevated expressways. A worthy endeavour, for sure, as van Nostrand touted examples of such projects around the world.

As he did at yesterday’s press conference. London, New York, Madrid. But I wanted to know if these places had the choice Toronto faces with the Gardiner east. Did these cities have the option to remove the expressways and bridges or were they simply making do with what was in place? Adapting and adjusting to the results of an earlier age’s choice.

With the Gardiner east, we have another option. Get rid of it, create an entirely new environment. Build and develop essentially from scratch. If that choice was available to London, New York and Madrid, would they have passed it up and simply worked around what was already there?

Of course, we’re long past that kind of nuance in this debate. Arguably, nuance was never part of it. beatenMayor Tory dug in early, set up the ramparts as a bulwark against a rational and robust debate, for reasons still either unclear or absurdly simplistic and calculating.

In falling in line behind him and resorting to mouthing the mayor’s vacuous talking points, not only did “hybrid” supporters like the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair and respected professionals like John van Nostrand do the city a disservice, they sullied their own reputation and work in the process. A victory at city council won’t change that.

belittlingly submitted by Cityslikr