Municipal politics?! I can’t quit you! But I can fictionalize you.
(Stephen Wiggan is an urban planner, unenviably tasked with being the city’s face at the always dreaded public townhall meeting convened in order to allow local community input toward a planned residential development in the neighbourhood, “their” neighbourhood. Despite years of experience, calmly, professionally absorbing and accommodating citizens’ ire and outrage, tonight does not go as planned.)
“But what about our parking?!” I was shouted at despite the microphone in the man’s hand.
A townhall community meeting, six weeks or so before the word ‘Covid-19’ had entered our vocabulary. At issue, a proposed condo complex from which we’d been able to squeeze a small, just this side of embarrassing, number of affordable units out of the developer. The six-story project, mid-rise, would replace a 60s-era strip mall made famous in recent years by the teenage illicit exploits of a former mayor’s family back in the 70s and 80s. Located on a major north-south arterial road, the site abutted a residential neighbourhood filled with single-family homes that, lately, had been experiencing a burst in real estate prices which gave the area an upscale aura.
“Our reports says that parking minimums have been waived on this monstrosity,” the man continues, only slightly less shout-y.
Monstrosity. My god. Some people. These people.
“Yes,” I confirm from my seat at the front of the auditorium that had to be relocated because of an increased seating demand. Manufactured outrage tends to do that. “The official report says that too.” The group, the local residents’ association, had hired an outside expert, a retired town planner from a smaller municipality just outside the GTA. Or it was back when he first worked there. Now little more than a non-descript bedroom community like so many others exactly like it. They wanted an ‘objective opinion’ to cast a wary eye over our planning report and recommendations for the development. You get what you pay for, and if you can’t pay for it, you get what you’re given.
“So that just means they’ll be fighting us for our parking spots on our streets.”
Parking minimums are municipal regulations that stipulate how many parking spots a building development must provide to its future occupants. At a minimum. A directive last updated thirty years ago when the assumption was everyone who could drive would drive and therefore ample space for their automobiles must be offered. Expensive to build and maintain, especially underground, the outlay gets rolled into the per unit cost, pushing sale prices up and, not infrequently, leaving just unused, extra storage space.
Coolly, aiming for more affable chatty than bureaucratic, I explain that the proposed site sits within easy walking distance to a major cross town light rail project extension just now getting underway, one that, I do not point out to this crowd, had been unnecessarily overhauled to be put underground rather than the original plan of at-grade because of political cravenness in the face of public pressure, this public, this one sitting in front of me, almost all of whom would never deign to take public transit whether it travelled below ground, above ground, subway, bus or streetcar, or a fucking golden flying chariot, no way, no how, but they were absolutely owed their taxpayer-given right to ignore only the best, first-class mode of public transit. In their neighbourhood. This I think but do not say. Instead, I tell the crowd, many of the future residents of this proposed project would eschew automobile ownership in favour of using public transit.
A harumph of disbelief and discontent ripple through the gathering. Not drive? Not likely. “Not bloody likely,” makes its way to me.
Then, I commit my first mistake, the first mistake I am aware of, at any rate. An unforced error. Rather than let the matter drop and move on to the next issue, there was going to be a next issue, always, always, a next issue, I try bolstering my argument about driving and parking minimums.
“And with a number of affordable units in the development,” I add, belatedly and stupidly, “there will be some residents who can’t afford to drive, to own a vehicle. Reduced minimums keep the unit costs down for everyone.”
What was I thinking? My God! What an amateur. Like it was my first rodeo.
This precipitates the inevitable ‘ghetto talk’ whenever a multifamily building proposal, especially one including even the slightest whiff of affordable housing, gets a public airing, a public consisting mainly of single-family home owners, home owners predominantly, sometimes even exclusively, white. It’s a tradition. Tactics and language have evolved, refined and nuanced, while leaving the message largely the same.
“I support affordable housing but…”
“Everyone deserves a safe, comfortable place to stay but…”
“I’m not racist but…”
All followed by variations on increased crime, noise, garbage, undesirable elements (I’m particularly fond of that one for its unabashed xenophobic tonality almost always uttered in the chirpiest of nanna registers), and the alarm rung over what will most definitely be a total disregard for the way of life that defines the character of this community by those kinds of people. Character of this community. Those kinds of people.
What will it do to our property values?
My colleague fields this concern, mostly focusing on the property value angle, assuring the crowd that there’s very little evidence that this sort of densification, gentle densification, he calls it, pressing the definition a little, does anything but actually increase an area’s property values. His statement is greeted by a low murmur of skepticism. Undaunted, he proceeds, elaborating on the notion of the narrowness of monocultures working as a disincentive to growth which in turn threatens continued prosperity. Single-family neighbourhoods are not self-sustainable with studies showing that, in fact, they serve as a net negative draw on a city’s tax base, costing far more to deliver municipal services then they pay in property taxes.
This openly riles the crowd with its inference of their freeloading. That’s not how it works. Do you know how much in property tax we pay every year? Every year with its increases? We pay your salary! You can’t talk to us like that!
Ben sits back from the microphone, his say said, head bowed slightly, a gesture of contrition. The repentant truth-teller. Just the messenger. Years of experience, doing this. Perfected.
The association’s consultant, the former town planner from somewhere, Alston P. something or other, has wrangled the audience microphone back into his hand in order to refute Ben’s statement.
“New Urbanism this…”
“Holistic placemaking that…”
“Best practices are anything but! This is where people have chosen to live! There are expectations you cannot simply alter after the fact, after someone has invested what is for many in this room their life savings. For over fifty years, sixty! a proven healthy, thriving, successful lifestyle that everyone in this room, everyone on this side of the room, at any rate, has chosen, has chosen to live, to raise their family, to attend church, to grow old in, is now under threat from these new theories you’re touting, theories which, as much as you try to gussy them up in scientific and technical language are nothing more than redistributive, class-based attacks!”
And the crowd goes wild. Thunderous applause. Screeches of joyless endorsement. WHAT HE SAID! Hounds baying.
What about our property values?
When order slowly comes over the crowd, down a quart or so from its display of triumphant self-satisfaction, a tenant who lives in the apartment building directly across the street from the proposed site, a significantly taller structure, more than twice the height at fourteen stories, takes hold of the microphone. He doesn’t usually speak in front of so many people, we’re told, the wavering stage-fright on display in his demeanor backs up the claim, but he felt it was important to say something here. So important, he’s valiantly fending off both his agoraphobia and anxiety disorder to be here and make a point.
A hush in the room, probably for the first time this evening. I’m thinking, so is Ben, he tells me later, that this will be good, one for our side. This guy, a sympathetic character, steps up and explains to these nasty residents of Potterville, that living in an apartment doesn’t make him a bad person. He’s just like everyone else in the room. He’s got dreams and aspirations too. He’s got a family. Goes to church. When he doesn’t have to work Sundays. He’s not just some temporary fly-by-nighter around here. He’s got roots here too. Terry, that’s his name, Terry’s been living in this same apartment for almost thirteen years now. He’s been driving along the same roads they’ve all been driving. Shopping at the same shops, probably. He’s their neighbour, and Terry has come here tonight, to attend this meeting because he wants to tell everybody that:
“This proposal’s a travesty!” (The crowd, like those of us sitting at the table, is too surprised to cheer in approval. They were all thinking what we were thinking, I’m thinking.) “It will be an eyesore.” There’s nothing Terry enjoys more, he tells us, than having his afterwork beer, when he’s able to work, he’s got a chronically bad back and other ailments, sitting on a chair, on his little deck just through the sliding doors in his living room, and looking out over and across the street at the beautiful neighbourhood down there below him, across the street. All that green lushness. The wonderful gardens planted lovingly in the backyards.
“The kids playing. Dad’s washing their cars. The family barbeques. All of it!” Terry gushes. “Life as it should be lived. And when this thing goes up, it’ll block out all of that for people like me. I’ll be left staring across the road right into somebody’s window. I might as well not even have a balcony if you build this. Just lock the door and stay inside. Thank you. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
There is a mixed reaction from the crowd. On the one hand, he’s an ally, standing in opposition to the proposal. On the other hand, I mean, exactly who is this guy, sitting up on his balcony watching them go about their lives like some peeping tom. Just how closely does he spy on them? Somebody needs to take his name down, maybe have the authorities check him out, his background. How many others are there like him in that apartment block, creepily snooping?
A smattering of applause for Terry as he takes his seat back in the crowd, trailing a vague sense of disquiet with him, a sort of conflicted pause in the proceedings. The momentum hasn’t shifted exactly. It’s become tainted, a slight distaste to what had been a citrusy tang of self-righteousness. Of course, I could be reading a little too much into things.
Before I can wallow fully in my smug dismissiveness, the Councillor takes possession of the microphone in order to reassert the audience’s rectitudinous effrontery. Not the actual councillor himself, the persnickety little prick representing this ward, these people, the sitting city councillor who’s been working his very best to generate this backlash behind the scenes while claiming at the start of tonight’s meeting that he’s just there as an objective observer, totally hands-off, letting the people have their say, pretend like he’s not even here.
No, the Councillor at the mic is a former city councillor who lives in this ward but represented the neighbouring ward during her long tenure at City Hall, a ward that no longer exists, the number of council seats having been vindictively chopped in half during the previous election campaign by a spiteful provincial government simply because it could. That’s another story but not unrelated to proceedings like this. With less elected representation in place, the work of actual city building falls more and more on fewer shoulders, severely limiting proper oversight and increasing the dark channels of scrambled compromise and backroom give-and-take.
In a nutshell.
“… always known this to be a very welcoming community,” the Councillor is saying, “inclusive toward anyone sharing our values and mindful toward the way of life we have all built here.”
I’ve heard variations of this speech too many times to count, both at community meetings like this and in council chambers at City Hall. The Councillor is nothing if not consistent in her indefatigable defense of NIMBYism, in her backyard. It isn’t as if she’s a disagreeable person, unlike the current city councillor sulking around somewhere at the back of the room. She isn’t without empathy or a general understanding of the need to accommodate growth. Just someplace else.
“Not every place in Toronto has to be like downtown,” she continues, underlining my point. “Glass towers squeezing out those of us who want to live a different kind of life, a more tranquil life.”
The Councillor has a glaze about her, a shellacked sheen just this side of a waxed effigy, that maintains the appearance of a 1980s real estate agent which I believe she was before getting into local politics. Plain, charcoal-grey pant suit, a shirt with just the faintest of a ruffle, colour matching her still preternatural auburn hair. Even in retirement, she’s all business.
She did what she did well, representing a constituency that was narrowly focused on their needs as residents, residents first of their neighbourhood, then of their community and, if interests intersected satisfactorily, of the rest of the city. I never begrudged her that. These people were who sent her to City Hall, term after term. These were her people.
“… for fifty years that I’ve been blessed to live here,” the Councillor heads toward her familiar finale, “over fifty years, actually. My goodness,” she stops up short, mark hit, “has it really been that long? Really?” She turns to the crowd, a stage gesture of disbelief. “Really? When did that happen?” she laughs a sparkling laugh. The crowd laughs along with her. “For over fifty years, more, I guess, for a few of you old timers in this room, even older than I am,” another laugh, more a giggle this time, “this place, this neighbourhood, our community has served as a small-town oasis in the midst of a bustling big city. That’s what we’re fighting for tonight. The character of the neighbourhood. It’s very soul. That’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re all here! Do the right thing by us and turn down this proposal. Thank you.”
The Councillor almost performs a curtsey as she returns the microphone to one of the two community facilitators, and then laps up the standing ovation she receives. Why not? Her life’s work, right here, fighting the good fight, endeavoring to make time stand still.
In retrospect, I can’t say what it was that took hold of me at that moment, evading all my professional instincts that I’d developed and sharpened during my time as a city planner. Probably longer than the Councillor had served in public office. Just smile blandly. Acknowledge the concerns. Accept the fact that change is hard. Nobody likes change even if, as in this case, with this proposal, the change will be better for everyone, in the long run.
The form of a city changes faster, alas, than the human heart.
“Very nice to see you again, councillor,” I said to begin my response. “It’s been a while.”
So far, so good.
The Councillor scrambles back to reclaim the audience microphone and cut in before I could proceed.
“And I dare you, Stephen, to tell me if I want a small-town oasis I should move to an actual small town,” she tells me, making sure to kick up a fuss with the crowd before I could respond. “In front of everybody here. I dare you.” Turning to the crowd, ruffling their feathers, “That’s what he used to say to me at City Hall when the microphones were turned off and there was nobody else in the room.”
Oh, well. That was probably it. I remember now. Gloves off tonight, apparently. Airing out private conversations like that in public.
I should’ve foisted the official response back over to Ben, realizing the Councillor had got under my skin like that. My board-certified expert demeanor sucker punched by a visceral gut reaction, rendered unconscious and down for the count. Smile blandly. Acknowledge the concerns. Move on to the next item on the agenda.
But I didn’t.
“I don’t think I’ve ever kept that opinion behind closed doors, Councillor. Toronto stopped being a small town a hundred years ago. By the numbers, at least, if not mentality. And here in Etobicoke, you joined the parade a few decades after that. Despite your best efforts to the contrary.”
A definite rhubarb gurgles up through the crowd. The Councillor begins to sputter into her microphone but it’s my turn to cut her off.
“You wax nostalgic, Councillor, about the idyllic village feel of your little hamlet here from fifty, sixty years ago, but how about the fifty years before that, sixty years? Slightly before your time, Councillor. Just a little bit.”
I hear but ignore Ben’s clucking sounds beside me. More, frantic gasps of distress probably. He may even had reached for the switch on the microphone. Fuck it, I remember thinking. I’ve waded out this deep into the fray.
“Fifty years before the pioneer suburban spirit of your predecessors planted their flag on this spot, what was it? Farmland. As far as the eye could see. I don’t hear any of you now demanding a return to the simpler times of open fields and barnyard aesthetics. What about those poor displaced farmers of yore, forced from their way of life?”
Din to an uproar. Ben tries to shush me, eagerly gesticulating for me to hand him the microphone. I think I just smiled at him. This was fun.
“… and those farmers were well compensated for their land, I am sure,” I believe is what I hear the Councillor bawl into her microphone that no one’s attempting to take from her.
“Let’s go even further back than that, shall we?” I continue. “We acknowledge the land we are meeting on is the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. 1805. Remember back then, Councillor?”
Without fear of exaggeration, I can say that what ensued was nothing short of pandemonium. No physical blows thrown as far as I could see. Just a cacophony of irate umbrage, a wall of white people supercilious racket. Not quite Why, I never! but most definitely that tone. Finger pointing, jousting really, galore.
“”Nous reconnaissons que nous sommes accueillis,” I add, for good measure, for the Francophones in the room, “sur les terres des Mississaugas des Anichinabés, de la Confédération Haudenosaunee et du Wendat. Nous voulons également reconnaître la pérennité de la présence des Premières Nations, des Métis et des Inuit.”
Soon after, Ben succeeds in wrestling the microphone from me even though I don’t feel I’ve finished yet. So I continue to shout out into the boisterous void. “So much for our streets, am I right? Our parking spots…” and other such snippets that, in hindsight, don’t seem nearly as sharp and clever as I might’ve thought at the time. But in the heat of the moment.
The remainder of the meeting, what there was of it which wasn’t much as best I recall, zipped by, unsurprisingly, in something of a blur of hostile images.
The fallout comes swift if not decisive.