I’ve been mulling over our state of governance these days. Spurred on by the news of Councillor Adam Vaughan’s planned departure for federal politics, ponderingI kept wondering why anybody would make that particular jump. Sure, there’s the clout and prestige. In theory, the real levers of power are operated from Ottawa.

In theory.

Reading through John Lorinc’s piece today about Vaughan and the role the federal government plays in the running of cities, I have my doubts about the efficacy of delivering effective municipal policies from the federal level. You can offer up money, maybe even ideas. But hands-on tools to contribute directly? That’s a little more complicated.

According to a document that’s nearly 150 years old and a handful of court rulings during that time span, municipalities are nothing more than “creatures of the province” and “exist only if provincial legislation so provides…” dustydocumentCities fall in that place of dark matter between federal and provincial jurisdiction. To propose any sort of strategy, say housing or transit, for municipalities, Ottawa could be seen to be stepping on provincial toes. Why risk antagonism if you can just ignore these issues instead. We’d really love to help but our hands are constitutionally tied.

There have been attempts, for sure. The Liberal government’s New Deal For Cities Municipalities Communities (or whatever it wound up being called) under Paul Martin delivered increased funding that remains in place but little in terms of clarity. Nearly a decade on, cities remain without any sort of national housing or transit strategy. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), cities face more than a $200 billion infrastructure deficit.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how a change in government in Ottawa is going to reverse that. powerlessAt least, not in the short term.

I was boring family and friends over the long weekend, talking about this particular challenge of governance. Citing a certain Paisley Rae who had paraphrased Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi for me, talking about the importance of the various levels of government in our lives. (If I get this wrong, it’s all on me). Imagine if just out of the blue our federal government disappeared. Poof! Suddenly gone. How long would it take you to notice a real impact on your life? A month? Do the similar thought experiment with the provincial government. Poof! Gone. You’d notice in about a week? Now your elected representatives at City Hall. Vanished into thin air. Almost as soon as you step out the door, their absence would be evident.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that simple. It would depend entirely on where you lived and other circumstances. There’s much more overlap than that.


I think the role of our municipal level of government is highly under-valued and egregiously under-funded. oldendays1They are expected to do things that they have no jurisdictional command of or the fiscal tools to deal with. As the above article points out, the FCM claims that Canadian cities receive only 8% of the country’s tax revenues but are responsible for 60% of the infrastructure.

I’ve long contended that this political mismatch between the responsibilities demanded and the lack of capacity to deal with them has resulted in an increased presence of buffoonery at the local level of representation. Of course, we can elect somebody like Rob Ford because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s no real power invested in that office. When we do dare to elect somebody with ambitious ideas for our cities, David Miller for example, they are destined to disappoint us because, in the end, they lack the real power to fully enact their plans.

What is clearly needed at this point of time is a complete constitutional overhaul. This isn’t 1867. Much, much has changed including where the majority of people live in this country. kickupafussCities. The hierarchy of revenue and power needs to be shuffled and rearranged.

Of course, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. So politicians like Adam Vaughan with ambition and big ideas gravitate to where positive change is possible even if it hasn’t been much in evidence, well, during our lifetime. All we can do is cross our fingers, wish him well in his endeavours and look for new politicians to represent us at City Hall who aren’t content with the severe limitations that will be placed on them, and who have their own plans to shake up the status quo that serves fewer and fewer of us.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr

Vaughan Gone

We should’ve known something was up when the eye glasses changed, became more bookish.

Aside from the news that Rob Ford had been elected mayor of Toronto, professorpeabodyhearing that Councillor Adam Vaughan was opting for a run at a federal seat comes a close second in terms of a bummer municipal politics turn of events. He provided much of the spark and lightness during this dark term at City Hall, sparing no opportunity to skewer and eviscerate the bumbling, destructive exploits of the Ford administration. Nothing could lift your spirits like an indignant broadside from Vaughan directed at the latest boneheaded malignancy the wrecking crew had cooked up.

He was the poster boy of anti-Fordism, held up as the example of everything that was wrong with the forces of downtown elitism at City Hall. Whippet smart, tart tongued, dismissive and derisive, his detractors, those preferring their politicians dumb and willfully ignorant, labelled Vaughan smug, pompous and arrogant. There’s certainly some truth to that. At times he came across as prickly, impatient with those not keeping up with him. catandmouseThe proverbial inability to suffer fools gladly.

But if his critics were truly honest with themselves they’d admit that what galls them most about Adam Vaughan is that he was right about this mayor and the administration he misruled. Incompetence above all else. How would you say that in Latin? Imperitiam, quod super omnia. The motto emblazoned on the Team Ford crest. Vaughan called them on it regularly and, many times, ill-manneredly.

Should he have been more temperate in his engagement? Maybe. Except, at this juncture, knowing all that we know now, given all that we’ve seen, what would that have accomplished? The Fords brooked no opposition, sought no compromise with anyone who disagreed with them or called them on their bullshit.

It seldom pays to concede to bullies and thugs. Next to incompetence, what the Fords did best was to play the thug card. Councillor Vaughan stood up to that, many times encouraged it, bringing it out into the open for everyone to see.clownthug

During one particularly heated debate, I forget exactly which one of the too many to commit to memory, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti leaning back in his chair and yapping down the aisle at Vaughan. I used to beat up guys like you in high school. Yes, we’re sure you did, Giorgio. We’re sure you did.

Over the past 3 years or so, I was fortunate enough to have some conversations with the councillor outside of the political arena, beyond the political melodrama, to talk about building a city. He knew his shit, and his enthusiasm for transforming streets, neighbourhoods and communities was infectious. It challenged me to try and better understand the nature of what makes cities successfully tick.

I imagine when Councillor Vaughan gets asked what he sees as his biggest accomplishment from his time at City Hall, he will point to the redevelopment of Alexandra Park that is just getting under way. Both in private and publicly, I heard him boast about the process and how it hinged on the input from the residents of the community. This was not going to be his redevelopment or the city’s, but theirs, those who lived there.

manoflamanchaWhich makes his jump to federal politics all the more puzzling.

I get the impetus. Any city councillor worth their salt is going to feel the limitations of municipal governance. There isn’t access to all the necessary tools, especially the fiscal ones, to get the job done on major issues like transit, child care and housing. t must be head-bangingly frustrating to care about these items and know there’s only so much you can do, to battle with colleagues who view such shortcomings as a way not to deal with them.

Councillor Vaughan says he wants to go to Ottawa to finally deliver a national strategy on housing for cities. I truly wish him good luck with that but, frankly, these days, Ottawa is where good intentions and direct, hands on democracy go to die. Olivia Chow, whose vacant federal seat Vaughan is seeking to fill, became an MP with similar purpose in mind, and Jack Layton before her. It’s been some time since the federal government paid much attention to the needs of this country’s cities. Maybe Adam Vaughan can turn that around. I won’t hold my breath in anticipation.

I’m guessing the past four years have been a study in frustration for Vaughan. Time spent mostly trying to push against the reactionary, roll back impulses of the Fords and their ilk. He’s done his hitch. robfordbellicoseWhile I’d hoped he’d be around to help pick up the broken pieces of what gets left behind after this messy weather passes through town, he won’t. It’s going to be a pretty big hole that needs to be filled.

When this term is up, Adam Vaughan will have served at City Hall for nearly 8 years. Rob Ford’s time in office there? 14 years. If you are ever trying to figure out why Toronto faces the problems it does, engages in the kind of politics it does, that’s as a good a place to start as any. Fixing that sort of discrepancy will go a long way to sorting our problems out.

sadly submitted by Cityslikr

A Better Bathurst

Anybody who’s spent much time in Toronto has at least heard of Bathurst Street. The nearly 60 kilometre stretch of road, bathurststreetrunning from the island airport ferry terminal on Lake Ontario, all the way north up to Holland Marsh. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted.) It demarcates the western edge of the official downtown area of Toronto.

To many, Bathurst Street is probably loathed more than it is loved. But for some of us who cross it daily, we see it as the thinking man’s Spadina Avenue. We do. Trust me.

In actual fact, Bathurst Street is pretty much nothing more than a big line on a map. It offers space to get people to where they’re going. There’s little else it offers up, frankly.

And to tell you the truth, it doesn’t do that very effectively. It’s not much fun to walk. It’s a bit of a terror to cycle and I’m not even referring to the Davenport hill. Congestion frequently clogs it, making it joyless to travel by car, bus or streetcar.

On top of which, Bathurst Street is regularly undergoing massive road work. Regularly. Like I’m talking 2, 3 times a season.

Poor ol’ Bathurst Street.bathurstbus

So when news came last year that the city had brought in a development moratorium along a 3 kilometre portion of the street from Dupont down to Queen in order to conduct a built form and land use study, it was welcome news to many. Hoo-rah! Maybe we can make something of this ratty, tatty, rag tag strip of pavement.

The timing wasn’t coincidental to the fact that plans were already in the works for the former site of Kromer Radio on the west side of Bathurst between College and Dundas. A big box store development that had caught the unhappy attention of nearby residents and businesses including those in Kensington Market a few blocks to the east. There were also rumblings of the sale (now done) and eventual redevelopment of the iconic Honest Ed’s at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor Street.

It’s also worth noting that south of the study area, south of Queen on Bathurst, zoning permits building heights of 50 metres, I believe I heard. Towers are rising there. bathurststreet1This study was intended to set rules in place that would help keep that kind of scale from creeping north into substantially more residential parts of the street.

On Monday night, there was a community meeting held (the fourth, I believe) to discuss the plan as it was to date, and to give a staff report including a third-party retail report. The chairs were mostly full. I’m never good at these estimations but there had to be 17 million people in attendance. (For all you Father Ted fans out there.) I don’t know, a couple hundred? A hundred and fifty? A hundred.

A healthy number, let’s just say on a cold Monday night. The tone, as with most of these kinds of meetings dealing with development, was politely tense. Maybe not tense. Edgy? Suspicious?

Politely tight in a non-alcoholic way although somebody had the nerve to bring in their dinner from Harbord Fish and Chips. Seriously. dougalIf you don’t have enough to share with the entire room. That’s going to fray some nerves.

Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose Ward 20 is bordered on its west by much of the Bathurst study area, stressed that what he was looking for was a street defined by the communities living on either side of it. That sounds good in theory, very participatory and all democracy in action, but also might endorse a little of some not in my back door-ism. Intensification, like an increase use of public transit, always seems like a very good idea for other places, other people.

Although, to be fair, there was not a whole lot of that in evidence at this meeting. People, by and large, seemed curious is a very cautious way, asking questions largely about very specific ideas put forth by city staff. Overt antagonism only manifested itself a couple times. There were none of the aggressive outbursts I’ve witnessed at similar community consultation meetings. This is a part of town not entirely alien to the notion of intensification.

It is early in the process, however.

One bothersome note for me, though, was the subtle framing of the question: “How do we protect our neighbourhood?” The underlying implication of that is a place under siege by change. bathurststreet2There was no feeling of embracing the positive possibilities that might come with an attempt to alter the current streetscape of Bathurst. Of course, things could be made worse along the street. But how exactly, proposed increases in building height in some places to 6 stories from current practice of 3 to 4 on most of this strip would do that is beyond me at this point.

OK. There’s one that springs immediately to mine. A lack of thorough transit studies to accompany these reports might prove to be problematic in the long run. I, for one, was somewhat shocked that there was little to no money set aside as part of this study. How can you do a proper built form and land use study without a full traffic impact analysis?

Anyone who travels or lives anywhere near the study area (I’m a block west from the Kromer radio site where it looks to be the most intense spot of redevelopment) knows what a traffic nightmare that stretch of Bathurst can be throughout much of the day. bathurststreetcarAmidst all the seeming non-stop construction, it’s a mixed use mess of cars, trucks, streetcars and buses, non-advanced left turns, parking, parking and more parking. A combination that leaves little space for bikes or even peaceful strolls.

Whatever manner you use to negotiate Bathurst it’s ultimately just a case of head down and gettin’ `er done and over with.

To talk about further intensification without a proper and vigorous traffic study seems to me to relegate the whole exercise meaningless. More people, more businesses that only succeed in bringing more traffic in the form of cars will in no way make that portion of Bathurst any more desirable a setting to traverse than it is now.

During the great Walmart debate on the Kromer Radio location, there was much chatter about NIMBY elitism with a measure of class conflict thrown in for good measure. My opposition to the proposal, which bore no direct imposition on my dwelling, was more aesthetic and concerned about the effect on the surrounding street life. cmonIt represented a huge failure of imagination from my perspective.

Big box store developments don’t tend to enhance the neighbourhood, especially if they abide by outdated parking requirements. The initial traffic study for the proposal was laughable. Three hundred+ parking spots, underground, with only one entrance that would also serve for deliveries? In an already congested point on the road? Along a route where a streetcar runs and two more lines to the north and south, both less than a 5 minute walk?

I mean, C’MON!

Look, with all the access to public transit in this study area — 4 streetcar lines, 2 bus routes, 1 subway stop – it is a place ripe for further intensification. bathurstcondoIt is a place already undergoing intensification. There is much to like in the report so far.

But if we don’t get the traffic flow right, if we continue to adhere to outdated ideas of planning in terms of what transportation modes are given priority, we’re just going to succeed in making a mess even messier. Let’s not have to endure Bathurst Street any more than we already do.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr