Shiner Light, Dimly

May 24, 2011

I like my magazines like I like my condiments. Just slightly out of date and not bland.

Reading through them a few months, half a year behind, it offers up immediate hindsight. An automatic retrospective that allows for quick judgment as to how well a writer grasped the subject at hand. Instant historical perspective.

So it was as I made my through the Spacing magazine’s Fall 2010 issue. One article in particular caught my attention, Deck the Allen by Jake Schabas. It offered an overview of the Allen Expressway and the various attempts that have been made since the early-70s to integrate what is, essentially, just a false start more fully and functionally into the neighbourhoods it so hideously slices through and divides.

A name jumped out at me as I read the article. Esther Shiner. First elected as North York alderman in 1972, and then the city’s Board of Control in 1976 which earned her a spot on Metro Council where she served until her death in 1987. During the 1980s she also served as Mel Lastman’s Deputy Mayor in North York.An early proponent of amalgamation way back in the 70s, her enduring claim to fame, however, appears to be her ardent support of the Spadina Expressway. So much so, she earned the nickname, ‘Spadiner Shiner’. When the project got bogged down after it made its initial way from the 401 to Lawrence Avenue, she fought successfully to push it further down to Eglinton where it remains today, known as the Allen Expressway. ‘Spadiner Shiner’ continued to press on with the project even after successive provincial governments and city councils had bowed to citizen pressure to halt it. According to Mr. Schabas, Shiner was also very instrumental in the ultimate auto-centric nature of the Expressway, helping to beat back plans (including one proposed by Buckminster Fuller. Buckminister Fuller, people!) that arose to make the Lawrence-Eglinton section part of a broader development that included parkland, public transit hub and residential and retail space.

Esther Shiner can also be credited with being the mother of current councillor, David. A former budget chief of Mel Lastman, Councillor Shiner was recently in the news for his spiking of the proposed Fort York Pedestrian and Cycling Bridge in late April as a member of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. ‘Too fancy’, he thought it, and his motion to deny the city giving final approval on the already approved project sent it back to the drawing board for a proper scaling down.The times have changed, it seems, but the results are about the same, laced though they may be with a lethal dose of irony. Esther Shiner was all in favour of plowing money into bulldozing and disfiguring downtown neighbourhoods to make way for a highway. Her son, David, withholds a miniscule amount of money to halt the building of a bridge that would’ve brought together neighbourhoods now divided by a highway.

Two generations of public service to Toronto, dedicated to draining life from the city one bad choice at a time.

belatedly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Proper Usage

May 17, 2011

Yesterday @GraphicMatt Elliott over at Ford For Toronto linked to the comment section of Luca De Franco’s Spacing article about the battle over the proposed Fort York pedestrian/cyclist bridge. One particular comment quoted an email response from the city’s budget chief, Mike Del Grande. The above linked piece at Ford For Toronto covers the gist of Councillor Del Grande’s response much more thoroughly than we will here but one sentence caught our attention.

“This bridge will cost 22 [million] + the opportunity to gain 25 million from proper usage of the site,” the budget chief wrote. “So it will really cost 47 million at the end of the day. Sorry, that is very poor use of limited funds the City has.”

‘Proper usage’? You know once someone starts spouting euphemisms they aren’t willing to come right out and say what they really mean. What kind of ‘proper usage’ would net the city $25 million? Not many things outside of parceling off a prime piece of real estate, I’m thinking. So to Councillor Del Grande’s mind it’s not just about saving money and building a cheaper bridge. It’s about selling off city assets – I mean, ‘monetizing’ the city’s assets — to deal with an impending, tsunami-sized budget hole next year.

So it begins. Under the banner of sound fiscal discipline or whatever other business-speak blather the budget chief spews forth, it’s nothing more than a fire sale. One-off transactions that may plug a temporary hole but could end up costing the city more in the long run, if not in direct financial terms but in the ability to control development, plan neighbourhoods, create livable public space. Councillor Del Grande is simply waving the white flag of surrender and admitting that he’s out of his depth. The best he can come up with in the face of a budget crunch is to sell, outsource and privatize everything that’s not nailed down.

There’s. No. More. Money. Everything’s. On. The. Table. Everything. Must. Go.

The Waterfront. Toronto Hydro. Toronto Parking Authority. Unload it all. Cash for control. It’ll look good for the annual bottom line. Until next year, of course, when all that revenue dries up and there’s another shortfall. Rinse and repeat.

“Bridge yes but not at any cost,” Budget Chief also notes. “But… does not carry the day. This kind of thinking has caused a great financial problem for the City.”

That he remains firm in this belief that reckless spending is the source of Toronto’s current money woes speaks to either a fundamental lack of understanding of the budget process or just plain ol’ willful ideology. The city could cut its discretionary spending to the very finest of cores and still find itself in a pinch due to the mandated services it must provide. Maybe that’s the path Councillor Del Grande wants to travel down. But I’d respect him more if he had the courage of his convictions to admit it was a choice and not a necessity foisted on him by the profligacy of the previous administration.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


The Mayor’s Bid For Greatness

May 10, 2011

There is another possible explanation, of course.

While everyone (especially around these parts) simply assumes our mayor is, at heart, an monstrous anti-(sub)urbanite, intent on nothing more than making the city the best place in the world to drive in, perhaps there’s more to it than that. Perhaps Mayor Ford has a far broader reaching and comprehensive agenda in mind. Perhaps in a sheer act of mad genius, he is playing long ball on us, poised to elevate Toronto to New York and London status. Perhaps, we’ve got him all wrong in terms of city building.

This thought struck me as I read through the Financial Times article, ‘Livable v. Lovable’ (h/t @dylan_reid). “We need to ask, what makes a city great?” urban development professor Joel Kotkin tells the FT. “If your idea of a great city is restful, orderly, clean, then that’s fine. You can go live in a gated community…”

Any city with a mountain backdrop or the ocean lapping up at its toes or laid out in a well designed grid pattern that enables an efficient transit system can claim to be more livable. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a city great. Great cities breathe paradox. Obscene wealth brushes shoulders with abject poverty. Traffic snarls, giving the inhabitants the edge they need to survive in the concrete jungle. Neighbourhoods rise and fall and rise again to accommodate the forever changing face of a city.

Great cities aren’t just lived in. They’re loved. They can’t be planned. They just happen. Like a civic flash mob.

Maybe the mayor’s up to creating a little less livability in exchange for an added dose of lovability. He’s looking to take the Swiss out of Peter Ustinov’s descriptor of Toronto and make it more New York. Not current day New York, mind you. New York City circa mid-1970s, near bankruptcy. Zurich is cute and well run and all that. It can have its way on the livability index but where’s its NFL franchise?

So the mess Mayor Ford seems determined to create is deliberate, only not in the bad way most of us have been ascribing to it. It’s to put us on the road towards greatness. If it’s ‘friction’ that gives great cities their spark, the mayor’s prepared to start a bonfire of impressiveness here in Toronto.

Neglect leads to deterioration which leads, inexorably, to renewal. That’s what urban planners say. Maybe the problem in Toronto is that we’ve tried too hard to maintain things and it’s all ended up half-assed.  Maybe it’s time to really let things go to seed. Infrastructure, transit, heritage, parks. Build us some really dodgy neighbourhoods, one or two of our very own favelas even. I’m thinking somewhere in Scarborough. It’ll become really cheap to live there. When that happens, artists and bohemian types move in. That’s the trendy stage and gentrification is sure to follow.

In the article, Mr. Heathcote opines that great cities mix beauty with ugliness. “… beauty to lift the soul, ugliness to ensure there are parts of the fabric of the city that can accommodate change.” Arguably, Toronto has contributed more than amply over the years to the ugly front. But that’s not to say we can’t do better. Take for example the proposed Fort York pedestrian bridge. Too arty for the likes of Councillor Shiner, it seems. Take it back to the drawing board and gussy it down. Uglify it so to attract the less desirable elements of society. Have them establish a troll like community under the ugly bridge. Hipsters will inevitably displace them with their edgy bars and galleries. Next stop, a great city.

Now, my theory on the possibly positive approach Mayor Ford is taking to re-imagine Toronto falls down somewhat in his war on graffiti. What says ‘gentrify me, please’ more than graffiti? To be fair, though, the Financial Times does worry about the affect of violence on a city’s capacity to be great. The mayor may just be adhering to the Rudy Giuliani view of stopping small crimes stops big crimes. So I think you could stuff his anti-graffiti crusade into the thought of helping make Toronto great.

Of course, some might consider this putting all your eggs in one basket based on one article from a writer clutching at straws to explain how his hometown always seems to be left off other Best Of lists. Or, more generously, one particular school of thought of what makes a city great. There are other metrics to make such judgments. Like, say, this one for instance. The World’s 26 Best Cities for Business, Life, and Innovation.

“We’re measuring what makes a city successful,” Merrill Pond, vice president at the Partnership for New York City told The Atlantic. “Success as we define it cuts across business opportunity, cultural opportunity, and education opportunity. We use ten indicators [including Transportation and Infrastructure, Intellectual Capital and Innovation, and Lifestyle Assets], each made up of smaller variables [within Lifestyle Assets: share of green space, skyline impact, hotel rooms].”And how did Toronto do? #2. Just behind New York City. “Toronto is a ‘beta’ city…because it’s not considered a part of the conversation with London, Paris, and New York for greatest city in the world. But it has all the building blocks of a superlative international city, beginning with smart ideas about sustainability and innovation.” [bolding ours]

Yeah but, innovation’s hard. It takes lots of… innovative ideas. As for sustainability? Well, that costs money upfront, and just in case this Merrill Pond hasn’t been following along here, Toronto’s got a spending problem. Rather than building on those so-called ‘building blocks’, it’d be so much easier just to knock them down and start over again. With no more thought put into it then off-the-cuff remarks based on rumours and gut instincts.

An organic mess, let’s call it. That’s the mayor’s plan for this city. It’s quicker, cheaper and requires only part time participation. Football teams aren’t going to coach themselves, you know.

Sometimes you just have to think small to build big things. If there’s one thing Mayor Ford is good at, it’s thinking small. We need to stop criticizing him for that and start realizing that maybe, just maybe, great things can grow on such shallow, fallow land.

hopefully submitted by Urban Sophisticat