Skirmish Won. Battle Still Ongoing. Victory From From Secure.

September 27, 2011

(As we were in absentia for Team Ford’s waterfront retreat, we turn to colleague Sol Chrom for a summary of last week’s important but very, very fluid victory on the waterfront.)

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If Team Ford’s Port Lands plans are truly dead, would someone mind driving a stake through them?

The plans, that is.

That’s how a tweet from Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan is describing things, linking to a quote from Councillor Paula Fletcher.

This is a triumph for the public…This is a Toronto moment, a Jane Jacobs moment.

Can’t argue with the sentiments, but I’m inclined to agree with a comment left on the Torontoist site by one dsmithhfx:

Don’t celebrate quite yet… I don’t trust this cabal of scumbag opportunists as far as I could throw them. It’s a setback, to be sure. And much as we’d like to think of it as a turning point, the point where the wave of ignorance, resentment, stupidity, and short-term greed that the Ford approach taps into finally broke, let’s not start the happy dance just yet.

The Port Lands/Waterfront fiasco has captivated our attention for several weeks, to be sure, and we can’t underestimate its symbolic importance. But it’s also possible to think of it as this week’s Shiny ObjectTM — something thing that attracts our attention and keeps us all occupied while other things are going on.

A thoughtful essay by Dylan Reid in Spacing last week discussed the slow decline of a community through a process of dozens of little cuts. Cancel a minor program here, put less resources into something else there, cut back on the scope of something else over there. The examples Reid cites include things like litter pickup, tree planting, neighbourhood improvement programs, snow clearing, and making bylaw enforcement reactive rather than proactive. As Reid writes:

Individually, the impact of each of these is small. And it’s quite possible some of them could be reasonable proposals for a city with a screwed-up budgetary process if they were thought through properly (e.g. all parks could have citizen committees that take care of flower planting and care, if the city provides the flowers and eases up on regulation). But done all in a rush, and all together, the overall impact will be a gradual degradation in the walking environment. It will get dirtier and trickier, and many programs that make it more attractive will be abandoned. People will still be able to walk, of course. They just won’t want to walk as much, unless they have to. And since walking is how people experience their city most directly, Toronto will feel a little bit more like a city in decline — which, given the amount of building going on and people moving in, it really shouldn’t.

By themselves, these measures may not amount to much. They don’t have the impact or the visibility of the Port Lands clusterfuck, because they don’t carry the same scale or price tag. That’s why they’re mostly off the radar. Cumulatively, however, their effect on our quality of life could be just as serious. The places we love and live in, whether they’re downtown or in the suburbs, would become dirtier, more threadbare, and less welcoming.

But this is what happens when the function of government is entrusted to people with no commitment to the public sphere. I’ve already written that the current administration seems colonized by people with no interest in using the power of government to advance the common good, and the events of the past few weeks have done nothing to suggest otherwise. When you start pulling at the threads that hold a community together, you never know when the whole thing’s going to unravel.

This is not to take anything away from the the people whose efforts forced a retreat on the waterfront, of course. And the folks involved in CodeBlueTO deserve a special shout-out. Let’s just remember, though, that this is a long war that has to be fought on many fronts. These guys aren’t done yet. There’s still a long slog ahead.

submitted by Sol Chrom

(Not only is Sol Chrom an occasional commenter here but he’s also been known to blog over at Posteroustumblr and OpenFile.)


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


Don’t Speak Unless You’re Spoken To

September 8, 2011

Another outrageous, highly dubious plan of action crawls up and out, Creature From the Black Lagoon style, from the mayor’s office. Another outbreak of indignant cries of foul (and worse) from opponents, compromising the typical cadre of left wing kooks, academics and not Toronto Sun readers.
Predictable, really.

Why doesn’t everybody just chillax, take a pill. The mayor’s just one vote on council, we’re told. What he says doesn’t automatically go. You’re just being hysterical. Team Ford loves making you hysterical. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

OK but, upon assuming office the mayor declared Transit City dead and in its place, Transportation City and a Sheppard subway that remains very much in a pie in the sky state.  He then pushed a plan through council for a report – and a report only — on privatizing waste collection west of Yonge. Now he proclaims throughout the land that he’s privatized waste collection west of Yonge. And on Tuesday, the mayor’s rubber stamp Executive Committee challenged council to stop him from seizing control of the Port Lands plans and disfiguring them completely.

It’s hard not to see this as a pattern. Mayor Ford declares it. The court of public opinion says it is so.

One can’t blame the media entirely for continually giving him a soapbox and bullhorn. It makes for great reading/viewing. Crazy statement ensures over-reaction. Conflict, conflict, conflict. That would be, what do you call it, their bread and butter.

But it is does a great disservice to our discourse, front loading it with what appears to be a done deal and foregone conclusion, relegating those standing opposed to the mayor’s moves to rolling the rock back up the hill. Why are you continuing to argue about this? What’s done is done. Let’s move on to the next apple cart we can tip over.

Without substantive pushback, the mayor isn’t just one vote of 45 at city council. There is an atmosphere of fait accompli in everything he does, everything he says. Councillors who defy his wishes are either whining left wing kooks, their noses all out of joint because they no longer have any power, or they’re obstinately denying the will of the people who gave Mayor Ford a mandate to do anything he wants.

Now, as in with every other criticism of the mayor, the usual response is that David Miller did the exact same thing. Well, bad behaviour should not beget bad behaviour. Post-war German leaders did not go on holocaust sprees and turn around in their defence and claim Hitler did it too. (Just for the analogy-challenged: in this particular instance I did not compare Mayor Ford to Hitler. I compared David Miller to Hitler. How’s that for bipartisanship?) Besides, a quick look at who Mayor Miller surrounded himself with, those that sat on his Executive Committee, reveals that it was nowhere near as ideologically hidebound as the current administration’s crop of councillors; nor were they as happy to simply sit around, silently nodding in agreement, ready to raise their hands in automatic agreement. (See the Saga of Brian Ashton.)

A semi-strong mayoral system that we now employ courtesy of the City of Toronto Act allows for our mayors to have an elevated upper hand. Great if you like the mayor who’s in power, not so good if you don’t. It’s the criticism of the mayor’s critics that seems new. While Royson James of that lyin’ rag, the Toronto Star, has set his sights on the performance of Mayor Ford, let’s not forget his shrill anti-Miller voice in the waning days of that administration and his single-minded crusade to chase Adam Giambrone from last year’s mayoral race. Did the Toronto Sun and its followers call him out on any of that? Was he just some kind of right wing kook then? David Miller was fair game and all criticism was justified.

Now, we’re supposed to sit back, keep our opinions to ourselves since Mayor Ford was elected with a mandate from the people of Toronto. To question is to whine. To disagree is simple jealousy or just disenguousness to use Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s favourite new word.

Reasoned disagreement doesn’t seem to stick. Much of that has to do with the fact that, well, facts seem to be irrelevant currently. The Port Lands debate is a good case in point. Of the mayor’s allies only Budget Chief Mike Del Grande is being upfront about what the administration is doing. “The truth,” Royson James claims, “is [Del Grande] needs revenues from the sale of the Port Lands to fix holes in his budget.”

If that’s the case, let’s debate the issue on that basis. Quick cash for a one time budget solution. Pros and cons? Instead, we must contend with obfuscation, misdirection and an outright distortion of the truth. We hear that Waterfront Toronto is a bloated, boondoggle of an organization that has done nothing to earn its keep. There is no plan. At the Executive Committee meeting on Tuesday, Councillor Minnan-Wong deliberately blurred the roles both Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Port Lands Corporation play in the waterfront development. Read this from Jonathan Robson to see just how disenguous the councillor is being.

Faced with such an onslaught of ‘truthiness’ (and I’m being very generous using that label) what recourse do we have except to scream and holler and continually call out bullshit? If one side insists on conducting business in the mucky goo of misinformation and innuendo, some of us have to wade in there with them and start slinging mud. It may be noble and honourable to take the high road but it leaves us lagging behind in the race to save our city.

loudly submitted by Cityslikr