We can’t tell what’s the worst thing about Doug Ford’s vision for the waterfront: the tackiness of the concept, its ignorance of effective city-building, the back-room nature of the dealings or the fact that it makes no sense financially.
Last week, Councillor Doug Ford displayed another of his trademarked surges of Hollywood-style city-building pizazz when he suggested that Toronto pull out of its advanced-stage plans for developing the Port Lands. The idea, which he outlined—seemingly out of the blue—in a series of press interviews last week, is to scrap the current agreement with the province and the federal government and replace it with a plan involving a monorail, a mega mall, a giant ferris wheel and a hotel that would allow guests to cruise—or row, I suppose—into the lobby in boats. The plan was officially unveiled in more detail to City Hall’s Executive Committee on Tuesday.
Ford’s notion, it has become clear, was not the flash of barstool inspiration it first appeared to be. He has called it a “backroom vision” conceived in a series of meetings with unnamed developers. And his justification for his “vision” is even more disconcerting than the proposal itself: He’s claimed that there is no existing plan for the Port Lands, which is completely untrue. There is a breathtaking plan in place that features residences and shopping districts and continuous parkland around the re-naturalized mouth of the Don River. We’ve just completed a legally required $19–million environmental assessment on that plan, a process that took nine years. If Doug Ford has ideas or strategies for speeding up that development or improving it, he should bring them forward. But scrapping a carefully thought out strategy and starting over—which experts say would likely require another full environmental assessment, delaying any new proposal for years—is just dumb.
But then the whole thing is dumb. The suggestion that we make a mega-mall the centrepiece of the Port Lands—the last large portion of undeveloped land directly adjacent to downtown—is shocking in its idiocy. It runs contrary to generations of urban-planning experience that has shown the folly of big-box retail surrounded by giant parking lots. Such developments kill nearby retail strips and make establishing a real neighbourhood impossible. The ferris wheel and boat-in hotel only compound the stupidity, and not just because they strike some of us as derivative and tacky.
Destination retail and theme-park rides have a place in the city, and possibly even in the Port Lands, but they are not the building blocks of an urban dynamic where people live, walk around and meet in shops, in parks or on sidewalks—the kind of dynamic that makes the most desirable and expensive parts of the city so sought after and successful. If you want to build a great downtown neighbourhood, you don’t start by asking which elements might make someone want to drive there from Etobicoke on a shopping trip or bus in from Ohio on a cheapo vacation. You start by asking which elements will make people want to live there.
It’s bad financially, too. If the new plan is, in fact, to sell off huge chunks of city-owned land to private developers now, before any redevelopment takes place, then we are going to give away most of the value of that land. The potential loss to the city, in dollar terms, can likely be measured in the billions. (Imagine the transformation of the Distillery District from the abandoned industrial site it once was to what is today.) One speculates that the prospect of scooping up undervalued property from taxpayers and short-circuiting the process is what moved Westfield, the Australian mall developer, to approach the Ford brothers with a mega-mall proposal in the first place.
That Ford’s new plot grew out of backroom talks with Westfield and other developers may be the biggest problem of all. If planning is happening behind closed doors by people who stand to profit, then the broader public’s interest could be compromised. Research by York University professor Robert MacDermid shows a link between one developer who owns a 50-year lease on Port Lands property discussed in the plan and $30,000 in donations to Rob Ford’s mayoral campaign.
The provincial and federal governments—the other key landowners in our current Port Lands agreement—have been cold to Ford’s scheme so far. His claim that the whole complex can be built in five or six years seems simply not credible. More realistically, here’s what would happen in five or six years: Based on a poorly conceived fantasy plan that may or may not ever be built, we could sell off—at discounted prices—valuable city-owned land to developers. Once the land is out of our control, so is its use. And we will have missed a singular opportunity to do something truly remarkable with the area, an opportunity that will never arise again.