With Rob Ford dead set on a casino for Toronto, we take a look at the grandiose city-building visions of his predecessors.
Rob Ford’s vision for Toronto includes a casino that he claims will boost employment, tourism, and revenue for the city. This hotly-contested proposal is just the latest in a string of mayor-boosted plans that have shaped Toronto over the last few decades.
We often pass by the city landmarks, like Old City Hall, without a second glance. But there was a time when replacing that building with “the clamshell” was as controversial as today’s casino proposal. History tells us that the success of a municipal vision often comes down to timing—a grandiose plan must arrive at a time when residents are looking for a specific change. There are other key factors, too: the location of the project and its suitability for development, what’s in it for city residents, and a mayor’s powers of persuasion in his or her dealings with council and decision-makers.
Both critics and supporters alike agree that a casino in Toronto would change the face of the city, but change isn’t something the city of Toronto is apprehensive about. In fact, the constant change Toronto has undergone over the last 50 years has shaped the city into what it is today.
Toronto’s history is full of mayors with big plans. While each of them have left some indelible mark on the city, here are a few who set out to transform Toronto forever.
Nathan Phillips (Mayor from 1955-1962)
For better or for worse, Nathan Phillips will forever be remembered as the mayor who helped tear down a central part of the city in order to help Toronto’s municipal government reach new heights.
Phillips took office in 1955 in the midst of Toronto’s era of modernization, which began at the end of World War II.
“Everybody was more inclined to improve the city by demolishing the old and building the new,” says Richard White, a history instructor at the University of Toronto Mississauga. For Phillips, that meant the sleek, futuristic designs of new city hall and Nathan Phillips Square.
In his 1967 book Mayor of All the People, Phillips revealed that plans for the new city hall had been in the works since 1946. “I took the position that Toronto deserved the finest city hall and civic square in the world,” he wrote.
The process was lengthy. In a referendum during the 1955 council election, voters rejected Phillips’ first attempt at building a new city hall; many felt the $18 million design didn’t fit Toronto. Undeterred, council moved forward with the demolition of old Chinatown and the surrounding areas. Plans for a new city hall were still in action, but a new vision was needed.
The design was chosen through an international architectural competition that garnered 532 entrants from almost every country in the world, according to Phillips’ book. The winner was Finnish architect Viljo Revell.
“I much preferred the design,” Phillips wrote, “because it departed from the usual traditional matchbox embellished with gingerbread.”
With public support this time, construction began in 1961 and the square officially opened in 1965. Defeated in the 1962 elections, Phillips never got the opportunity to work in the new building. However, as Phillips wrote in his book, “It gives me a warm feeling to visit new city hall now and see the lines of the people from near and far…”
With support for urban renewal from both council and the public, Phillips was able to take an expensive idea that was opposed by many and turn it into one of Toronto’s defining pieces of architecture. He succeeded largely because the timing was right.
David Crombie (1972-1978)
David Crombie was commonly referred to as Toronto’s “tiny, perfect mayor” during his time in office. He used his strong people skills to convince council to take on unlikely projects, such as mixed public housing in the St. Lawrence area.
“Crombie was a conservative, he was a cabinet minister of Brian Mulroney’s government [after his mayoralty], and yet he had Liberals and New Democrats on the same side as him,” says Neil Thomlinson, an associate professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University.
Crombie was elected at a time when voters were beginning to reject the Phillips-era ideal of urban renewal, and the city’s rapid construction of new buildings. In the 1960s, after witnessing the demolition of thousands of historical structures, the idea of preserving the city began to resonate with residents. Elected in 1972, Crombie represented a new, forward-thinking reform movement in the city’s municipal politics.
“Crombie, in a way, rose to political power because there was a social movement that wanted to protect the city. His mayoralty [was] a product of a deeper social change,” says White.
Bruce Bell, a local tour guide and the official historian of St. Lawrence Hall and St. Lawrence Market, says Crombie was given the task of revitalizing the core, as many residents began moving to its outskirts due to a lack of affordable housing in the city centre.
“He was the one who really started to think about saving downtown Toronto. The city was really crumbling,” says Bell.
At the time, public housing for low-income residents existed in pockets around the city. Crombie’s plan for St. Lawrence, which was then abandoned industrial land, was mixed public housing—a way to avoid the creation of ghettos.
“It was a very unusual project. He marshalled it and council had to approve it,” says White.
The St. Lawrence project was designed by Alan Littlewood, and heavily influenced by famed American urban planner Jane Jacobs. The project was completed in the mid-1990s, almost 20 years after Crombie resigned from office. The mixed-use and mixed-income housing and parks contributed greatly to making the city more people-friendly.
Mel Lastman (1998-2003)
Mayor Mel Lastman is consoled by Sheila Copps and John Bitove after
Toronto lost its bid for the 2008 summer Olympic games (Photo: Peter Power/Toronto Star).
Along with helping to secure the construction of the Sheppard subway line, Mel Lastman put everything he had into Toronto’s bid for the 2008 summer Olympics.
The decision to bring the Olympics to Toronto was a risky one. The games are known to affect host cities in fundamental ways. The city gains massive event facilities and a boost in tourism, but the Olympics can also leave behind crippling amounts of debt.
Much of Lastman’s ability to sway all three levels of government into getting on board with his idea had to do with his personality, Thomlinson says.
“Putting together the Olympic bid, you had to get a lot of ducks in a lot of rows in order to get the plan developed,” says Thomlinson. “If you’re talking about a mayor’s political clout, I think he had a lot more political clout than Rob Ford does now.”
Indeed, Lastman proposed launching the bid, courted councillors until they agreed, and invested time and money into composing a near-perfect bid. But he made one crucial mistake. He failed to watch his mouth.
Leading up to decision day on July 13, 2001, competition was stiff between Toronto, Beijing and Paris. Critics at the time blamed the loss of the games on a racial slur Lastman made in front of the media, days before getting on a plane to Africa to promote Toronto’s bid.
“Snakes just scare the hell out of me. I’m sort of scared about going there. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me,” he said, effectively killing Toronto’s bid.
Lastman apologized profusely for the comments and, as the man who orchestrated the bid, he had perhaps suffered the greatest loss himself.
Had Toronto gotten the chance to host the games, much of the city’s landscape would be different today. The bid’s plan envisioned 28 venues, including an Olympic stadium with a 100,000-seat capacity, an aquatic centre, and a multi-sport centre for the waterfront area. Renovations of Union Station and extensions of GO train services were also in the works.
“The whole waterfront, the whole downtown, the whole east end of the city would have been completely transformed had we got the Olympics,” says Bell. “It would have changed Toronto unimaginably.”
Rob Ford (2010-present)
Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star
In spite of Rob Ford’s insistence that a casino will create jobs and bring in millions of dollars in revenue, it’s no secret Torontonians are still quite skeptical of the idea.
Thomlinson says that with the inclusion of multiple services like entertainment, restaurants, and hotels, casinos have a habit of funneling patrons in and keeping them there, which isn’t good for surrounding businesses.
It also takes a little more than just the promise of economic growth to get a vision passed.
“If you want to get a thing like the casino passed, you need to have some kind of support across the usual barriers,” says Thomlinson, referring to a mayor’s ability of making connections in council between right and left wing politicians.
“Ford doesn’t have that—he’ll need to win over the mushy middle, [and] I don’t get the suspicion that city council is really going to be bothered by what Rob Ford thinks.”
Everyone seems to have a strong opinion on whether a casino is fit for the city, past Toronto mayors included. Last month, former mayors David Crombie, John Sewell, and Art Eggleton penned a letter to Ford and city councillors, advising them against casino plans.
“Governments shouldn’t be expanding gambling opportunities as a means of balancing their budgets. A commercial casino operation is not in Toronto’s best interest,” read the joint letter.
Will Toronto get the casino that Ford says we deserve? Time will tell, but it won’t be for lack of trying.