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Lisa Rochon: Cityspace

Penny-wise, cityscape foolish Add to ...

Do Torontonians care about public space? To many, that's like asking whether people require air to breathe. For others, it's a pretentious question that automatically implies shameful cost overruns - so don't ask in the first place. If it were up to them, the issue would be value-engineered right out of this column. Gone. In the name of practicality and efficiency.

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For the rest of you still reading and interested in complex city-building, public space is what keeps us committed to urbanity. When I wrote my previous column about the deteriorating city ( Stuck At The Corner Of Graceless And Blah, April 30) the e-mails came in for days from readers who are simultaneously passionate and angry about Toronto.

Some expressed rage: "Toronto is a mess and the GTA is becoming an urban-sprawl nightmare." Others contrasted the city and its lack of civic grace to the urban delights of Vancouver, with its fountains and waterfalls; to Chicago, with its beautifully maintained bicycle paths; to Boston, with its new, epic parks where freeways used to be; and to New York, with its pedestrian-friendly transformation of Broadway.

Some readers even sent in photos and described the crazed digging, patching and redigging of streets in Toronto's downtown - and the patchwork of asphalt everywhere. An architect sent one photo of the broad-brushing of concrete to mark a deadening new gateway to a west-end neighbourhood. Some people, creative leaders in the city, told me in utter despair that they had all but given up, and are now spending more and more time away from Toronto after decades attempting to effect change.

But unless there's a radical shift within the city bureaucracy, where administrators keep to their isolated silos rather than aligning across departments for a common, city-building vision, the fight for enlightened streetscapes in Toronto will remain a futile battle. In other cities, even dreary Edmonton, urban designers are mobilizing to soften the hard edges of the postwar city - with funky park pavilions in sports fields - to build the new urban visions of their ambitious political leaders. That's an uphill battle in Toronto, where graceful, enlivening public space is being sidelined by Mayor Rob Ford, and his disciples, as frivolous and wasteful.

In fact, the problem with this city's beleaguered public space is that it's an old story. The revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square is one high-profile civic project that's been hacked apart by short-sighted politicians and an increasingly paralyzed bureaucracy. Only half of the square's original 2007 competition-winning scheme - which included the fantastic and now-completed greening of the podium roof topping City Council offices - will be fully and elegantly built out. A chic new restaurant, which would have afforded a desperately needed alternative to City Hall's forlorn café, has been eliminated, and there's no money to construct the Queen Street tourism booth and the lush landscaping along a parched stretch of Bay Street. The upshot will be moments of architectural pleasure framed by lost opportunities.

Shoddy and worn out after decades of neglect, Toronto's most significant public gathering space was never given an actual budget matched to a real building program. Instead, the complex renovation was kick-started with deferred-maintenance money amounting to a mean-spirited $16-million; rather a shamefaced hurling of money at a problem, like a dirty deed consummated in a back alley. Eighteen months of consultations with stakeholders produced a long list of proposed new buildings, amenities and landscaping. A more realistic budget was eventually struck at $34-million. But like any renovation big or small, there were surprises - the podium leaked, for instance, requiring an entirely new roofing membrane over City Hall at an extra cost of more than $2-million, more than the entire cost of landscaping the podium roof.

Work has been seriously delayed on the square, meaning that an enduring stone-clad concession building with skate-changing facilities missed a deadline of last Christmas, the result of petty squabbles between the contractor (PCL Constructors) and the city, which refuses to sign off, for instance, on a construction contract with a cost overrun of $150,000. All told, a potential two-year delay on Nathan Phillips will likely cost taxpayers an extra $2.4-million. Hardly an example of practical, efficient accounting.

"There's a power vacuum," says one consultant with deep experience working with the city. "There's a culture of paranoia and fear which existed before, but now it's worse. People are saying they're not signing off on the budget, but a week later the [cost of]steel can double; prices can't be held. Money is literally evaporating on the square."

Besides an open disdain for civic pride-making, the Ford administration holds volunteer citizens in contempt. A total of 22 public-advisory committees have been disbanded, including the dedicated volunteers, civic leaders every one, who actively participated over the past five years on the Nathan Phillips Square committee. Blocking intelligent guardianship of civic infrastructure - that's how you inspire a culture of citizen disengagement. When people stop caring, the city dies.

Nathan Phillips is a landmark of modernism. Fort York is a landmark of historic nation-building. Following nearly two decades of intelligent citizen pressure led by award-winning heritage activist Stephen Otto and the Friends of Fort York, the 1793 fortress was galvanized as the linchpin connecting the city to the original shoreline and beyond to where Lake Ontario now lies. The Fort York Pedestrian and Cycling Bridge follows the undulations of the historic Garrison Creek and proposes arching two ribbons of steel effortlessly into the air.

But in typical Toronto style, it's now being punished, not celebrated. Suburban councillor David Shiner has bombed the idea of the poetically designed bridge, calling it an attack on taxpayers and "fancy." It's now being kicked back to council and, if cancelled, will be missing from the high-profile War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations next year. Meanwhile, its price tag had risen over the past four years from a schematic design budget of $18-million to a final tally, including the cost of inflation, of $22-million.

In fact, money probably has little to do with the decision to chop the bridge, by Montgomery Sisam Architects and Aecom engineers, from the Fort York redevelopment plan. The extra money had already been found, local councillor Mike Layton says, within Transportation Services and its $230-million annual capital budget.

So, what's not to like? Apparently, there are two offending factors: One, the bridge is intended to serve pedestrians and cyclists - not cars. The other is that the project was authored during previous regimes as a symbol of design exuberance, the likes of which Ford and his non-poetic zealots apparently loathe. As one city-parks planner warned earlier this week, only sports fields are being approved these days. Designers of "fancy" should keep their heads down.

The irony is that poetic visions - the fancy ideas - are why people become emotionally attached to great cities. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who retires next week after 22 years in office, believed in bold and exuberant interventions - in making a great American city look even more handsome through the planting of 600,000 trees and the building of more than seven million square feet of planted roofs.

When you lie on the epic green grass of Chicago's 25-acre Millennium Park, completed in 2004, or gaze at Frank Gehry's brazen band shell there and photograph the weird, stretched faces being reflected in the mirrored cladding of Anish Kapoor's public sculpture, Cloud Gate, you are not remembering that the park cost $450-million (three times its original estimate, and worth every penny for its magnetic appeal to people around the world). You're thinking: "Why can't this be Toronto?"

The short, sad answer is that it should be.

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