It could be called the second Battle of York.
But in place of marauding Americans and hapless British redcoats are a phalanx of right-leaning city councillors against a ragtag crew from a range of ideological backgrounds.
The spoils of this war may not decide the fate of empires, but it will decide that of a foot and bike bridge connecting downtown Toronto to Fort York, that neglected island of history in the Gardiner Expressway’s shadow that was reduced to ruins two centuries ago in the War of 1812.
In 2007, city council voted to build a foot and bike bridge reconnecting the Fort with the city it once protected, timed for bicentennial celebrations next year. But at a public works committee meeting last month, budget-conscious councillors allied with Mayor Rob Ford deep-sixed those plans with a late-night motion to send the $22-million bridge – which was $4.4-million over original estimates – back to the designers for cost trimming.
Now, an unlikely patchwork of Torontonians are speaking up in the bridge’s defence.
“I would love to see the bridge happen,” said former Conservative politician John Tory, who sits on the fundraising panel for the Fort York Foundation, a group devoted to building a visitors centre on the site. “People have put a lot of thought into this. It didn’t just get approved in the middle of the night two weeks ago.”
The foundation has pledged to raise a quarter of the funds need to build a $23-million visitors centre.
While Mr. Tory says he hasn’t raised the issue with the mayor’s office, he has been talking about the bridge with several other foundation members, a group that includes former lieutenants-governor, political insiders and philanthropists.
At city hall, Councillor Mike Layton says he has convinced roughly 50 per cent of his political counterparts to reject the public works decision when it goes before city council next week. He’ll need two-thirds support to successfully overturn the decision.
“I’m putting the case to other councillors and getting some support in surprising places,” Mr. Layton said.
He’s also trying to enlist the help of Jim Flaherty, federal Finance Minister and friend of the mayor’s, who’s been supportive of projects across the Toronto waterfront.
“We know he’s sympathetic to the bridge, but they just won a majority so they are not answering phone calls,” Mr. Layton told a crowd of 20 condo dwellers on Monday night, who assembled to come up with ways to save the bridge. Joining Mr. Layton at the meeting was NDP MPP Rosario Marchese, who put his personal support behind Mr. Layton’s efforts and foresaw thousands of locals doing the same.
Mr. Layton has also enlisted help from condo developers around Fort York. At least one of them, Steve Diamond, has met with the mayor’s office about the matter.
“I think the cost of the bridge is a legitimate issue for the city to consider,” he said. “But I do think this bridge provides a very useful and practical amenity to existing neighbourhoods and new neighbourhoods in the area.”
Mr. Diamond estimates that his development would contribute around $2-million in development fees to the city, money he would be happy to see go toward the bridge.
The issue is pressing: If construction doesn’t start soon, the city will miss a narrow construction window provided by Metrolinx, pushing the building calendar months or years past the bicentennial.
“I’m sensitive to the timing with the bicentennial, but I don’t think it’s prudent to make a $22-million decision for a celebration that’s going to come and go very quickly,” said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works committee. “There were concerns from the mayor’s office and the budget chief and so we decided to take another look at this.”