This week, the Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a “new deal” that reset the province’s relationship with Canada’s largest city.
The agreement delivers billions of dollars to city hall, which Toronto badly needs it. On balance, Ms. Chow clearly comes out ahead.
But the deal has implications for the physical future of the city. It suggests that two terrible projects of recent years, the Gardiner Expressway rebuild and the Ontario Place waterpark, are more likely to happen.
Ontario will now own the Gardiner Expressway, along with the Don Valley Parkway. This virtually guarantees that the debate over the Gardiner’s eastern portion is over, and it will be fully rebuilt as an elevated expressway. This is wasteful in the extreme; at least now, the province will shoulder the costs, which will be huge.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Transportation can now impose its rules on this highway and some of the surrounding area. The ministry takes an extremely conservative approach to traffic management. If Toronto wants to add a separated bike lane downtown or make Lake Shore Boulevard narrower, transportation engineers at Queens Park may obstruct those efforts. They could also cancel new buildings within 14 metres of the highways. (A city spokesperson, chief communications officer Lindsay Broadhead, said this week that these matters are under discussion.)
But the immediate impact is at Ontario Place. The disastrous Therme indoor waterpark will almost surely proceed, demolishing an entire island of parkland and replacing it with a big, ugly Goliath of a private attraction.
The Ford government also put forward a bill that exempts this project from planning, environmental and heritage laws, as well as insulating it from litigation. A lawsuit by the activist group, Ontario Place for All, is probably moot. Mr. Ford will rewrite any and every rule to let this project happen.
This is wrong, and the project is a generational mistake, but give Mr. Ford this much: He knows what he wants.
Meanwhile, the city is rudderless when it comes to the design of its public spaces.
As far as I can tell, the Therme project has zero support from the design community or the city. Everyone hates it: Architects, landscape architects, professional planners and, to judge from their circumspect public comments, Toronto city planners and the Waterfront Toronto Design Review Panel. I have not heard a single professional support this project, other than those who, including Urban Strategies and Diamond Schmitt, are taking Therme’s money.
Why doesn’t all that passion lead to some results? Is there anyone at City Hall who could proactively imagine an Ontario Place Park, design it and communicate it to the public? Is there a politician who will bring that to the floor of council?
In short: No. Toronto’s government makes plans, policies and guidelines, many of them contradictory. It does not move quickly and it does not do bold public projects. The best new public places in the city in the past 25 years – Evergreen Brick Works, the Bentway, Corktown Common, Sugar Beach – were mostly born outside City Hall.
But there is an older tradition of design advocacy. From 1977 to the 1990s, the old City of Toronto had an in-house group, the Division of Architecture and Urban Design, who delivered their own projects in a multidisciplinary, opportunistic manner.
It is time for Toronto to get this capacity back. How about a scheme to rescue Raymond Moriyama’s old Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre? What happened to The Don River Valley Park?
At the very least, the city must get serious and ambitious about creating public space. It must acknowledge that architecture and landscape architecture matter. Hire the very best designers, and pay far more attention to brick and mortar, plants and granite.
A new deal is good news; a new vision for the city’s physical future would be nice, too. But this week, Toronto is being shaped by ideas that are big, dumb and ugly.