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Ford's sale of city's waterfront real estate begins

Mayor Rob Ford's administration is preparing to hang a huge for-sale sign on the city's waterfront real estate assets and is now in the process of auctioning off the first parcel - the new Corus Entertainment building, as well as the land it sits on at the foot of Jarvis Street, just south of Queen's Quay East.

Council earlier this monthly quietly voted to change the rules governing the activities of the Toronto Port Lands Company, a city agency that owns and leases 400 acres of land in the eastern waterfront. Under the new rules, TPLC will be allowed to sell its real estate holdings for a profit and funnel the proceeds back into capital reserves. The move represents a sharp departure from the city's long-standing policy to retain ownership of waterfront properties created by landfill.

The Corus project, designed by architect Jack Diamond, was the first new commercial building to open on the lakeshore in a generation. It was financed by a $128.5-million loan as well as a $12.5-million contribution from Waterfront Toronto. In 2007, council voted to negotiate a 20-year lease with the entertainment giant.

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But a March, 4, 2011, staff report indicates there's strong interest from institutional investors in the complex, although Corus has the right of first refusal. Build Toronto is now overseeing the sale.

It comes at a time of mounting uncertainty about the direction of the city's waterfront revitalization efforts.

Real estate sources say landowners in the East Bayfront area may be gearing up to challenge strict city bylaws governing development on privately owned land along the north side of Queen's Quay East.

And the new rules allowing TPLC land sales raise questions about the status of a five-year-old memorandum of understanding between the city and Waterfront Toronto, which specifies the duration of leases that Toronto's economic development agency can negotiate with commercial tenants.

Developer donates

An influential Vaughan developer, who donated generously to Mayor Ford's pre- and post-election fundraising drives, controls a long-term lease on the Port Lands' Hearn Generating Station, which has been proposed as a site for an NFL stadium by the mayor's brother Doug.

Developer Mario Cortellucci, together with various relatives and individuals who listed his company's premises on their donor forms, contributed $30,000 to the mayor's campaign, about half of which was raised following the election as part of a multi-candidate effort to eliminate campaign deficits. He also secured a private meeting with Rob Ford, according to scheduling documents released under access to information laws.

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The figures, based on election contribution filings, were compiled by York University political scientist Robert MacDermid. "The important point here is that when a councillor or mayor runs a deficit and wins, every person seeking influence crowds into the subsequent fundraising events."

Adrienne Batra, the mayor's spokesperson, says Mr. Cortellucci wanted to discuss a charitable organization Mr. Ford and his brother Doug "might be interested in getting involved in." Neither Mr. Cortellucci nor Doug Ford responded to requests for interviews. Ms. Batra declined to reveal the charity, saying it was a "private meeting."

Owned by Ontario Power Generation, the iconic but abandoned Hearn site has been leased since 2002 to Studios of America, controlled by Mr. Cortellucci. The city issued a demolition permit on Dec. 15.

OPG spokesperson Ted Gruetzner says the lease gives the company broad latitude to re-develop the property. "It's between the city and the Studio to work through this."

While Mr. Cortellucci's development companies in the past have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to right-of-centre municipal and provincial candidates, Prof. MacDermid's analysis shows the 2010 race was his first serious foray into Toronto politics. In 2006, Mr. Cortellucci and another relative gave just $2,500 to Jane Pitfield's mayoral campaign. In 2010, he donated $4,000 and $2,000 to George Smitherman and Joe Pantalone respectively.

The Studio venture is largely considered to be moribund, and the massive structure's future continues to be the subject of much speculation. During its Dec. 16 meeting city council voted 39-1 to urge OPG to consult broadly about the heritage value of the Hearn before proceeding with the demolition. Both the mayor and his brother voted in support of the motion.

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However, in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, the mayor's brother said a stadium at the Hearn site could be the anchor for a massive redevelopment of the Portlands that would "turn this dump site into a wow factor." It would include dramatically designed residential buildings and high-end retailers such as Macy's department store. A monorail elevated transit system would link it to downtown.

Meeting with Rogers

The Globe has learned that NFL football in Toronto was discussed in a March meeting between Rogers officials and Doug Ford.

According to the city's lobbyist registry, Councillor Ford in mid-March met with three Rogers executives, including Rogers Media president Keith Pelly, who oversees the company's sports assets, including the Rogers Centre and the Blue Jays.

The registry indicates the three officials sought the meeting to discuss "cell towers." But Rogers spokesperson Jan Innes said they also discussed the "Bills in Toronto" series with the mayor's brother.

The communications giant in recent years has drawn huge crowds to regular season matches at the Rogers Centre between the Buffalo Bills and other NFL teams. Ms. Innes stressed the meeting was purely an "informational session."

Federal audit

The Globe and Mail has also obtained a September, 2009, federal audit of Ottawa's oversight of Waterfront Toronto. The report, conducted for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, concludes the agency has complied with all 12 recommendations from a 2005 audit.

Among the findings, the four-person audit team found that Waterfront Toronto has moved to "disallow" all sole-source tenders over $75,000, and brought its travel-expense policy in line with federal Treasury Board guidelines enacted in 2006.

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