Was Rob Ford right? The former mayor, now a city councillor again, said spending millions sprucing up Nathan Phillips Square was a waste of taxpayers' hard-earned money. Now that the project is over budget and way behind schedule, it is tempting to conclude that he had a point.
When the city began work on the bulk of the project in April, 2010, it was supposed to be done in two years. More than two and a half years have elapsed since that target passed, and the project is still not finished. Landscaping on the new Peace Garden just west of the main square is to spill over into this spring. The cost has soared to $60-million from $42-million, and the city has put off some parts of the plan, such as repairs to the elevated walkways that encircle the square and upgrades to the streetscape along the west side of Bay Street.
But before giving Mr. Ford his vindication, listen to Chris Pommer. A partner in Plant Architect Inc., he is part of the team that won an international design competition to revitalize the square.
He is the first to concede that the project has taken longer than hoped and that cost matters – "I pay taxes in this town" – but this was a complex project led by a complex organization. Complications came along, as they do in almost any renovation. Without making excuses, he asks for a little perspective.
Nathan Phillips Square is the city's most important civic space. It is where people go to watch New Year's fireworks, skate under the arches on the popular ice rink, and join rallies such as Sunday's gathering in solidarity with the people of France. But after decades of heavy use, the square, designed by City Hall architect Viljo Revell and opened in 1965, was looking shabby and rundown when Mr. Pommer and crew won a competition to revitalize it.
If you are going to work on such a space, Mr. Pommer says, "you have to do it right and do it in a way that makes us proud."
The renovation aims to free the square of clutter, make it function better as a gathering place and green it up with modern landscaping. The result, now that work is at last all but complete, has to be deemed a big success.
A bold new permanent stage with a glass canopy looks out over the square, making it possible to stage concerts and rallies without putting up and taking down a temporary stage for every event. When the stage is not in use, the grand stairway leading up to it serves as a sheltered place to hang out and survey the passing scene.
An attractive new skate-rental and snack-bar building stands next to the rink, with a patio on top from which to watch the skating. A new green roof on the City Hall podium is a pleasant place to walk and overlook the square. "Disappearing fountains" spring from between the paving stones in summer, to the delight of the children who run through them. The approach to the square from Queen Street has been improved by the replacement of a raised ventilation grate.
Best of all, the old Peace Garden that was plopped down in the centre of the square, breaking up the austere sweep of Mr. Revell's design and getting in the way of mass gatherings, has been relocated to the west side, next to Osgoode Hall. The new, bigger version will feature a reflecting pool, flowering trees and native plants. Mr. Pommer thinks it will be "fantastic."
Mr. Ford is right to complain about the delays and the overruns. The original, unrealistic funding plan was to raise $24-million from private benefactors. Not surprisingly, it turned out wealthy Torontonians were not ready to reach into their wallets to fix up a government square. Now, the city is hoping for private capital to build one of the elements of the plan that was taken out for budget reasons: a classy restaurant in the southwest corner of the square.
But writing the whole thing off as a big waste goes too far. Creating and maintaining excellent public spaces is one of the keys to building a successful modern city. Toronto has one of the best civic squares in North America. Investing in it was a smart decision that will pay off for decades.