Pam McConnell did something unusual and important the other day. She stood up for beauty.
Ms. McConnell is the city councillor best known to the world for being bowled over by a charging Rob Ford during a wild meeting of city council at the height of the crack scandal. She was speaking to a meeting of council's executive committee. The subject was something called the luminous veil.
In 2003, the city erected a suicide barrier on the Bloor viaduct. It happens to be a remarkable piece of design. Thousands of metal rods held in place by an angled frame do indeed create a sort of veil along either side of the bridge, accomplishing the barrier's practical goal without ruining the view. What is missing is the luminous part.
When the city built the veil, it decided it couldn't afford to illuminate it with coloured lights, as architect Dereck Revington and his fellow designers intended in their award-winning plan. Now city officials want to remedy that by lighting the bridge in time for this summer's Pan Am Games, using money put aside for showcase projects that leave the city something beyond better swimming pools or running tracks.
The lighting project will make a work of art out of a Toronto engineering icon. The bridge, formally called the Prince Edward Viaduct, was completed in 1919. The epic story of its construction is told in Michael Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion. Once the lights are added, the bridge will be lovely to behold after dark – a pleasure for people who live here and a draw for those who visit.
The trouble is cost. Contractors' bids came in way higher than expected. So city officials are proposing to go ahead for now with just one part of the project (lighting the veil itself) while leaving a second part (lighting the underside of the bridge) for later. Cost of the first stage: $2.8-million.
That is still a lot of money for lights. The new mayor, John Tory, for one, has wondered out loud whether it makes sense to spend on such "nice to have" projects when the city is struggling to shelter the homeless or fill potholes. At a recent executive meeting, he said that while he has nothing against the veil project, the city government discredits itself when its construction estimates are consistently off base. "We can't go on this way," he told the committee.
Fair enough. Everyone wants to hold the line on costs. But Ms. McConnell argued that the city has to invest in beauty all the same.
The veteran councillor, who represents Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale, says the veil will never fully come to life unless the lights are added to complete the designers' vision. Along with bread, she says, a city needs roses. "Sometimes you have to do what is necessary to live, and at the same time you have to have the right of beauty," she said.
That might sound a little precious to some, but good on her for saying it. Beauty needs an advocate in Toronto, a practical-minded place that often gives it short shrift.
Look at the fuss over those pink umbrellas and trucked-in rocks at the wonderful Sugar Beach down on the waterfront. Or consider the carping about the much-delayed but elegant renovation of Nathan Phillips Square. Apart from the simple pleasure they bring to those who use public spaces, creative, high-quality projects like these add lustre to the city.
The cost of illuminating the veil is small against the gargantuan cost of the Games: at least $2.5-billion by recent reports. If we can afford to build a velodrome for cyclists, surely we can afford to beautify a city landmark.
The cost of running the veil's lights has actually fallen, thanks to advances in programmable LED lighting. That $2.8-million will include the price of installing controls for the lighting on the bridge's underside, in case, in time, the city can find the extra money to install it.
Ms. McConnell is right. Yes, city hall has to keep the water running and the roads repaired, but let's not forget about beauty.