Is Mayor Rob Ford a small-minded penny pincher, as his critics suggest? Or is he a proud city builder who simply wants Torontonians to get value for their money? The Fort York bridge debate offers a chance to find out.
Construction on the bicycle and pedestrian bridge was about to get under way when the mayor's allies pulled a fast one and passed a late-night motion ordering city staff to look for a cheaper alternative to the dramatic structure, which was running over budget. Since then, area councillors and community activists have been lobbying furiously to save the project.
Mike Layton, the freshman councillor who is leading the battle, says it would be shame to lose the new link to Fort York, a key location in the history of Toronto and of Canada. "We have a handful of iconic sites in the country," he says. "This is one."
Cyclists and walkers would approach the $22-million bridge from a pathway on the south side of Wellington Street, east of Strachan and opposite Stanley Park. The bridge would carry them over two sets of railway tracks and curve eastward down into the grassy area at the entrance to Fort York.
The idea is to make it easier to approach the fort, often overlooked by visitors because it is so hard to find. With the bridge in place, they could avoid the uninviting trip down heavily trafficked Strachan.
The bridge would link two bustling new neighbourhoods: the Liberty Village, King West area and the forest of new condominium buildings down by Lakeshore Avenue. It would help bring the city into closer touch with its waterfront, an aim of city leaders for decades. Its striking design, featuring spiralling double helix-like arches, would enliven the cityscape.
For those reasons, a group of leading architects and designers is pleading with city council to save the bridge. "When infrastructure makes the intensifying city more livable, when it provides opportunities to link new residents to the restored waterfront, when it creates opportunities for tourism, when it celebrates heritage and culture and when it attracts private sector business interest, it is demonstrating that it is an investment that has value and leverage. This is just such an occasion," says a letter signed by George Dark and David Pontarini and supported by a couple of dozen others.
Sending the bridge design back for review now means that would be not be finished by next year as planned (if it is ever built at all). That means it would not be open for the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations at Fort York, throwing a wet blanket over that event.
Delaying it would also mean squandering much of the $1.3-million already spent on preparations, not to mention all the time that has been invested. The bridge has been in the works for at least 15 years. It has gone through a design review and an environmental assessment. Now is the time to pull the trigger, before construction around Strachan for the Pearson airport rail link gets in the way.
Mr. Layton says that if cost is the issue, the city should work with the builders and designers to find savings on materials and other factors. He says it should also tap developers, given the benefit to area condo dwellers. He plans to make a Horatius's stand for the bridge at city council this week. He needs a two-thirds majority to overrule a Ford-dominated council committee.
Here's hoping Mr. Ford listens. A successful mayor has to do more than be prudent with taxpayers' money, as important as that is. He has to invest in projects – smart, inspiring projects – that raise the value of the city. The Fort York bridge is one of them.