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The Globe and Mail

The not-so-funny truth about Toronto's Ferris wheel idea

People are seen inside an observation capsule with Singapore's residential skyline in the background on Monday Feb. 11, 2008, which launched its inaugural flight of the Singapore Flyer, the world's biggest observation wheel.


Before you laugh at Doug Ford's Ferris wheel idea, consider the large tourist attractions that spin on the water's edge in Chicago, London and Singapore.

Think his football stadium dream is far-fetched? Well, a $357-million (U.S.) ballpark was built on the San Francisco Bay area without the investment of any public gravy, er, money.

The city councilor's musings about his ideal vision for the port lands have been much derided, but actually borrow heavily from plans outlined by other urban capitals, from New York to Dubai.

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Cities around the world have opted to develop their waterfront real estate with a commercial bent, and to hand over the lead to private developers for the construction of malls, museums and music venues.

But that doesn't mean change has come quickly, inexpensively, or without controversy, and Mr. Ford may want to consider the fine print.

"You have to look at the whole puzzle. There's always some element of public contribution, whether it's infrastructure, roadway improvements, ramps on highways, parking, transportation or sewage," said Rob Tilliss, founder of Inner Circle Sports. "There's a whole litany of things that have to get dealt with. It's not just getting people to put up the cash for an arena and you're done."

Mr. Tilliss, a New-York-based sports financing consultant, helped put together the private financing for San Francisco's AT&T Park, a baseball stadium opened on the bay in 2000.

But he said the city was forced to find private funding after being barred from using public money by four consecutive voter initiatives.

Finding backers to construct new sporting stadiums, especially for an NFL team that would have only 10 home games a year, is difficult, he said, even in cities with huge corporate bases like New York or Los Angeles.

"To just build a one-off football stadium for a billion bucks is going to be tough to privately finance," he said.

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Turning big waterfront dreams into reality has been difficult for many major cities, even with private partners. Waterfront monorail projects have been scrapped in Singapore and Seattle. And plans to build giant Ferris wheels, modelled off the successful London Eye, have been cancelled or postponed in Melbourne, Beijing and Dubai.

Opening the floodgates to commercial development in waterfront regions can create problems even when things go as planned.

In the late 1980s, Chicago turned its historic Navy Pier into a popular amusement park, complete with Imax theatre and, yes, a giant Ferris wheel that attracts about 750,000 visitors a year. The city followed up in 2004 with the transformation of an old railway yard, which became the $475-million Millennium Park with the help of $200-million in private-sector money.

Although the park is now considered a success, its completion was four years late and its budget ballooned from $100-million. The project was plagued by accusations of cronyism, most involving contracts being awarded to private companies with close ties to the mayor's office. And the park has been widely criticized for the cluster of attractions, including the BP Pedestrian Bridge, named after corporate entities through lucrative naming rights deals.

Cities that have skirted budget issues by involving private partners have also found themselves accused of sacrificing public space, and creating "tacky" environments. Other projects have failed to materialize, as private stakeholders suffer at the whims of the global economy.

In San Francisco, 27 acres of waterfront property were turned over to a developer for the construction of condominiums, the sale of which was intended to fund the development of a cruise ship terminal and giant mall. But the project was never completed.

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Jennefer Laidley is the co-editor of Reshaping Toronto's Waterfront, a collection of essays about the history of the area released earlier this year. She said all successful waterfront developments require a firm, long-term commitment from public and private partners.

"To think that the private sector is going to make the scale of investment that's necessary to get development off the ground in the port lands is laughable," she said. "If the private sector could have done that, they would have done it by now."

Government has to be involved for environmental remediation, flood protection and infrastructure developments, she said – a reality that is reflected in the current three-tier Waterfront Toronto arrangement.

"The irony of this current situation is that things only started to move on the waterfront once we got the current three-level agreement in place," she said. "And now we have one of the players wanting to back out again."

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