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The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor casts Port Lands retreat as a victory for all

As council braces for this week’s stormy debate over the Port Lands, the sleeper question hanging over Councillor Doug Ford’s gambit to accelerate investment by selling off real estate to commercial developers is whether the city has the formal authority to elbow aside Waterfront Toronto

Mayor Rob Ford has ended his bid to seize control of development on the Port Lands, painting it not as a defeat for his administration, but a "win-win for everybody."

There was no talk of Ferris wheels or megamalls – just consensus – as city council gave unanimous support Wednesday to the existing plans for revitalizing the 180 hectares at the mouth of the Don River under a new agreement designed to foster collaboration and speed development.

The show of unity was the result of two weeks of late-night meetings among Ford loyalists and the two local councillors aimed at finding a solution to the mayor's unhappiness with the status quo and the public outrage provoked by the alternative – a vision promoted by the mayor and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford.

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Even before the vote was taken on the council floor, the mayor tried to cast the retreat as a victory for everyone.

"I don't think it was a change of heart," the mayor said. "The taxpayers have spoken. I've listened to the taxpayers. This is what they want. This is a win-win for everybody."

Mr. Ford said he does not listen to critics, who he said one moment call him a bully and then say he can't build consensus.

"I'm very proud," he said. "I just can't wait to see the vote. Some people are going to have to eat their words."

The new agreement leaves control of developing the Port Lands in the hands of Waterfront Toronto, the three-government agency created a decade ago to redevelop the derelict stretch of harbour. In return, Waterfront Toronto and the city have agreed to review the existing environmental assessment for the mouth of the Don River and to look at the costs of all the options included in that document.

Council also asked the city manager to provide a business plan for the area in six to eight months.

The plan favoured by Waterfront Toronto – and approved by the former city council last year – would see a new mouth created for the Don River, which now ends in a stagnant channel. It also includes a riverside park and a mixed-used community.

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Doug Ford and his brother attacked that plan for moving too slowly and said it failed to make the most of prime city-owned real estate, presenting their alternative with the help of glitzy conceptual drawings paid for by a city agency without council's consent. Their vision – hatched without public input – placed a retail centre where the mouth of the river was to go. The proposal and the fact that it sprang forth after private meetings with real estate developers, prompted a huge public outcry and led some of the mayor's allies to break ranks.

Realizing the plan would never get the support it needed in council, the "consensus" plan was developed and the talkative Doug Ford, who stayed silent Wednesday, had to give up his efforts.

"Everyone wants us to work together and sing Kumbaya, so we're going to work together with them," he told The Globe and Mail earlier this week.

After the decision, many councillors stood and clapped for members of the public watching the vote, and the mayor walked over to shake his brother's hand. A few bars of Kumbaya also rang out in the chamber.

"We are certainly pleased with the confidence that council has expressed in Waterfront Toronto," the agency's leader, John Campbell, said. "We heard them. They want things to move faster and we do as well. And we are open to new ideas."

He said the first issue was to finish work on flood protection, which includes the plan for the mouth of the river. The agency also faced criticism for not having a way to cover the estimated $634-million cost of its Port Lands plan. Mr. Campbell said it now has a business plan, but will not make that public.

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"It's a great victory because it's a consensus and it's a consensus of Torontonians, not just council," said Pam McConnell, one of the four councillors, including Paul Fletcher, Michael Thompson and Peter Milczyn, who worked on the agreement.

Mr. Milczyn, who predicted there could now be cranes on the Port Lands in five to 10 years rather than 25 as first planned, said the agreement addresses long-standing concerns, such as the pace of development and the need to analyze costs.

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