Doug Ford and the Forgotten Waterfront History

The diversity of scenes I met with this morning made the ride extremely pleasant. The wooded part of the peninsula was like shrubbery. The sands towards the lake reminded me of the sands at Weymouth, and
the sight of the highlands presented a totally different country to anything near the bay, tho’ I was not more than four miles from it.
-Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of Toronto founder John Graves Simcoe, describes the Don River in her diary, August 1793

York Habour as painted by Elizabeth Simcoe in 1793

At the heart of Toronto’s founding is the Don River, a site of natural beauty and promise, its industrial history and a hybrid of the two. From when John Graves Simcoe picked the area between the Don and Humber Rivers as the site for Toronto, the Don has been a point of constant discussion for what its role is. For Simcoe’s wife Elizabeth, it was a source of inspiration and possibility. For the mid and late 19th century industrialists of the site the Don was a means to an end for their factories, a place to dump waste and transport materials. This made it a public health hazard until the 1940s when the lower Don was buried and mostly forgotten. The Don continues to be a site at the heart of Toronto’s potential and imagination, with proposals for a “Technodrome”, 20-story glass pyramid and harness racing site along the way.

With his big announcement of his vision for a monorail, the world’s largest Ferris wheel and a massive mega-mall, Doug Ford added himself to that history last Tuesday, altering the course of the Don-and by extension, Toronto- yet again.


“We had fifteen people in the room at the Port Lands and everybody’s jaw just dropped. [The vision for the waterfront] is spectacular, just spectacular”
-Doug Ford describing the reaction to his Port Lands proposal on Metro Morning


Tuesday August 30 was going to be a big day for Doug Ford. The articulate older brother of the Mayor was tasked with selling his vision for the Port Lands and changing the tone of a sceptical reception. For the rookie councillor whose most recent foray in selling the Mayor’s agenda involved ill-advised derision of Margaret Atwood. This would be his toughest and most important challenge yet.

The agenda for the City Hall Executive Committee had been released Friday afternoon, the dead zone for media coverage. Between Hurricane Irene’s impending threat of New York, Moammar Gaddafi’s standoff in Libya and coverage of Jack Layton’s life and funeral, there wasn’t much news capacity to pay attention to the procedural details at City Hall. But there it was, item 9.6 on the agenda in the city’s dry looking template, “Revitalization Opportunities for the Port Lands”.

It sounds innocuous, but the Twitter-verse predictably sounded the alarm. Underlying the bureaucratic language of the document was a clear direction to sell the Port Lands—some of the most underdeveloped but valued land in Canada—to the private sector and distance the city from the existing arms-length Waterfront Toronto agency that has been guiding it for ten years. Typically news about procedure and technical changes don’t make it much further than City Hall and Twitter, but when speculation for details grew on the weekend, that all changed.

Like the KPMG reports that put anything legally able to be cut up for cuts, the Port Lands strategy was to not commit to any specific ideas until needed. The advantage of this is that the administration is able to test public sentiment and can distance itself from anything by saying, ‘We’re just talking about ideas here, a vision to make this great. Things will change’. The disadvantage is that rumours and speculation can run wild, enabling easy criticism.

The latter overwhelmed the benefit of the former. By Monday the news was creeping outside the City Hall Watcher bubble and into the general public about any number of wild ideas. The Port Lands were Doug’s thing, and he would have to sell them with just enough details. So began his day of giving interviews, starting with Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway just past 8AM. His salesman face would be on for the rest of the day.


At the heart of motion 9.6 isn’t a Ferris wheel or monorail or mega-mall, but the Don River. The motion addresses the pace and investment in naturalizing the Don:

The proposed flood protection measures for the Port Lands are currently unfunded. Without flood protection, significant revitalization cannot occur. Staff recommend that TPLC be granted authority to explore private sector and other options to front end infrastructure and flood protection costs in order to unlock development potential within the Port Lands.


By criticizing the pace for the naturalization of the Don the motion undermines the very reason that Waterfront Toronto has been lauded: for its careful and methodical planning and execution. As much as the Don is shaped by water and erosion and other forces of nature, it has been shaped by Toronto’s political history, and often for the worse. It’s a history that people often stumble into or it goes unnoticed.
Waterfront Toronto’s Port Lands plan with restored Don

John Wilson’s first encounter with the Don River was as a university student. Coming from the countryside, he missed the interaction with nature but connected with it in Toronto at Wilket Creek Park. He didn’t know it at the time but when he and his friends slipped under the chain link fence to sit by the river he would be forming the roots of a lifelong passion for the Don. He would also be connecting to a deep and rich history of naturalists and conservationsists like Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles Sauriol and the river’s tension between conservation and industrialization.


Wilson would re-connect with the Don in the early 1990s when the report Bringing Back the Don came out to much news coverage. He wrote a few articles on the subject and found himself pulled in, “I wanted to be able to show my kids they could do something about the environment close to them”. He joined the Task Force to Bring Back the Don which produced the report and was one of the first City Hall advisory committees. Wilson would go on to chair this committee, describing their role to be, ‘friendly to city staff and councillors and offer good advice’. In this capacity, Wilson has contributed thousands of hours of volunteer work, doing frequent educational walks, community consultations, presentations and research. 

But the Ford administration has not looked for their advice.

In May a motion backed by Ford came before council to axe the more than 20 advisory committees comprised of citizens and experts who consult with city staff on ideas and local priorities. These advisory bodies are required to be renewed at the start of each mayoralty. The rationale for eliminating the committees- the Task Force among them- is that staff time would be freed up and the void could be filled by social media.


The motion was sent back to the executive for consideration with the stipulation they had to report back in July with a detailed rationale for why each advisory body should stay or go. But it was missing on the agenda and when left-leaning Councillor Janet Davis pointed this out at the start of the meeting, the item was punted to September. It wasn’t a priority.

Wilson indicates that some Task Force members are active in other ways, but that there’s a frustration that their voice and expertise aren’t wanted by City Hall. Wilson adds, “Sometimes life sucks and you move on. I’m fine with not everything turning out the way I want, that’s the way these things go.” With that said, he cautions Ford on altering the process, “We’ve already done this, the consultation, the environmental assessment…To use the terminology of the day, it’s not ‘respect for taxpayers’”.



Due to the monorail content of Doug Ford’s pitch, the immediate reference for most people was that Ford was Lyle Lanley, the silver-tongued salesman who hoodwinks Springfield into building a monorail in a classic Simpsons episode. But watching all of these interviews again, one can’t help but think that there’s another classic American cartoon figure that is a Doug Ford substitute.

With his slicked back hair, business background and insistence that the vision will be ‘huge’, ‘spectactular’ and ‘world-renowned’, Doug Ford is Toronto’s Donald Trump. With that larger than life persona he took to Newstalk 1010 at 9:30 to sell his vision to a decidedly different radio audience than Metro Morning, one that leans right-wing and tends to support Ford.

In the intro to the Doug Ford interview on Newstalk Ryan Doyle enthuses about the Ford Vision arguing that its dazzle and signature Ferris wheel would lure tourists from abroad. With a sympathetic host, Ford expanded his vision, indicating that it would include ice cream shops and pubs in addition to the Ferris wheel.

Las Vegas just built a monorail and is planning to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel for $500M
Ford would reiterate his talking points 15 minutes later on John Oakley’s Talk 640 radio show, long a Ford-friendly media outlet. The argument goes something like this: Waterfront Toronto moves too slowly and does not have allotted funding. The private sector moves faster and will do a better job at making something we can be proud of.
Drawn to spectacle, the media quickly focused in on the prospect of a monorail, mega-mall and the world’s largest Ferris wheel. In so doing some outlets, like Newstalk and Talk 640, ignored the historical context for the waterfront and the existing framework that goes with it. Talking about the process was dull, but Ferris wheels and monorails are shiny.


There were lots of good questions to be asked. What were the legal liabilities? Where was the consultation? Wouldn’t breaking government agreements scare investors off through instability? How would this impact neighbouring projects? If Ford was concerned with the slow pace of Waterfront Toronto and the lack of investment in its properties, what effort had he made to work with them? For the latter, according to Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Michelle Noble, Mayor Ford had been installed as a member of the Waterfront board on December 8. Since then he has not attended any of the five board meetings, three conference calls or a strategy session. City Hall’s sense of inquiry into these questions was as limited as some media members’.

As for the funding at issue for the Don naturalization, the Waterfront Toronto schedule explicitly stated that the funding would not be available until late 2011. Over the past few months they have been preparing a business case to be made to the board in September which will then be released to the public later if it passes. According to a Toronto Star column by Royson James, this board meeting will occur on September 7, the day after the Executive Committee meeting.

Waiting another day for more information would seem like prudent business planning for a multi-million dollar decision, but Doug Ford’s Trump-like persona is more about the style than any business substance.


It’s not the first time Toronto has seen a business proposal for the Port Lands and Lower Don that didn’t have the underlying details sorted out. In 1987, the Ataratiri housing project was proposed for the West Donlands which would have provided 14,000 mixed housing spaces. After investing in soil de-contamination and various studies, no private investors had an interest in the project.

Facing budget difficulties, the Bob Rae government tried to unload the site for a song in 1992, offering it for $30M provided the buyer finish the de-contamination process. There were no takers, partially due to a soft real estate market.


In 1999 the Mike Harris government attempted to sell the property to a harness racing consortium, bypassing any community consultation. It’s this last instance that got Cindy Wilkey involved. On the board of the local BIA, she was blindsided by the proposal and has since been one of the most active individuals to build sustainable waterfront development

“I see a lot of parallels between now and then”, writes Wilkey, a lawyer, about the lack of transparency. Ultimately in 1999 the community opposition shut down the development. In contrast to the Harris plan to sell the land, Waterfront Toronto consulted extensively, spending six years and $19M on various studies, assessments and consultations. Wilkey has since got involved in #CodeBlueTO, a group quickly put together to oppose the Ford vision for the Port Lands.  

Kids play in Waterfront Toronto’s Sherbourne Commons

The Ford vision seems to have some of the same weaknesses as the Harris plan. Gene Desfor is a York professor has specialized in urban waterfront planning who recently co-edited a book, Re-Shaping Toronto’s Waterfront, with fellow academic Jennifer Laidley. He got back from an Algonquin Park camping trip to learn that the waterfront had been flipped upside down and violated the lessons outlined in the book, “If planning and development of Toronto’s waterfront does not recognize the plurality of interests and the variety of scales (local, regional, national and global) through which these interests are expressed, then the city will not succeed…Planning is a process as well as producing a product. And to ensure a great waterfront, both the process and product need to be considered”.

The process has been decidedly private. Ford has insisted there is sufficient private sector interest in contrast to previous waterfront opportunities and cites preliminary talks with the Australian real estate developer Westfield as an example. However, Ford did not receive council approval to pursue these talks and searches for Westfield in the lobbyist registry do not yield any results.


One disconnected piece of transparency occurred in April when City Council voted to allow the Toronto Port Lands Company, a city agency, to sell its real estate holdings for a profit and funnel the proceeds back into the capital reserves as opposed to reinvesting them in the waterfront. This lends credence to the idea that the Ford plan for the Waterfront is designed to shore up short-term budget gaps as opposed to long-term investment in the community. It’s an approach that contradicts the Waterfront Toronto strategy of a consultative market based, phased approach. “The city can only absorb so much development each year,”  says Noble. She adds that the first few years are for planning and consultation to get it right. Rushing this process and selling to much at once would dramatically depress prices. 
  
When Wilson was asked what advice he would give Mayor Ford about the waterfront planning, he was quite direct, “ You must not sell off the city’s future for pennies on the dollar in order to balance next year’s budget. It looks to me they’re selling off potentially expensive real estate at firesale prices unimproved because they have a problem with how they’re going to balance the books”.


Desfor agrees, “I believe that Ford’s plan for the waterfront is not a plan at all. It seems to be an ill-considered attempt to solve a fiscal problem rather than planning what is best for the waterfront and city… There have been many other ill-conceived plans for the waterfront and I would place Ford’s scheme right at the head of the line”.

Doug Ford’s long day continued, giving TV interviews with CTV and CP24 for their noon newscasts. The day must have been a rush, a blur of repetition and oddly symbolic. The Don River and Port Lands are fraught with people adding mistakes and not learning from history or the context that shapes its discourse. As Doug Ford pitched his way through his day, he created a void of history and context. With images of monorails and Ferris wheels and mega-malls he created a historical vacuum by using Fordian rhetoric and planning.


In the background lay everything else. In the background lay the details of the Ford plan, of which no one but he knew. It’s where the guardians of the Don and waterfront were, people like Wilkey and Desfor and Wilson who have collectively put in countless hours of thought and research. It’s where the collective citizenry was relegated, with no consultation or transparency and existing assessments and consultations dismissed. But most of all, it’s where history lay. All the lessons, errors and politics that layer the Don and Port Lands like sediments on a river bed were washed away. The Waterfront Toronto plan tried to capture that in a workable, open framework. But Ford wanted to make his own history and do it quickly. But in making his own splash he ignored the environment of the Don, City Hall and the citizens of Toronto and refused to engage in the history he’s altering.

Tyler Anderson/National Post