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The Klondike Fords
When Rob Ford likened his brother's development plans for the Port Lands to a gold rush he probably didn't realize just how unfortunately apt his metaphor was. By Ivor Tossell.

“We’re going to make this city just like a gold mine,” said Rob Ford, who may or may not have been paying attention to what was coming out of his mouth. The mayor, at that moment, was pushing his brother’s new “vision” for the waterfront. If he meant that the city was about to turn into a glittering font of riches, he might have picked a better metaphor. If, on the other hand, he meant that he wanted to extract wealth from a plot of land by rendering the surroundings uninhabitable for generations, then he hit the jackpot. Last Tuesday, the Ford administration unveiled pictures of a waterfront redevelopment championed by Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother. The Fords feel that waterfront development is taking too long. Since 1999, an agency called Waterfront Toronto has been beavering away at the task, and presently the central and eastern waterfront is all dug up as new buildings and parks rise. But further out in the lake, shovels have yet to hit the ground. The Fords want to snatch that land away from Waterfront Toronto, and redevelop it themselves. Despite the fact that Waterfront Toronto already has a phalanx of internationally-renowned architects on the job, Doug Ford went out and brought in his own architect. His name is Eric Kuhne, a gentleman who builds Dubai-scaled large buildings around the world, especially in Dubai. Kuhne is a contradictory fellow. On one hand, he publicly espouses all kinds of progressive ideals, like mixed-use neighborhoods and the ability to walk to buy food. On the other, the things his firm actually builds include gigantic mega-malls whose concessions to urbanity include ventilator shafts disguised in the local vernacular. So it was that, on Tuesday, with Mr. Kuhne on-hand, the Fords played a video demonstrating their “vision” for the lands Waterfront Toronto had been planning. There was a Ferris wheel. There was a monorail. There was a mall. There was a big Dubai-style marina-thing. There were a bunch of other imaginary buildings. The Fords want to hand responsibility for redeveloping a sizeable chunk of the Donlands and Port Lands to a city agency they control. What happens then is still fuzzy, but it will likely involve Mr. Kuhne, and an Australian firm noted for building mega-malls. All that said, discussing the relative merits of Doug Ford’s imaginary town distracts from the critical point here: There is no plan. Doug Ford’s plan does not exist. It is not a plan. This is an anaplan. Where Waterfront Toronto is a fully-realized development machine, these are just pictures. What we’re looking at is really just a plan to get rid of the land. These negotiations are taking place in backrooms, and the Fords are secretive, but it seems that the administration’s plan boils down to selling land to developers quickly, and possibly in bulk. Their lieutenants have made it clear that the goal here is to extract cash from the land in a hurry. “The City wants to unlock the value it sees in real estate assets,” councillor Michael Thompson told a post-meeting scrum on Tuesday. The Star‘s Royson James cited a similar take-away from budget chief Mike Del Grande. If the Fords want a quick return from this venture, their hopes are misplaced. Development is a slow process, even on sites that aren’t built from scratch on remote post-industrial land. You have to remediate the land, consolidate the ownership, handle flood protection, service the area, create master plans, secure environmental assessments, deal with sundry regulations and approvals and councils and boards, for starters. Then there is the small matter of enticing developers to build on a post-industrial wasteland. As John Lorinc points out, the fact that the Fords even have interested parties proves that Waterfront Toronto has done its job. And even once you’ve got developers lined up, you can’t just dump a small city’s worth of housing stock and retail space on the market and expect buyers to snap it all up at once, even if you keep repeating the words “private sector” like a forlorn moose-call. Doing this right takes time. Even doing this wrong takes time. Consider the way things panned out at what ought to have been a Ford-friendly mega-development: At the foot of the CN Tower, a huge chunk of land was handed to a single developer at CityPlace. Instant gratification? Hardly: The land has been in sales, development and construction since the late 1990s, and the results are middling at best. And Rob Ford’s own pet Woodbine Live development has stalled because they haven’t lined up enough tenants. So never mind the monorail; never mind the putative town-square and the putative mega-marina and everything else in Ford’s video. In the unlikely event that they come to pass, they’re just as far in the future as anything Waterfront Toronto envisions. The only thing we might get in the near term is the only thing that could possibly be thrown up in the near term: A mall in the wasteland. Ford allies have protested that we’re not talking about building Yorkdale on the waterfront. But in such expansive environs, the odds are good that this one will built cheap and low, ringed by a mighty parking lot. If there’s no urbanity, why build an expensive downtown-style mall? And if there’s no big parking lot, how will it attract shoppers in the decade before anyone lives down there? The mall will create jobs, alright–low-skill, low-wage jobs such that nobody who works there will be able to afford to live in the area. (Hope they like monorails.) It will stand like a walnut tree, poisoning the soil around it for neighborhoods to come, as if the soil wasn’t already toxic enough. And with it, the rest of the Port Lands will have gone through another wrenching change of oversight, another new team of architects and planners, a new round of assessments, a possible OMB challenge, and another giant waste of years and public funds. One of the reasons that waterfront redevelopment takes so long is that governments keep changing their minds about what to do with the land, scrapping plans and starting over. The Fords, therefore, are going to scrap our plans and start over. Deliberately making a problem worse and then claiming to have discovered a really bad problem is a valuable skill at Rob Ford’s City Hall. The work that Waterfront Toronto has already done has put word out that there’s gold in them thar brownfields. The urge to pack up and head for terra incognita to join a gold rush can feel irresistable, especially when you’re short of coin. Before they plunge into a new trek, the Klondike Fords should remember how things usually turned out when amateurs went prospecting. __ Ivor Tossell is Toronto Standard’s Urban Studies columnist.

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