What's happening down on the waterfront these days is pretty much what the folks behind Toronto's bid for the 2008 Olympics always had in mind. The gang with grand designs for turning the city's lakeshore real estate into one big profit centre just don't have the world's biggest sports festival to divert public attention away from what they're doing now.This helps explain why the latest plan to build a fixed link to an improved Toronto Island Airport is generating so much attention and controversy. And there's also the fact that the proposal to upgrade the landing strip so it can accommodate a new regional airline is the antithesis of the waterfront vision once articulated by one Mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman.
On March 5, 2001, Lastman joined then Ontario finance minister Jim Flaherty and David Collenette, the federal minister of transport, to announce the first phase of a waterfront revitalization plan that included four projects worth $300 million.
Front Street would be extended from Bathurst to Dufferin, and the TTC would get a new platform at Union Station. An environmental cleanup of the contaminated port lands would begin, and a study would also be commissioned to see what might be done to clean up the mouth of the Don River. But the best was yet to come, the mayor said. "We are going to create a waterfront full of parks and public squares, indoor recreation centres and outdoor theatres," Lastman promised.
"It's going to be a beautiful place where people from around the world will come to meet," he said. The Lake Ontario shoreline would become "a magical place." But 19 months later, the only magic we're seeing is the speed with which a corporate proposal to build a lift bridge between the Island Airport and Bathurst Quay is being escorted through the political maze at City Hall. There can be no denying that the fix is in for the fixed link to be approved before this council term is done and Lastman has vacated the mayor's chair.
First, the city's CAO, Shirley Hoy, produced a report that refuted renowned urbanologist Jane Jacobs's contention that perpetuating the airstrip on Toronto Island is "an insane idea." Then an emergency meeting of a striking committee dominated by Lastman lackeys was called to make subtle changes to the makeup of council's waterfront reference group. This, so Hoy's report could be guaranteed a preliminary thumbs-up. That happened by a slim 5-4 vote in the wee hours of yesterday (Wednesday) morning, and now the airport proposal is headed to a joint meeting of the planning and transportation committee and the economic development and parks committee on October 24.
Why the joint meeting? It's necessary because planning and transportation is made up of councillors who aren't keen on replacing the old ferry with a bridge across the Western Gap. Economic development and parks, on the other hand, has a larger majority of politicians who support a fixed link. So joint meeting it is.
If all goes according to a well-scripted plan, the recommendation that a fixed link be approved will be on the November 26 council agenda. By then, lobbyists hired by Robert Deluce and his Regional Airlines Holdings Inc. (REGCO) should have rounded up enough council votes to support a $51- million private sector investment in the bridge project and some needed airport renovations. Within 12 months of their completion, REGCO will more than double the air traffic in and out of a terminal that's been a perennial money loser and costs the city about $4 million a year in subsidies.
The antics being used to manoeuvre the controversial proposal into position for easy rubber-stamping remind some politicians of the strategy recently employed to ensure a local consortium called UP Group got the lucrative contract to renovate Union Station. Kilmer Van Nostrand, an investment holding company controlled by long-time Lastman backer Larry Tanenbaum, is a key partner in UP Group. It hasn't gone unnoticed that KVN is also a partner in the fixed link initiative.
In the case of Union Station, the right to build highrise towers behind the historic railway depot will be the ultimate prize. Those development rights are estimated to be worth at least $200 million. The value of the pot of gold undoubtedly at the end of the Island Airport rainbow is now the subject of much discussion. And so is the fate of Lastman's one-time vision of a "waterfront full of parks and public squares." It's fast becoming a jumble of meaningless words mouthed when the city still thought it had a shot at hosting the 2008 Olympics.
Hoy's report concedes that airport expansion could lead to more industrial or warehouse development and less residential development in the port lands. Truth be told, such a trend began some time ago with the announcement of several huge film studio developments along the strand.
As the fixed link debate rages, it will become clear that two opposing waterfront visions are now in play. There's the one the mayor seemed to believe in two years ago. And there's the one that speaks in terms of "enhancing the business climate" hereabouts. "It will make Toronto more competitive, add to the city's tax base and make optimum use of this valuable existing city-centre resource," REGCO's Deluce said recently of his group's vision. But is an airport really the optimum public use for 80 hectares of waterfront real estate?
Hardly. Concerns about increased noise and pollution in the growing downtown neighbourhood is one thing. But if the city is truly serious about transforming the waterfront into the wonderland Lastman once swore would be the envy of the world, what sense does it make to reserve Toronto Island for air traffic?
Opponents of the fixed link -- like Allan Sparrow's Community Air group -- want the land committed to park. And that's one very good option. But the airport land is also ripe for redevelopment as a recreational and entertainment mecca along the lines of Chicago's intensely popular Navy Pier. There, a derelict docking yard was transformed into a multi-use facility that fast became the Windy City's top tourist attraction.
An alarm was recently raised about the steadily declining state of tourism in these parts. A city-centre airport certainly isn't going to improve the situation much. But using the land now occupied by the existing runways to create a centrepiece that would help transform the waterfront into the "magical place" Lastman once spoke of could do the trick. Unfortunately, it's an opportunity many councillors seem all too eager to squander.