Waterfront Toronto officials are loath to admit it. The agency that's been orchestrating a futuristic makeover of the water's edge doesn't want to piss off Rob Ford, especially when money's running out.
But Porter's expansion plan to fly jets out of the Billy Bishop Toronto Centre Airport is smelling a lot like that backdoor scheme concocted in 2011 by Mayor Ford's brother, Doug, to fast-track monorails, Ferris wheels and shopping malls in the port lands.
And what a waste that was, another consultants' report telling us what we already knew: development along the waterfront isn't something that can be forced.
Yet, here we are again with a questionable proposal, this time threatening to make a mess of the central waterfront.
Under way a stone's throw from the airport is a Waterfront Toronto project to turn Queens Quay West into a showpiece for the city: a linear park stretching from Parliament to the foot of Bathurst.
Next to that is the Canada Malting Silos site where the Portland Slip and a promenade connecting Queen's Quay to Ireland Park are in the works. Welcome to ground zero in the airport expansion standoff.
In 2010, the previous council moved to declare the silos a heritage site and tear down buildings next to them to make room for possible development. After a proposal to put a Toronto Museum at the location fell through, some thought was given to converting the Forestry Department's building on the site into an interpretative centre for nearby Ireland Park. Build Toronto, the arm's-length agency to which the property was transferred by the city, was then in the midst of developing a plan.
But all that's been halted pending a decision on Porter's jets.
It gets murkier. The Toronto Port Authority (TPA) has had its eye on the Canada Malting Silos site. In fact, it believes it has an agreement with the city to put (hold your breath) a 400-vehicle covered parking lot there. You wanna know how Porter/TPA planned to deal with increased traffic? There's your answer (or at least part of it).
According to the TPA, its agreement with the city dates back to 1992, when the land was transferred to the city by the TPA's predecessor, the Toronto Harbour Commission. If strains of Big Yellow Taxi aren't playing in your head just yet, there's more.
Further west, the fate of Ontario Place, also part of Waterfront Toronto's portfolio but recently taken over by the province, hangs in the balance.
Porter had little trouble convincing council last week to study its jet proposal. Still, it's a bit of a surprise the plan wasn't killed on the spot, given the mayor and his allies' shifty procedural dipsy-doodling at executive committee to circumvent council's authority on the matter in the first place. To say nothing of the hush-hush meetings between the mayor and Porter CEO Robert Deluce that were never noted in the city's lobbyist registry before the airport expansion surprise was sprung.
Besides, does anyone really believe the Island Airport could handle the addition of 1.4 million more passengers to the 2 million already flying out annually without moving heaven and earth at the foot of Bathurst - and sending shock waves across the waterfront?
On that subject, Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell is diplomatic to a fault.
"That's one of the questions we want to raise as well," he says. But he's reluctant to offer more of an opinion until Porter tables its study. Campbell says he doesn't want to appear "ideological" on the subject. He prefers to stress that to date Waterfront Toronto and Porter "have been able to coexist."
He ventures at one point during our interview that some accommodation, perhaps a rapid transit proposal, could alleviate congestion.
But the impact of an expanded airport on the waterfront would clearly be far-reaching. For example, the heavier, faster CS100 planes Porter is planning to purchase would take up more airspace. What's less clear is whether the current building height guidelines along the lakeshore would have to be modified to accommodate the jets. That question becomes more complicated when you start talking emergency flight paths should planes be required to land quickly when something goes wrong.
Much has been said about noise levels and the effect of airport expansion on marine uses - not to mention real estate values along the water's edge.
But the presence of jets arguably threatens the very nature of the waterfront, which is why Porter's publicity has focused on its "whisper-quiet" jets.
There's been a huge PR effort to sway public opinion. Got your "I'm On Board" lawn sign yet? The Star, which came out early in support of Porter's plan, runs a lot of advertising for the airline. Deluce made his case for a study in an op-ed for the paper May 6, a day before council met to discuss it. Coincidence?
While the viability of the expansion - and the financials of the airline itself - remain in question (Porter apparently stopped publishing its passenger load numbers this month), the airline's strength has always been in selling itself.
In that regard, it's had the help of some of the best minds in the branding biz: Winkreative, the London-based outfit that created those savvy, award-winning Mr. Porter raccoon ads (and whose client list includes British Airways and Swiss International Air Lines as well as American Express, BlackBerry and Facebook).
In the mayor - who's had it in for Waterfront Toronto ever since he came into office, calling it a waste of money - Deluce has found a willing yes-man.
Back in 2011, Porter hosted a "Flying Refined Day" for Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School, where the mayor coaches football. Twenty kids were treated to a tour of Billy Bishop and Porter's facilities as part of "an effort to grow the airline industry through education of our youth" - according to a press release issued at the time.
The students were welcomed by Deluce and Doug Ford, who also happens to be vice-chair of Build Toronto. Yes, the same body that controls the fate of the Canada Malting Silos site. Cozy, isn't it?
Waterfront Toronto vs Porter airlines
Backers of Porter's expansion plans point to the importance of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (YTZ) to the city's economy. But the numbers tell a different story. Smart waterfront development is not only contributing more financially to our economic well-being; it's arguably a more valuable public asset.
$3.2 billion Total economic output of waterfront development
(Since 2001, but not including $12.2 billion in developments currently under construction and spinoffs from 44 private-sector projects sparked by waterfront development)
$622 million Tax revenue for all three levels of government (since 2001)
23,600 Full-time years of employment
$1.9 billion Total economic output Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport
$57 million Tax revenue for all three levels of government (annually)
5,400 Full-time years of employment (1,700 of these are directly associated with the airport)