It's not often I find myself agreeing with Councillor Mike Del Grande. But about one thing, at least, City Hall's resident grouch has it right: a plaque nailed to the council chamber door at Metro Hall is all that's needed to remind anyone remotely interested in what once went on there.
Council spent three and a half hours last week debating the "historical significance" of that abandoned cavern on the second floor of a downtown office building that's all of 13 years old. This because a few politicians spent a half-dozen years at 55 John Street as members of the now defunct Metropolitan Toronto council.
"Forgive me, but I'm a little bit emotional about it," Councillor Howard Moscoe says at the thought of a 311 citizen call centre taking over the space where he and a few of his colleagues once argued over things like market value assessment and construction of the Sheppard subway line. You can't quite see the tears welling up in Moscoe's eyes, but you're damned sure the ducts are open.
"I spent my formative years in Metro government in that council chamber," the veteran councillor for Ward 15 (Eglinton-Lawrence) reminisces. "To rip out the architectural heart of the building so you can install a call centre is bizarre."
Not quite as bizarre as letting it sit unchanged and empty so a few nostalgic pols can wander in from time to time to relive their glory days.
Yet Moscoe came within three votes of scuttling the $33 million call centre that will enable people to dial 311 for information on all manner of non-emergency municipal services come 2007. He wanted the place declared a historical site instead.
It didn't matter that penny-pinchers like Del Grande, who served on the council committee that picked the council chamber as the best place for the 311 initiative, swore up and down that it would give local taxpayers the biggest bang for their call centre buck.
"Metro council played an important part in building this city," declared Councillor Case Ootes. Like Moscoe, Ootes was a Metro politician when the Mike Harris Conservatives abolished the regional government in 1997 and amalgamated its six member municipalities into a megacity.
Never mind that both he and Moscoe supported the still controversial amalgamation that made Metro redundant. And that after the fateful merger the councillor for Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) was all in favour of selling Metro Hall - council chamber and all - to private real estate concerns. Alas, there were no takers. Now, all of a sudden, the place is some kind of national treasure.
"You tear it apart and you're going to lose the identity and the history of Metro and the many things that happened there," Ootes said.
Warned Moscoe, "A hundred years from now someone will ask, 'Why didn't they preserve that?'"
Somehow I doubt it. From my vantage point, the call centre debate was more hysterical than historical. Councillor Raymond Cho, another former Metroid, made it clear that some political wounds opened in the tumultuous wake of amalgamation haven't yet healed.
Cho happened to be among those councillors who favoured Metro Hall over Toronto City Hall as the seat of megacity government. In fact, the councillor for Ward 42 (Scarborough-Rouge River) is still of the opinion that it's a superior locale. "But those of us who supported Metro Hall got defeated because there were more councillors from previous local councils," Cho said. "They really hated Metro."
Ootes has similar memories. "Some of you totally disliked Metro," he told his colleagues. "In fact, some of you might have hated it. And that is all the more reason to preserve something that reminds us all of the politics of this city as it was 10 years ago".
"Unfortunately, it's still lingering on," Moscoe concedes when asked about the animosity between the Metroids and the gang from the former municipalities. He maintains that it could have been different if the province had done the right thing eight years ago and left Metro intact.
"It would have saved a lot of agony and grief ," Moscoe says. "Instead, they threw out the heart of the main government and said, 'Reinvent it.' It'll be 20 to 30 years before we've got everything blended and harmonized."
Maybe when that finally happens they can engrave a few more words on the plaque on the door of the Metro Hall call centre.