Looks like the backroom boys are back at City Hall. The evidence? Last week's news that Mayor Rob Ford has found oodles of private cash to finance his Sheppard subway extension east to Downsview and west to the Scarborough Town Centre.
Ford wasn't able to sell the province on the costly line, it seems, but he says he's now got backers lined up eager to gobble up density along Sheppard to pay for the project. Our mayor would not name these keeners, and meetings do not appear in the lobbyist registry.
But taxpayers may be unnerved to hear that Ford's backers include some of the same folks who brought us Sheppard subway part 1, the 5.5-kilometre white elephant created by then North York mayor Mel Lastman.
Ford insists he has a mandate to build subways because that's what he "promised" during the election. Not exactly. What he promised was that he would hold a public consultation to choose a line. He informed the masses later via YouTube that Sheppard had been chosen. All the while he'd been meeting with developers.
He did indeed score developer money in his campaign. (Not unusual; so did Joe Pantalone, and we're assuming the same will show up when the other hopefuls release their donor lists.) Ford's list contains maximum $2,500 donations from Tridel's CEO, Castlepoint's president and both of Great Gulf's founders.
But NOW has learned that the mayor met twice during the campaign with reps from the Building, Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), which lobbies for the residential construction biz. Scheduled attendees at the first meeting included Joe Vaccaro, BILD's VP of government affairs, and reps from the Sorbara Group, Great Gulf, Rockport, Empire and Tribute, in addition to Mattamy and Tridel, which are already building towers along Ford's proposed Sheppard extension.
BILD's Toronto co-chair, Stephen Deveaux, says the meet was "a holistic discussion on development around transit," including the question of air rights, whereby developers contribute money toward a subway extension in exchange for increased height around stations.
"If there's a willingness from the city and the TTC to work with [us], then there'd be a buy-in from the development industry," says Deveaux.
But there are more building tie-ins to Ford's circle. When development law firm Goodmans LLP held its industry forum in November on the incoming administration, they brought in Case Ootes (Ford's transition leader) and development lobbyist Alan Slobodsky. Info was strictly off the record. The two go way back. Ootes was Lastman's right-hand man when he was mayor, while Slobodsky was Mel's exec assistant in North York before becoming chief of staff after amalgamation. Ford's new chief of staff, Amir Remtulla, was Ootes's assistant during the Lastman years.
Slobodsky communicated with Ford on various issues, the lobbyist register tells us, including El-Ad's proposal for 2,200 units at Sheppard's Don Mills station. The lobbyist was also around when Lastman claimed in 1989 that builders along the Sheppard line would pay $1 billion in developers' fees.
Didn't quite happen. Some developers sidestepped the fees by building just outside the applicable zones surrounding stations. And the city's director of special projects, Joe Farag, who handled development fees in the old North York, confirms that council exempted some companies from paying the charge, presumably because their projects predated the subway plan. Farag notes the surcharge lapsed when North York joined amalgamation and the requisite law was never passed. Not a dime was collected. We're still paying for the Sheppard line through a TTC development charge, in addition to increased property taxes.
For the new line, Ford is predicting developers will pony up "a minimum of $1 billion... as much as $2 billion" for additional air rights around stations. In addition, he's proposing tax increment financing, whereby the city borrows against increased property taxes for the new units.
But even with a forest of towers rising along Sheppard, the number of riders on the existing line - 47,700 daily - is still lower than the projections made for the subway's first year in 2002, meaning large operating losses will be with us indefinitely.
Slobodsky, for his part, has nothing but good things to say about Team Ford: they are "much more customer-friendly... sort of Lastman-style."