Business-driven Bloor sidewalk plan may set a bad precedent for bigger projects in more heterogeneous communities.
One might not expect to find Yorkville merchants and cycling activists making common cause, but a controversial sidewalk reconstruction - I never thought I'd use those words together - has managed it.
Both groups want the Bloor Street Transformation Project stopped, the merchants to protect the status quo (along with their parking), the cyclists for a bike lane.
Proposed to council 10 years ago by the Bloor-Yorkville BIA, the BST is a privately funded, city-approved project to widen and replace with black granite the sidewalks between Avenue Road and Church.
To facilitate this, parking will be removed.
Enter the merchants, Concerned About Bloor (CAB) - a name that evokes not raised fists but a raised eyebrow. They believe the BST will "not be good for business" and that construction is interfering with sales.
Poor sidewalks. They let us walk all over them, day and night, and when we try to put aside a few more feet for pedestrians, we freak out.
CAB likens its plight to that of St. Clair merchants opposed to the streetcar right-of-way. There, many could legitimately worry about the survival of their business, though the reasons predated the project.
On Bloor, merchants are fretting over a china tea service sitting in the stock room a bit longer because the sidewalks will eat into on-street parking.
Poking fun at the rich may be cheap, but the best way to burn off the good will of, say, a plucky reporter, is to filter all inquiries through a phone-extension slalom at a public relations firm.
Nothing says "popular cause" like polished handlers.
By the time I've confirmed who to call, realized they only care to the extent they're paid to, and let them repeat the talking points from the website, I've hemorrhaged any sympathy I've begun with.
That's too bad, because obscured by the merchants' entitled pique are valid questions about the public oversight of private partnerships at City Hall.
To rewind a little. City staff advised that no environmental assessment was required for the Bloor Transformation, since the project is considered part of pre-approved municipal roadwork.
When Hamish Wilson, on behalf of bike group Bells on Bloor, wrote the Ministry of the Environment to protest, it replied that "works undertaken by private sector developers, such as the BIAs, are exempt from the Environmental Assessment Act."
So wait - is this project public or private?
"The BIA [Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area] is paying for this. It's private," says local councillor Kyle Rae. "It's landscaping. They're not building a bridge."
Rae could also have mentioned that BIAs are creatures of the city - approved by the city, and half their capital budget is funded by the city.
"Because," says Rae, "they're improving our city space. They're improving public space, not private space."
The line between private and public gets blurrier on Bloor, since the Bloor-Yorkville BIA has borrowed $25 million from the city that it will repay over the next 10 years.
That loan in turn will be funded partially through Section 37 payments, named for the part of the Planning Act that allows developers to pay hush money - sorry, infrastructure enhancement funding - in exchange for density or height beyond the zoning allowances.
So wait again: is this project public, private - or just too small to bother making a distinction? And why are we not concerned exactly?
There may be nothing sinister about this specific project. Improving the pedestrian realm benefits everyone. What has long been something between a freeway for commuters and an in-and-out destination for the wealthy can now become an actual route, a pedestrian avenue. The Bloor-Yorkville BIA has already installed its own street furnishings.
But flower baskets are different from structural changes to a central street. And while such privately funded initiatives are a potentially useful tool in a city in dire need of infrastructure money, the laissez-faire approach taken by City Hall and the province could set a troubling precedent for larger-scale projects down the road, especially in more heterogeneous neighbourhoods.
Bike activists are worried about a precedent excluding bike lanes. But Dan Egan, manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, sees the project as a boon.
"The reason we've never approached Bloor is the presence of parking." That obstacle is now gone.
"It worries me when I see cycling activists going against the interests of pedestrians," he says.
All right, now the loaded question: should car lanes be reduced on Bloor to make room for bikes?
Egan hedges. We need to reduce car traffic across the city. It's not really my job to say whether that's done on Bloor." Transportation Services will present to council this fall a review of all possibilities for an east-west bikeway, including on Bloor.
Back in the present, Albert Koehl, an environmental lawyer who's been advising activists, says consideration of bike lanes should precede major roadwork.
"One would think we'd be way past this sort of thinking in 2008," he says. "The problems are drastic. The response is lazy."