Cheol Joon Baek
To repurpose a current metaphor: put lipstick on a pigeon and it still poops everywhere.
Just two weeks after city litigators at the OMB finished arguing against one large-format retail development in Leslieville, council spread its coat across a puddle for a similarly low-wage project in depressed Rexdale.
Council's plan to defer $120 million in taxes over 20 years, for the Cordish Companies, developers of Woodbine Live, a playground of restaurants, concert venues, retail and hotels at the Woodbine Racetrack, was hailed as "visionary'' by Mayor David Miller.
In a speech that opened a four-hour debate on October 29, Miller said of the deal between the Woodbine Entertainment Group and the Baltimore-based Cordish Companies, "[It] takes the potential of a place that's underutilized, uses significant amounts of private capital to reach its potential and reintegrates that place into the neighbourhood."
Take over parking lots and put up a paradise? Leveraging massive private capital for public good is the definitive if unexamined Miller hope. But how does this mutt of a city saddled by outdated legislation and coursing with real estate investment address the lagging suburbs? Tap the money vein, let it bleed and hope it fertilizes the ground.
The key is the TIEG, or Tax Increment Equivalent Grant, funded "from new incremental tax revenues that, but for the provision of incentives, the city may not otherwise have realized." Read: we'll let you off the hook if you build something big.
TIEGs were supposed to create "new economy" jobs - creative class, environmental industry, the like. But the new economy apparently still has room for the old new feudalism - the fast-fry/retail sector needs a hand up, too.
"It's a win for the people of Toronto," said the mayor. Which people of Toronto, specifically? All of us? Sadly, it's also a "win" for disingenuous bullshit.
Cordish reps told the executive that development could only go ahead with tax relief. Seems being a multi-million-dollar company with marquee assets across the continent is bad for business.
Toronto, meanwhile, will be left with the perks of increased gambling and suburban motorcades, receiving, for its trouble, a few million each year in extra taxes and jobs.
What sort of jobs? That depends on what sort of pinko you are for asking. Not only did council nix Adam Vaughan's motion to set local employment targets, but Kyle Rae derided it as "Kafkaesque.".
"It sounds like another economic system I'm not going to go into." Seriously? Red-baiting? Kyle, that's adorable.
Woodbine Live's second phase, a million square feet of big-box retail, will receive no tax goodies, but certainly still has the advantage of defrayed expenses due to the lower costs of phase one.
"It is creating a quality of place in a place that needs it," said Miller. "If you recall, the intention of the developer is to create a very urban kind of development." That was also SmartCentres' stated fig leaf - and staff threw their weight behind Leslieville residents who saw through it.
And as for Rexdale residents, "We've been organizing around this for two years," said Patricia Crooks of CORD (Community Organizing for Responsible Development), speaking at a rally against the tax break at City Hall on October 29.
CORD's demands echo those of Leslieville: wrest commitments for good jobs. "We've seen high-quality jobs give way to retail. We need to work several part-time jobs to make ends meet."
Well, they're in luck - here come some more. Project supporters claim that Woodbine Live will provide 6,400 unionized "full-time-equivalent" jobs. FTEs are a callous "new-economy" way of measuring part-time jobs without calling them part-time jobs, rather like a pizza joint throwing a bunch of random reheated slices in a box and billing you for an LPA (large pizza approximate).
But most troubling is that what's being billed as new public space is itself an approximation. Neighbourhoods are Cordish's business, including Baltimore's Power Plant Live, Louisville's 4th Street Live and Kansas City's Power And Light - all streetscapes, but all on private property. A controversy in Louisville over the company's dress code led the American Civil Liberties Union to charge 4th Street Live with discrimination against "urban" youth. Louisville councillors had to plead with Cordish to relax its controls in this "public" space.
In Rexdale, residents of a neighbourhood with some of the lowest incomes and highest concentrations of immigrants in the city are being told they should be happy to get anything - and then handed a public space that won't even be theirs.
Supporters say they can't think of another way to jump-start investment, and they may have a point - the site is a "brownfield'' surrounded by a concrete desert.
But jumping at the first offer from those with the resources isn't a success so much as an admission of failure, though no one will admit it. I really do think all the smiles are in poor taste.