It was down by the waterfront that Doug Ford had a Ford Notion.
Surveying the Port Lands, still a bleak sight despite years of diligent toil to renew them, the mayor’s older brother, right-hand man, and occasional mouthpiece decided that neighbourhood-building was taking too long, and the time had come to do something different instead. Something fun.
For starters, an NFL stadium, built on the foundations of the historic power station he’d demolish. Then there would be high-end retail outlets. “The Nordstrom, the Macy’s, the Guccis,” he told the Globe and Mail. “Something different. Plus, some green space — something nice.”
Linking the whole thing together: A genuine, bona fide, electrified monorail. Something that would give the city a bit of pizzazz, some razzle-dazzle, something that would make this pleasantly dull town worth visiting for a change.
Making sense of this vision is a stumper. It would, of course, mean throwing out years of work and scrapping the elaborate machinery of urban redevelopment. It would mean losing the new neighbourhoods of living and working space that were in the works. Far from speeding things up, it would mean setting the clock back on the waterfront. So what was he up to?
It’s hard to say whether Doug Ford’s pronouncements came from the heart, or were carefully calibrated to make urbanist heads explode. Possibly both.
It is true that his urban planning style doesn’t mesh with the years of methodical consultation and remediation that have already been sunk into the waterfront. The Fords seem to prefer that other kind of planning, which consists of coming up with interesting endings to sentences that start with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
In defence of this way of doing business, let me be the first to say: SimCity is a lot of fun to play. You have your little bulldozer, and you can’t really consider your city a success till you’ve built a big galoot of a stadium on the waterfront. (If you’re wondering how this American ideal turns out in real life, just look at downtown Cincinnati.)
A couple of caveats are in order here. First, there’s Ford’s disclaimer that his plan was “just Doug Ford’s opinion,” representing nobody but himself, except possibly the mayor he advises every day, and maybe also the delegation of Rogers executives – known to be angling for a new stadium – who recently stopped by his office.
Second, there’s the caveat that the whole thing is insane. Where to start? Ford says his putative NFL stadium could be built on the cheap by reusing the foundations of the beautiful old Hearn generating station, which could work great if the NFL wants a stadium that’s shaped like a generating station. If you think the stadium is majestic, wait till you see the parking lot. And if you think the parking lot is majestic, wait till you see the traffic jam.
The rest of the waterfront-as-theme-park vision just gets odder. Attracting that high-end retail would be a neat trick. There is a certain kind of chain that likes building warehouse-sized outlets in the middle of nowhere, but I don’t think Ikea is Doug Ford’s idea of a good time. By the same token, I’m trying to picture Gucci advertising “the Grand Opening of Our New Wasteland Location,” but they might prefer to sell goods to customers, instead.
And then there’s the monorail. Do we, as a society, need to talk more about monorails? Ford says he was sold on the idea by an unnamed developer, leaving open the very real possibility that it was Lyle Lanley himself. There are reasons that, in the real world, you find monorails in Las Vegas, Disney World, or connecting the terminals at Newark Airport to the parking lot. A monorail is what you get when you think of transit as a ride. They’re fun, as long are you’re not trying to get anywhere at the same time as more than seven other people.
There are a few undercurrents beneath this goofiness. One is the distinction between the city as a place that people visit, and a place that people live. Urbanists want to turn the Port Lands into a breathable (and maybe even breedable) habitat for those who enjoy city living. The middle of a city is a pretty good place to do that. The Fords seem to want downtown to be a fun destination for weekend visits.
And to be fair, Doug’s not all wrong when he suggests that Toronto’s waterfront developments are short on pizzazz. With its wave-decks and little urban beaches, our new waterfront areas have a wry, liveable whimsy. But they need to be cut with some outright, brash, unapologetic attractions that draw the locals and the general public alike. Work these attractions into living, vital parts of the city, and you’ll have a success. Scrap the city and build the attractions, and the results will be like Ontario Place in February.
But I don’t sense that the Fords are here to talk urban theory. The more troubling undercurrent is shock-and-awe, the same strategy we saw when (for good or for ill) they scrapped Transit City, and as when they forcibly ejected the management and board of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.
Doug Ford might have been sketching out his mental picture of the perfect waterfront. But it’s just as likely that his cartoony scheme was a bird flipped at the institutions of city-building: The corporations and commissions, the boards and agencies, the lawyers and consultants and renderings and reports, the residents and stakeholders and landscape architects and charettes, the hopes and years and the millions of taxpayers’ money.
The unspoken message: All of this is moot. Wait till next year, when the budget crisis hits and it’s time to start selling things. Then we’ll see who wants a monorail ride.
This article originally appeared in The Toronto Standard.