Comstock: City staff muddlers get credit they don’t deserve

By Michael Comstock –

The building of a new St. Lawrence Market North finally made the major media last month. The report by the Toronto Star was accurate but framed by the reporter in Star-eze.

That is to say the Star editorializes most everything you read. News, crime stats, the suffering of today’s fresh tragedy, is usually written so that you believe the Star is aligned with the underdog. Many people also buy the Post or Globe out of disbelief.

The Star symbolizes Toronto and controls a lot of Toronto’s self image, which is not really very good.

Re-building of the Farmers’ Market on this site has been done by six different generations since 1803. Yes, it is north of the South Market, but let’s call it what it is the Farmers’ Market. Students of Old Town Toronto lament the loss of the building torn done in 1954, one which had a canopy crossing Front St. and the same curved roof, steel-beamed structure reaching right up the back of St. Lawrence Hall. This was replaced by the temporary building we now use basically only two days per week. The current temporary building was built by city staff in 1968. However the Star seemed to be saying that this new Farmers’ Market was all city staff’s idea, using the headline, “City Staff urge Market Makeover”.

The St. Lawrence Neighbourhood has been the driving force behind this generation’s Market. Over 10 years ago Market Manager Jorge Carvalho and I, as BIA chair, met with the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association to talk about the need for a new building. SLNA immediately struck a North Farmers’ Market Development Committee which has actively pursued this project until just last year.

Their work included the same basic design and criteria we now see, plus they developed a business plan to utilize the space during the workweek and provide jobs in the community.

They completed surveys, studied traffic and spoke with all the surrounding residents about their needs in a new building. Finding a place for the Farmers to park trucks and antiquers to park their vans was found to be extremely important in controlling noise and traffic congestion caused by loading and unloading along Jarvis St. The access to parking under the building was proposed as a much grander scheme that would have created a large public plaza space between the Market and LCBO. Vehicles would drive north on Market St. from the Esplanade into a tunnel under Front St. Another option was in and out off King E. using the north bit of Market Lane Park (previously Market St.).

Pam McConnell took up the torch about four years ago and put the new building on the city list of projects. At that point city staff became involved. The years since have been spent with re-writing the SLNA Committee’s work, largely arriving with many of the same answers, save the parking access. The Star reported it took years to solve parking access. The Jarvis St. route has the most pedestrian and vehicular traffic, is opposite a residential entry and wastes floor space in the building. It was originally considered the last choice.

Now access that allows for the height for trucks may be deleted. The potential uses of upper floors were never put to the open market but swallowed up by the Facilities and Real Estate Division for Parking Ticket Court. Not the type of use we had envisioned. So, I guess the Star maybe right in implying this is the city staff‘s version of the plan?

What will be critical now is that before one farmer is relocated, before an architect is selected, the Market should have a new governance structure. The current management system is made up by Facilities and Real Estate as three (or more) independent bureaucratic silos. Leasing, Custodial Services and Operations each have there own bosses, and in turn, another boss before meeting with the department head.

The Market has some great people working there but no coherent management structure. There is no single manager or a board of directors able to focus on a vision or mission statement for the three buildings.

Surely the St. Lawrence Market Precinct deserves a board of directors and a true manager involved and concerned with its success, rather than detached silos of administrative bureaucracy.

The announced plan for the new Farmers’ Market and South Market upgrades, even with some flaws, will be a wonderful accomplishment by the neighbourhood and city.

I am thrilled that this generation will be the one to re-build and improve our 200-year-old Market. However, the management structure must be fixed before proceeding. To safely and productively manage this change there must be someone full time on the ground and in charge of the St. Lawrence Market Precinct.