Will Expo bid further stall waterfront improvement?

By Stig Harvor –

Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, a completely new idea for the development of our derelict waterfront explodes at city council. It is the grandiose idea of a Toronto bid for the World’s Expo Fair of 2015.

It is truly amazing and sad how plans for the development of our waterfront seem to proceed in fits and starts with totally unexpected twists along the way.

For three years now, rational and public-involved planning has slowly but steadily progressed under the enlightened leadership of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC). Plans have essentially been completed for the East Bayfront between Jarvis and Cherry St., and the West Don Lands between Parliament St. and the Don River.

The plans must be submitted to city council for approval. Their implementation then depends on the provincial and federal governments in an orderly fashion living up to their commitment of half a billion dollars each. So far, federal funds have been unreliable. Effective implementation also depends on the TWRC being given wider powers.

 Mayor David Miller has proposed to become chairman of the TWRC board in order to facilitate action. The two other levels of government appear reluctant to replace the present civilian chairman, Robert Fung, with a politician.

The outcome of this struggle is uncertain. Until the issues of TWRC governance, powers, and funding are resolved, the hands of the TWRC are tied.

Now city council steps into this unfortunate stalemate and approves the final stage of the feasibility study prior to a possible full bid in 2006 for a 2015 World’s Fair.

No significant public consultation occurred during the study. Just one half-day session by invitation only was held. No public reaction was possible before city council decided to proceed into the final stage of the study at a city cost of $1 million. Another $1.1 million is yet to be committed by the provincial government. The cost of an actual bid is estimated at $4.4 million of which our city’s share is $700,000.

Eight councilors attempted to delay the study in order to first test public reaction to a formal bid. They were overwhelmed by other councilors crying out for a perceived need to bring Toronto to the attention of the world. Cries were heard that Montreal but not Toronto is on the American CNN TV weather map. Big deal.

Our city has achieved fame and recognition before by other means. Was it not home to the Blue Jays winning two baseball world championships in a row in the early 1990s in the then-new and spectacular SkyDome stadium? Was it not named the most livable big city in North America before amalgamation by the prestigious U.S. business magazine “Fortune”?

Did not the late Peter Ustinov declare it like a New York City run by the Swiss? And is not Toronto already known throughout the world by the numerous relatives and friends of the multitude of foreign-born Toronto citizens?

World’s fairs are not necessarily the most effective way for host cities or areas to become world renowned. Have you ever heard of Aichi? It is a district in Japan. It is hosting a major world’s fair right now in 2005.

The consultants chose to examine three possible Toronto fair sites: The Island Airport, the Port Lands, and the Downsview Lands.

The large, suburban Downsview Lands lack the obvious drama of Harbourfront. Adjacent amenities are missing. The site requires improved transportation services and closing part of the Bombardier runway. The land, however, is easily consolidated under one owner, the federal government.

The waterfront Port Lands require complicated land assemblies. Transit services must be improved and bridges built and renovated over the Don River and the ship channel. Industrially polluted soil must be treated or removed.

The Island airport is too small by itself for the fair. It must be twinned with the larger Port Lands. To accommodate the fair, the federal government must permanently close the airport. Good.

The site, however, must be connected directly to the mainland by filling in the Western Gap and digging another lake connection through Hanlan’s Point while ruining Hanlan’s sandy beach. A 30-acre parking lot must also be found on the mainland. Where?

City councilors fortunately had the good sense to turn down the consultant recommendation to convert the Island airport after the fair into a high-density, mixed-use development; read high-rise condos. The site is to maintain its open space zoning designation. This will mean its future use will be as parkland much needed in our growing city.

“Think big!” shouted the council supporters of the Expo, most of them from the suburbs. No doubt similar shouts were heard in other cities before they held their fairs. These shouts were effectively muted when the hangover of deficits, usually bigger than projected, came into sight at the end of the fairs.

The Toronto consultants estimate on-site costs of $3.6 billion to create and operate the fair by an independent corporation. Expected fair revenues of $3 billion create a deficit of $0.6 billion.

The consultants’ report, however, conveniently removes from the on-site fair budget some big items to be paid by “others.” One is the probable cost of $I billion or more for an underwater public transit tunnel in Toronto Harbour to link the divided fair sites. Another is the Western Gap fill and new lake connection, which council voted down.

The extent and cost of expensive, additional off-site work for a multitude of municipal and transportation services demanded by the fair has yet to be examined in detail. The off-site work must be paid by government taxes generated by the fair. The consultants estimate these taxes at a whopping $5.6 billion. A crucial question is whether this is enough to cover all off-site expenses plus the fair deficit.

To cover all costs, provincial and federal funds are vital to our city since only a measly 5% or $280 million of the hoped-for billions in taxes would end up in city coffers. Considering the drawn-out, still unresolved struggle by Toronto to share in gasoline taxes and other government revenues, is there much hope of adequate government help? Hardly. Without such assistance, the fair, of course, is just a pipedream.

The usual financial argument put forth in favour of world’s fairs is that taxes generated by them cover most costs. And anyway, it is claimed long-term benefits compensate for earlier losses. Taxpayers have heard that line before: Short-term pain for long-term gain. The question is: Who will get the gain and who will get the pain?

The otherwise big and successful Montreal Expo of another era in 1967, produced a deficit 22% above the approved budget. The last significant world’s fair only five years ago in Hanover, Germany, attracted less than half the estimated 40 million visitors. It ended over $1 billion in debt.

Perhaps the only viable financial argument for a world’s fair is that it may unlock government funds seemingly unavailable in ordinary times by tight-fisted politicians. But the priorities demanded by a world’s fair often divert funds and public attention from our city’s real and pressing needs.

It may seem a surprise to supporters of Miller that he is pushing for a Toronto world’s fair. Miller has been a staunch supporter of a revitalized waterfront. It seems his frustration with the slow and uneven progress of this ambitious project makes him feel that talk of a world’s fair may stir the pot.

He is determined, however, to involve citizens in meaningful consultations so far lacking on the idea of a fair. He promotes a visioning charrette (design exercise) with the local community, architects and designers with respect to the twinned Harbourfront proposal and potential future use of the Island airport site. Councilors backed him on this in a 40-0 vote.

At the back of Miller’s mind may be his need to appeal to the business community while at the same time opening the possibility that ordinary citizens may scuttle the project. It is a delicate balancing act.

Toronto is in need of stimulus after being trampled on for so long by shortsighted, tax-cutting, fiscally conservative governments, both in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park. But expensive, short-lived stimuli like a world’s fair as experienced in other cities, may well prove to be a false prescription for a city supposedly dedicated to improving the real life of its citizens.

We must again try to become “The City that Works.” The world will then pay attention to us as it has in the past.