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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Monday, June 24, 2013

Time and trust

As part of a panel hosted by Lincoln McCardle on Rogers TV last week, Phil McLeod, Roger Caranci and I were asked if, in our opinion, the current council is the Worst. Council. Ever.

One of the first persons (after Barry Wells of altlondon.org ) to publicly suggest that, yes it is, was Pat Maloney of the London FreePress and he's sticking to his guns on that one.

That evening in particular it was hard to argue otherwise. As McLeod pointed out, he had just been at the meeting of the Planning and Environment Committee where committee members simply threw out a secondary plan, the Southwest Area Plan, which had been years in the making and which had been supported by most of the committee members only a few months earlier. They were seduced by the vision of more big box stores and movie theatres being promoted by their developer friends.

Never mind that London has more retail than its residents can possibly support. Forget that there are movie theatres just a little north on the same street. Ignore the fact that you have to cut down thousands of trees in the “Forest City” to accommodate these developments. Just think of the jobs, jobs, jobs.

Caranci thought perhaps the councillors were getting a bad rap. After all, so many of them were new.

“You remember what it's like,” he told me. “It's a huge learning curve.”

Indeed it is; I do remember that. But only three of the current crop—Matt Brown, Dale Henderson and Denise Brown—are really new. The mayor, Joe Swan and Sandy White are all retreads. And the remaining nine members were on council during the preceding term.

Besides, they have been in office for two and a half years. New or used, they should have cottoned on by now.

But neither McLeod nor I were prepared to suggest they were the worst ever. It's just that you can't trust them. They'll pass a policy one week and overturn it the next. They mistake bickering and name-calling for debate. They insult the public, the staff and each other. They try to fast-track proposals for their friends. They put private profits ahead of the public interest. They hold secret meetings.They've faced criminal charges and been involved in dodgy charity schemes.

Not all of them, of course. But enough to alienate many citizens while spurring others to take action. Seldom has there been so much activism on the municipal front with grassroots groups springing up online, in pubs and in the public gallery. There is much discussion about being ready for the 2014 election.

So when the news of the potential plans for the redevelopment of the London Hydro lands at 111 Horton Street East came out, no wonder some members of the public were skeptical. After all, hadn't the mayor tried to pull a fast one with London Hydro? Twice?

Neither of the previous proposals to sell all or part of London Hydro, or even to explore the possibility, had gone far, but still, it makes you wary. If the land on which it sits is up for grabs, could Hydro itself be next? "Snooze, you lose," some were saying.

But it may be that council is finally onto something. Well, not the council exactly, but economic development guru Harvey Filger, hired only last year, and his team. They had examined all the proposals put before the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC) and identified five priority projects. This was one of them.

On Monday, Filger presented Pamela Kraft of Kilmer Brownfield Equity Fund to the IEPC. Headed by Toronto billionaire Larry Tanenbaum, Kilmer has been cleaning up brownfields, i.e. former industrial and commercial sites, for redevelopment. It acquires the land, remediates it, and then turns it over to the private or public sector for development. It takes on lands in which developers are often not interested because of the risks associated with contamination. Clean up costs can be high.

Although Kilmer has been in the brownfield business only a few years, since 2006, it has some significant achievements, including a historic foundry on a floodplain in Guelph and a series of service stations along the 400 series highways. David Harper, the scientist on the management team, was recently named “brownfielder of the year” by the Canadian Urban Institute.

The presentation by Kraft was low key but impressive. In addition to the process to be undertaken, she outlined the opportunity that our brownfield, one of 30,000 to 50,000 across the country, could provide for renewal at the forks of the Thames and how it might fit in with our previous studies and masterplans. She envisioned 500 permanent jobs, about 750 residential units, along with a variety of commercial and office uses and a boardwalk along the river. Lots of assessment value. And it would be a catalyst for other investment.

All of this would take time, however: Rome wasn't built in a day; nor would the riverfront. She was looking at 36 to 48 months.

That didn't sit well with Mayor Fontana. After all, the election will be in high gear within 12 months and he needs something to point to. How could this be fast-tracked? When could he get an offer from them on the land?

“When we have an understanding of the condition of the land,” Kraft responded. She wasn't about to buy a pig in a poke. And undoubtedly there is significant contamination on the site. Plus, there is the issue of the floodplain and relocating London Hydro. Some serious study would be needed.

It was the planning and development department that had initially brought Kilmer to Filger's attention. What could it do to help?|

Director John Fleming noted that he had already been in discussion with Filger and the Upper Thames Conservation Authority but he didn't have the budget for this. He needed help, perhaps bring in a consultant. This wasn't on his work schedule.

This time, the committee members seemed to be listening. "Finding the money is your job," said the mayor to Filger who in turn reminded him that $1.1M had been set aside in an economic development fund back in December when these projects had been approved. They had the money.

The committee hadn't been this excited since Loredana Onesan, Fontana's fellow board member on the now deregistered Trinity Global Support Foundation, had proposed a $300M anti-aging complex for Soho.

Even Dale Henderson had a hard time finding fault with the concept although he wondered where the “Eiffel tree” would go while Joe Swan, the chair, gesticulated to Kraft not to pay any attention, there wouldn't be any giant metal tree.

Stephen Orser wanted to make a point. Would these 500 permanent jobs be minimum wage jobs or something better than that. He was still smarting from the criticisms of the big box proposal that Planning and Environment Committee had so enthusiastically endorsed the previous week.

"Do you mean retail?" asked Kraft. 

Well, it would be a multi-use development, she reminded him. There would be some retail, some service, some office jobs, property management, maintenance. Some would be minimum wage, others would be higher. She couldn't be more specific than that. It depended on what would eventually be built and the end user. Orser didn't pursue the point.

So for once they were all in agreement: it was a great project and it couldn't go forward fast enough.

But these things can't always be hurried. The studies, the approvals and the work take time.

And that, along with public trust, is something that this gang doesn't have a lot of.


bagman said...

Kilmer owner Tanenbaum served as National Revenue Chair of the Liberal Party of Canada during Prime Minister Paul Martin’s term of office.

tucker_notsucker said...

Trust…………credibility. integrity, strength, ability, confidence this is what life teaches oneself.

Does this mean Londoners are still in the learning stage?

Anonymous said...

Is that blank white thing in the rendering Labatt`s? It will be interesting being side by side with Labatt`s or are they planning to pack up and leave too?

Barry Wells said...

As part of a panel hosted by Lincoln McCardle on Rogers TV last week, Phil McLeod, Roger Caranci and I were asked if, in our opinion, the current council is the Worst. Council. Ever.

The first person to publicly suggest that, yes it is, was Pat Maloney of the London Free Press and he's sticking to his guns on that one.


AltLondon was first by many months.

Gina Barber said...

@Barry Wells. You may be right about that. Correction noted.

arrested development said...

Has anyone considered where London Hydro will go? Will UTRCA accept that they want to build on a flood plain? Anonymous makes a good point: who wants to live beside Labatt's, an industrial site with the occasional hoppy smell that only Old South residents can enjoy?

Why don't they look for infill projects at the useless parking lots downtown (build a couple of layers of parking underground) instead of tearing down perfectly good buildings? or the expansive parking lot ACROSS THE STREET at Ridout and Horton?!

Business guy said...

The parking lot at Horton and Ridout cost $5 M of Hydro money to cap the former storage site for the former coal tar extraction operation that was on that site. Not bloody likely that anyone will pay the remediation costs for that.

Almost all the parking downtown is on private land. For the city to buy it and build underground parking (Very expensive) is a losing proposition. Parking is not the deterrent for people to go downtown. People go places to where there are goods and services they want and need.

Barry Wells said...

The parking lot at 24 Horton Street in London has never been "capped."

Additionally, it is the former site of a coal gasification plant from about 1853 to 1949, not a "coat tar extraction operation."

The coal tar migrates from the parking lot area toward the river where some of it is caught and extracted via a fancy trough system housed in a small London Hydro building on the north side of the south branch of the Thames River.

By the way, the carcinogenic coal tar "blob" in the riverbed near Thames Park was never fully removed. It extends for several hundred yards toward the Forks, where the jet d'eau blows around the toxic chemicals, making them airborne.

G. Babbitt said...

Does anyone do any research anymore. Kilmer was indeed involved in the 401 service centres where they got the contract to build the service centres (approx cost 100 million) and reap the profits. No cost to government - everybody wins. Although a little later the cost balloons to $300 million and the Ont. govt covers it with a "confidential" repayment scheme where Kilmer will repay the cost over 50 years. Essentially Kilmer gets an interest free loan for 50 years and expects to make a profit of $100 million per year from the service centres. But great ahem...journalist Pat Mahoney writes glowingly about the Kilmer proposal actually suggesting that Kilmer is too well known to deviate from there proposal.