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.