Reasons to Love Toronto 2014: #1. Because Our Economy is Idiot-Proof
The private sector doesn’t ask all that much from municipal government. Its only fundamental request, really, is stability: no riots, no coups, no torchings, no constant rewriting of tax laws or permit requirements or any other code of civic engagement. Yes, businesses would welcome a bit of subsidy grease for their squeaky wheels, but that’s merely a nice-to-have. Just provide some basic assurance that tomorrow will more or less resemble today, that the city will function and the people will be able to get around and the money will churn, and they’re good.
This is a simple, mutually beneficial bargain, and yet over the last year and a half, Toronto’s politicians have behaved as though they were determined to ruin the deal. Last summer, city council and Queen’s Park teamed up to replace the already-in-progress Scarborough LRT with a subway that will feature fewer stops, cost an extra billion dollars and delay the entire construction process by at least three years. In reality, they made it impossible for anyone to say with any certainty what’s getting built, on whose timetable, for how much, or where the money will come from, because it keeps changing.
Yet even council’s collective efforts pale in comparison to the destabilization wrought by the mayor himself. Rob Ford is volatility made manifest. He showed up wasted at military balls, charity fundraisers and street festivals. He turned an ongoing police investigation into a personal vendetta with Chief Bill Blair, tarnishing the force’s reputation. One judge turfed Ford from office; another reinstated him. He remade Toronto’s council chamber into a wrestling ring complete with taunts, glaring matches and smackdowns—as hostile an environment for business (or for anyone) as could possibly be conjured. When council finally stripped him of his powers, a freshly gelded Ford likened the situation to Iraq, as if to intone what’s next: embargoes, blockades, lootings, marauders spilling from amphibious vehicles onto Cherry Beach.
For the private sector, the net effect of turning our politics into a gong show of indecision and imbecility was, amazingly, nil. The city gained some jobs (Ford took credit) and then lost some (Ford denied responsibility), but in the bigger picture, Toronto’s economy is on the rise. The skyline is still full of construction cranes, and at least 30,000 new condo units will reach completion this year and next. Condo prices, which dipped by three per cent during the calm political waters of 2012 (when the mayor was merely dragged in and out of court a few times), have since rebounded, while detached single-family home prices know no ceiling: they’ve gone up eight per cent in the last year, and now average close to $900,000. In the city’s hottest neighbourhoods, more than half of all home sales close over asking. The long-predicted housing crash—you know, the real instability, the economic kind that actually affects people’s wealth and standard of living—refuses to materialize.
The commercial real estate market is just as robust, with 14 million square feet of office space newly built or under construction since 2000. One developer, First Gulf, is proposing to pay for a new GO station if the city shifts the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway 22 metres to the north and removes the elevated portion east of Cherry Street, because doing so will open up space for 15 million more feet of office space. This is where we’ve landed: private developers, undeterred by incompetent governance, are offering to build public transit infrastructure on their own dime, so certain are they to turn a profit. That’s how prodigious our economy is. That’s how little our political instability matters.
At this point, Toronto has become a great riddle of the social sciences: how low can a city’s political leadership sink before it ruins its economic prospects? The TSX has been enjoying a run of growth since last July, with more bright times in its forecast. And Canada’s devalued dollar is good news for the many Ontario manufacturers who slowed or mothballed production following the 2009 financial crisis. The recession taught Toronto’s armies of bankers, lawyers and consultants that they could thrive even without a strong industrial sector to prop them up. So a manufacturing revival would be like putting Bay Street on steroids.
It’s almost enough to soothe your nerves at the prospect of Ford winning a second term in office come October. But that would be tempting fate. It’s more uplifting to imagine just what kind of global powerhouse the city will become once we have a competent person in charge.