Winners and Losers: Toronto’s new deal
Olivia Chow and Doug Ford’s new collab—which will throw billions of provincial dollars at Toronto’s financial woes—has been cause for both celebration and despair
When Olivia Chow started her tenure as the mayor of Toronto, she pledged to collaborate with her former rival Doug Ford. She also promised to keep Ontario Place public, and, well, one of those promises just came true. If it passes, their “new deal” (officially the New Deal for Toronto Act) will see the province assume financial responsibility for the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway and direct over $1.2 billion toward Toronto transit, housing and shelter support. In exchange, the mayor will put down her sword in the fight to block Ford’s Ontario Place redevelopment plan, including the construction of the $450-million Therme spa and waterpark, which is stacking up to be the Greenbelt-level #onpoli drama of 2024.
The deal is being hailed by councillors across the political spectrum as a way to get Toronto out of its current financial free fall. But critics (mostly from the anti-Therme camp) worry that our mayor has made a deal with the devil. Either way, the joint press conference on Monday included the kind of Chow/Ford chummery that would have seemed unthinkable just six months ago (it even ended with a hug). Here, a rundown of the winners and losers (and yet-to-be-decided players) from Toronto’s new deal.
Chow made history as the first woman and first racialized person to be elected mayor of Toronto. Now, she can add “convincing the province to pony up” to her list of successes. For all his easy camaraderie with Ford, John Tory never managed to secure this kind of municipal funding from the province. Ford had previously shot down requests for the province to take over the Gardiner and the DVP. Enter our new mayor, who wouldn’t take no for an answer—and now has billions in saved highway expenditures to devote to affordable housing, transit, child care and parks. Of course, every deal comes with concessions, and for a progressive like Chow, the mega spa is a bitter pill. But she probably would have had to swallow it anyway since the city lacks the power to thwart Ford’s legacy project. At least, this way, Toronto is getting something in return—about $9 billion over the next 10 years.
The new deal is undoubtedly good news for Therme Group, the Austrian wellness group behind the Ontario Place spa and waterpark, and its CEO. After the Greenbelt debacle, it seemed plausible that this equally murky deal would die under similar scrutiny (in November, Ontario’s auditor general launched a probe into the redevelopment plan). But now, with the city agreeing to stand down and many of the usual approval requirements waived, the premier’s legacy project is on solid (if hotly contested) ground.
Fine print in the tabled legislation for the new deal would give the minister of infrastructure new powers to fast-track the Ontario Place spa by bypassing standard environmental assessments and additional community consultations. Now, she can simply rezone the land however she sees fit. Great news for Surma, who has spent the past year facing off against the project’s critics; not so great for the environment or democratic engagement.
The plan to build a subway line (and then LRT) along Eglinton dates back to when Surma was still in diapers—and the ever-elusive completion date has become a stand-in for Toronto’s broader transit woes. But that may soon be water under the bridge thanks to the $330 million the province has earmarked for the Eglinton LRT’s completion (as well as the completion of the one on Finch West). Ford is also giving Toronto $750 million for desperately needed new trains on Line 2 and an additional $300 million for transit security, including an increased police presence on cars and at stations. This last part was probably a concession from the mayor (who had previously prioritized hiring more front-line TTC staff rather than increasing police presence on transit), but it’s hard to argue with a seven-figure boost.
Ford is fond of describing the maintenance of the Gardiner Expressway and the DVP as an 800-pound gorilla on Toronto’s back. Now, that gorilla belongs to him. As well as saving the city somewhere between $2 billion and $7 billion over the next 10 years, the uploading of two major arteries to the province puts an end to any notions of tearing down the eastern, above-ground portion of the Gardiner (a move proposed by both Chow and Josh Matlow during the mayoral election). Now, that crumbling, cumbersome, concrete eyesore is here to stay, but at least Toronto’s irate drivers will be spared the inevitable added congestion of a major overhaul.
The new deal marks the loss of a significant battle, but is the war over Ontario Place over? “Hell no!” says the leader of the Ontario NDP—it’s just moving back to Queen’s Park, where it belongs. With the premier’s approval ratings still in the toilet, Stiles has unlocked another chance to position herself as the anti-Ford option.
Barenaked Ladies fans
Break out your hacky sacks! Since Ford’s plans for Ontario Place remain intact, efforts to save it from development continue. Members of the Barenaked Ladies will appear at the Save Ontario Place Telethon on Sunday, a joint effort between the West End Phoenix community newspaper and the Ontario Place for All advocacy group. (If you have a million dollars, you might want to buy the West Islaaaaand).
For a while now, the province and the feds have been reacting to Toronto’s calls for funding with a classic parental pass-the-buck: Dad tells you to go ask Mom, then Mom tells you to go ask Dad. Now, Daddy Doug is saying yes to over $1.2 billion, but much of it will only kick in if Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland (who probably wouldn’t appreciate being called Mom in this analogy) brings her chequebook to the table. Until recently, Freeland has insisted that bailing out Canada’s economic engine is Ontario’s job. But, with so much of the new deal contingent on federal dollars (the $600 million toward shelter support, for example, requires Ottawa to kick in funding for refugees and asylum seekers), Chow may have found a way to force Freeland’s hand.
Ontario Place for All
Just last week, the grassroots organization dedicated to keeping Ontario Place public filed a request for an injunction, calling for a pause on the redevelopment of the West Island pending the completion of an environmental assessment. It’s unclear whether the new deal will quash their complaint entirely, but the mayor’s defection from the cause certainly comes as a major blow.
The barn swallow
Known for building their nests in human-made structures (including the Ontario Place Cinesphere), these feathered island dwellers are one on a list of species that will see their habitat disturbed by redevelopment. See also: chimney swifts. The new legislation, wherein the mega spa project can now skirt the usual environmental-assessment requirements, is bad news for Ontario Place’s avian residents.
The Science Centre
This week, the Ford government shared its business case for moving the Ontario Science Centre from Don Mills to Ontario Place (they say it will save the province $250 million). The province also claimed that the 54-year-old building was nearing its natural “end of life”—even though Raymond Moriyama, the building’s decorated lead architect, put its life expectancy at around 250 years.
The premier’s winner/loser status is impossible to call in light of news that the acting auditor general will release his report on the plan to relocate the Science Centre to Ontario Place on December 6, which means new information about the Ontario Place project writ large may be imminent. Recall that it was an auditor general’s investigation that ultimately brought down the Greenbelt land swap. Plus, some critics believe Ford’s sudden sense of civic responsibility is nothing more than window dressing to push through his mega spa. So now we wait. If there’s nothing there, then the premier (and his legacy project) will be full steam ahead, boosted by the undeniably good optics of lending a hand to a city in need. If the report is damning, he may have just paid billions for nothing.