A Tale of Two Cities

By Max Fawcett | September 15, 2006

Rivalries don’t come naturally to most Canadians. Sure, we’re familiar with the antagonisms between French and English Canadians, between Leaf and Habs fans, between Ontarians who reflexively vote Liberal and Albertans who support Conservatives, but these are artifices superimposed upon a national ethic defined by the twin arts of tolerance and civility.

The rivalry between Vancouverites and Torontonians, stoked by the fires of geographical distance and cultural difference, is of a similar quality. Traditionally, Vancouverites asserted their city’s superiority by citing its culinary excellence, its natural beauty, and its relaxed pace of life. Torontonians, in turn, would present their city’s ethnic diversity, physical density and inescapable cultural centrality as their chief arguments. These arguments, engaged in quite seriously by civic ex-pats from each city, were usually punctuated by the cliché that where Torontonians lived to work, Vancouverites worked to live.

Perhaps the most devastating argument in favour of Toronto and against Vancouver was the fact that where Toronto was a “true” city, Vancouver was merely a big town incapable of matching Toronto’s cosmopolitan character. Vancouver, the argument went, might have better sushi and skiing, but because it lacked Toronto’s size, population density, major cultural institutions and financial infrastructure, it didn’t compare. That might have been true as little as ten years ago, but it’s less true with each passing day, as Vancouver asserts itself as a city by choice and Toronto looks increasingly like a city by accident. Where Vancouver has committed itself with considerable focus to becoming a modern, 21st century city, Toronto seems intent on remaining stuck in the 20th.

The turning point for Vancouver in its evolution from a rain-soaked city to a major metropolis happened on a piece of land abandoned by everyone except hookers, drug dealers, and homeless vagrants in the late 1980s. After Expo ’86, which saw the construction of a superfluous rapid transit system to nowhere called the Skytrain and little else, the North False Creek lands upon which the fair were situated became the city’s shared Expo hangover, a mess of toxic waste, scrap metal, and loose syringes. It looked, in other words, a little like Toronto’s much-discussed waterfront does today.

The provincial and municipal governments, to their enormous credit, saw a tremendous opportunity to reshape the face of the city, and they did just that by selling the land at a substantial discount to Hong Kong developer Li Ka Shing. In return, the government placed significant restrictions on how the land was developed, including designations for park space, public housing, public waterfront access, community centres, and schools. In return, Li and his team of developers and investors were free to make as much money as they wanted. The result of this unique fusion of public and private interests is Yaletown, a glittering monument to the possibilities of urban re-development.

To visitors, Yaletown surely looks like the playground of the privileged, a collection of stunning towers, beautiful parks, and five-star restaurants located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean complete with views of the mountains, ferry access to the Granville Island Market, and a short walk to the shops of Robson Street. A closer look reveals that almost one in every three of these beautiful towers is in fact subsidized public housing, and that other public works includes the gorgeous Roundhouse Community Centre, the local elementary school, and the David K. Lam Park, a seawall walkway, and other waterfront facilities that are available for public use year round. Back up the hill on 12th and Cambie Streets at City Hall, meanwhile, the property tax revenues produced by these towers have financed projects throughout the rest of the city.

Those projects include the proposed Athletes’ Village that is being constructed across the water from East Yaletown, as well as the redevelopment of Gastown and Chinatown that will link up with Yaletown and form a cohesive 21st century community of people who live, work, and play downtown. After the 2010 Winter Olympics the Athletes’ Village will be converted into a mixed-income housing community that blends market units, middle income and fully subsidized units, the latter of which will be financed entirely by the builder and will comprise 25% of the project. It will also include rent-to-own programs that will allow tenants unable to buy units outright to build equity gradually, live-work units that will allow mortgage payments to be partially tax deductible, and an investment rental program that will encourage investors to place their units into a rental pool that will be rented out within the modest market housing guidelines. City councilor Peter Ladner believes that these measures will combine to create more non-market housing units than any other development, Yaletown included, in the past thirty years.

Elsewhere in Vancouver, the plans for the controversial redevelopment of the Woodward’s Building in the downtown Eastside that was a flashpoint between low-income housing activists and developers were approved by city planners, local residents, and developers. The process that led to this consensus was a model for consultative development, defined by extensive conversations with community residents and multiple revisions of the official plan to satisfy their concerns. Extra height on the 397-foot tower, for example, was traded by the developer for 31,000 square feet of non-profit space. The result of this collaborative effort is a project, widely seen as critical to the revitalization of the troubled neighbourhood, that will feature one million square feet of building area that includes over 500 market and 200 non-market residential units as well as office, retail, community non-profit space, a daycare, and Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. The commercial space will be designated for local, organic business, instead of chain outlets like Starbucks and Subway. Historical elements of the building have not only been preserved but enhanced; the glowing “W” that defined the building is being restored, and a mural in the main public space that depicts the neighbourhood’s history will be created by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas.

The result of these efforts is an exodus into, not away from, Vancouver’s downtown core. More people live downtown than ten years earlier, and that figure will only rise further as condominiums replace the cranes currently toiling on False Creek’s North East shore. Vancouver has, in less than two decades, transformed its downtown from a place of business and entertainment to the nerve centre of a modern, 21st century metropolis. Toronto, to its detriment, appears determined to move in the opposite direction. It is true that Toronto has followed Vancouver’s lead by permitting the construction of condominium towers downtown, and it has even contracted Concord Pacific, the architects of Yaletown’s success. But Toronto is only getting it half-right, and half measures are rarely successful in any venture, much less one that, like urban re-development, offers no second chances.

The similarities between Toronto’s neglected waterfront today and Vancouver’s in the late 1980s are striking. The attitude of politicians, residents, and planners towards them, however, couldn’t be much different. As The Toronto Star’s David Olive observes, “Toronto is hostile to big plans,” and that hostility is created and sustained by both institutional and cultural influences. Urban planning decisions are the domain of a city council of 44 councilors, a mayor with one vote, a powerful bureaucracy, and a hyper-critical local media. Equally problematic is the vocal anti-development community, a hodgepodge of environmentalists, community activists, and freelancing ideologues, which instinctively opposes development as a moral position.

That moral position is underwritten by a history of success in opposing genuinely dangerous efforts at development which include the destruction of Old City Hall, Union Station, and the aborted extension of the Gardiner Expressway. The defeat of the Gardiner also justifiably created a legacy for Jane Jacobs, whose views and writing influenced debates over development in Toronto until, and indeed after, her death earlier this year. But, as David Olive notes, “we have worshipped at the altar of Jane Jacobs too long, convinced that every flirtation with the spectacular bears the seeds of our civic ruin.” The result is a public that instinctively regards development with suspicion, as demonstrated by the endless dithering over the waterfront.

This attitude often manifests itself in more local disputes as NIMBYism, a disease that has thoroughly infected Toronto’s body politic. Look, for example, at the proposed St. Clair streetcar expansion that would remove the centre lanes and replace them with a dedicated streetcar track. The proposed track would reduce pollution, strengthen Toronto’s inept transit network, and create an efficient East-West route north of the existing Bloor subway line. It would also reduce available street parking and that, apparently, was enough for local residents to protest its construction and enough city politicians to listen to them. Perhaps the quintessential demonstration of Toronto’s NIMBY complex was the Maple Leaf Gardens debacle, which saw a cultural landmark situated on the Yonge subway line converted into a Loblaws supermarket. It is impossible to imagine that no better ideas for such an important building could be found; it is far more likely that the only thing local residents could agree upon was the need for a new grocery store.

The most recent outbreak of NIMBYism occurred over noise complaints lodged against a waterfront nightclub, The Docks, by Toronto Island residents. These residents, who enjoy the privilege of living on secluded islands only minutes away from downtown and who paid between $36,000 and $46,000 for their lot leases, which run until 2092 – try to find a better deal than that anywhere in North America – complained that The Docks – a nightclub, remember – was making too much noise. “It’s bass. That’s what traveled to the islands, not the music but the bass,” said a Ms. Shepherd in an article published in The Toronto Star, who has lived on Algonquin Island for 12 years. She would feel the thumps in her chest, she said in the article. “We were in a state of distress.”

What is distressing is the idea that a well organized group of residents, living across the water from The Docks, were able to have the business, which employs 400 people and services up to 10,000 on a given night, stripped of its liquor license. A judge later reinstated the license on appeal, but slapped prohibitive conditions upon it that included a ban on music after 11 pm – again, this is a nightclub – and a ban on outdoor concerts, its bread and butter. As The Star’s Christopher Hume wrote, “like so many neighbourhood groups, Toronto islanders are reluctant to share their little part of the city with anyone or anything that doesn’t meet with their approval. For now, their efforts have been focused on the Docks, but what’s next? Centreville? The Guvernment nightclub? Party boats? The Redpath Sugar refinery? The Molson Indy? The Molson Amphitheatre? Caribana? Waterfront revitalization?” As if to remind everyone of the ridiculousness of the situation, a representative of the Island residents warned that “we’ll be listening.”

These are the same residents who, along with mayoral candidate and now Mayor of Toronto David Miller and then city councilor, now MP Olivia Chow, engineered the cancellation of the Island Airport bridge at a cost of $35,000,000 to the taxpayers and continue to agitate for the elimination of the airport outright. The island airport, located at the foot of Bathurst Street, connects travelers to Montreal, Ottawa, New York, and Chicago, without the hassle or added pollution involved in trekking out to Pearson International Airport. The concerns of the residents, not surprisingly, focus largely on the noise created by the airplanes, but isn’t that a tradeoff inherent in city life?

Another tradeoff of urban life that Torontonians are apparently no longer willing to accept is the noise produced by their Starbucks outlet or favourite watering hole. A recent proposed bylaw seeks to reduce the amount of noise projected by downtown businesses onto the adjoining streets and sidewalks, and calls for $340,000 worth of new enforcement officers – that’s right, noise police – to enforce the new rules. According to Kyle Rae, Concillor for Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), “you can get problems from businesses on Yonge Street. There’s an adult video store that has noise coming out in the street and it’s disgusting. There’s an endless drone from the Sears store at the Eaton Centre and as far as I can see, that’s not selling any merchandise.” Toronto has been casting about recently for a new city slogan; in light of the disproportionate influence exerted by island residents, perhaps “Toronto: Where You Can Have Your Cake and Eat it Too” would be appropriate.

A rare moment of consensus occurred recently with the announcement of the winning bid in a contest held to determine the shape of the waterfront between Parliament and Bathurst Streets. West 8, the winning design firm, along with Toronto Mayor David Miller, Federal Treasury Board President John Baird, and Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Committee President and CEO John Campbell all heralded the winning bid as the beginning of the waterfront’s rebirth. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was out of proportion with the scope of the plan, which is limited to a small stretch of the waterfront and focuses on creating a public boardwalk, floating piers, and green space, to say nothing of the pitiful contribution of $20.1 million over ten years made by three levels of government. That the bulk of the waterfront, which exists east of Parliament Street and encompasses the substantial Cherry Street lands that are ripe for residential development, remain unaffected means that the West 8 plan is essentially the icing on a cake that has yet to be baked.

Adam Vaughan, a candidate for city council in Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) has argued that if Toronto’s development trends continue it is in danger of becoming the Cleveland of Canada. Toronto’s urban development, such as it is, focuses primarily on individuals, not families, and the result will be, according to Vaughan, an emptying-out of the downtown core unless significant changes are made and made soon. Only 1,813 of the 27,529 units proposed for construction in 2006 in his ward are suitable for families – small families, too – and of the 6,800 built since amalgamation in 1998 only 86 have three or more bedrooms. “We’re not building better neighbourhoods,” Vaughan argues, “we’re just building more places for people to sleep.” That schools in Vaughan’s ward are closing while ones in Etobicoke and Scarborough are surrounding theirs with portables to house their growing student population speaks to the exodus of families out of the urban core and into the suburbs. Whether Vaughan, or anyone for that matter, can do anything to stop this dangerous trend remains to be seen.

More than a few Torontonians were irked by a recent article ranking so-called world class cities that placed Vancouver at the top and put Toronto behind Victoria, a city noteworthy only for the fact that it dumps its raw sewage into the surrounding ocean. But Torontonians have only themselves and their elected officials to blame for this embarrassing state of affairs. As Vancouver transforms itself into a city by choice, Toronto is in danger of becoming a city by accident. While Torontonians bicker about what to do with the much maligned Gardiner Expressway, Vancouverites are watching city workers dig up – underneath, technically – Cambie Street in order to build the RAV line that will connect the airport to the downtown core. While Vancouver continues to make bold planning decisions that redefine the shape and character of its urban neighbourhoods, Toronto turns Maple Leaf Gardens into a glorified grocery store. If Torontonians insist on worshipping at the altar of Jane Jacobs, as David Olive argues, they might want to start listening to her message a little more closely. Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, observed that “you can’t rely on bringing people downtown; you have to put them there,” and for the past two decades Vancouver has revitalized the downtown core by doing just that. Toronto, on the other hand, seems to be doing almost everything within its comparatively significant powers to avoid a similar outcome.


Toronto, September 15th – 2,648 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

Posted in:

More from Max Fawcett: