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The unfortunate shame of Liberty Village

The towering condos loom ominously over the brick factories, converted warehouses, and swarms of young professionals who have descended upon the area known as Liberty Village. It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon and the sidewalks are busy; 20-and 30-somethings scurry about with grocery bags in hand, coffee cups in clenched fists, and sweat dripping painfully into their eyes.

No one seems to notice how absurd the area has become.

What could have been a showcase neighbourhood for the city, a place to proudly demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, forward-thinking design, and a beautiful juxtaposition between old and new, has instead become a laughing stock, courtesy of an over-built, under-designed cash grab for developers. We are left with a wall of condos, each one more spectacular in their hideousness than the next, the lack of beauty the only real cohesion between them.

Why does this happen? Why is there no governing body to ensure neighbourhoods have at least some semblance of uniformity and complimentary appeal? Liberty Village looks like a dumping ground for the reject designs no one else wanted — like each condo was built as quickly and cheaply as possible with a malicious lack of thoughtfulness.

It really is such a shame. So, what then, would I, an unqualified citizen with a ranting opinion have done differently? What alternative, un-apocalyptic state would I have preferred for Liberty Village?

I’m glad you asked.

Firstly, I would want a municipal committee in place to oversee special projects. These projects would include new neighbourhoods that are being built where a rich selection of heritage buildings exist. The mix of new and old can be a beautiful thing – if approached with patience, empathy, and vision.

Secondly, each project within the neighbourhood should not be viewed in a silo, at least from a design and function perspective. Part of the committee’s duty would be to develop an overall vision for the area to guide all new developments, land plots, and the type of mix required between retail, residential, and commercial. Forward-thinking designers, city planners, and architects would be amongst those involved to ensure that a beautiful vision is also a realistic one. Look to other cities who take a more advanced process towards urban design (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tokyo, to name a few).

Lastly, with guidelines in place, the process for developer selection would be a scrutinized approach to ensure they fit – both from a functional and a cultural perspective.

Of course there are other factors that come into play – the economics of it, the push back from private landowners and developers who feel their liberties were being trampled on, my lawyer friends who’d tell me I’m crazy, etc. But you know what? If it’s crazy to prefer a city that values good design, understands the benefits of thoughtful neighbourhoods, and would rather be proud than ashamed of new areas, then so be it.

GALLERY: Discussing Toronto’s Regional Vision

The Transit Alliance held its annual Toronto Region Vision Summit earlier this month, and the discussion was truly fruitful. Low-carbon living, transit, city building, and housing were all brought up by various participants with differing perspectives. This is how a region grows — by listening to the experts, introducing new ideas, and making adjustments to plans that have been in the works for years to better reflect current-day challenges.

Here are a few photos of the hundreds of participants in the TRV 2016.

Trudeaumania takes over Toronto

Photo taken by Katherine DeClerq

Trudeaumania is real.

Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a visit to Toronto’s city hall to meet with Mayor John Tory. It was the first time in 18 years a prime minister visited the institution, but that wasn’t why people were so excited. It was because they had the opportunity to get close to the celebrity politician.

The media struggled to stay up with Trudeau and Tory as they walked from Queen St. up to city hall. People sporting bright unicorn Trudeau sweatshirts were running through the crowd, trying to get a selfie with the sexiest head of state in the world, while scores of young women stood in his path screaming his name.

One cameraman made a wrong step and slipped on the skating rink in the square. Reporters ran — and I mean sprinted — around the crowd to get better view of the prime minister, just to run face-first into a father holding his kid, trying to get a glimpse of the people at the center of the spectacle. Personally, I was elbowed in the head and shoved into a snow bank.

“Oh my god, it’s Justin Trudeau!” screamed two jumping girls as he made his way into city hall. I have to say I was impressed with the strength of the prime minister’s security force, dawning the stereotypical sunglasses and earpieces, trying to keep everyone at bay. What a job.

After the screaming died down and the swooning stopped, the prime minister got up on stage with the mayor and opened his mouth to talk. And talk he did — although he didn’t say much. In fact, he hardly said anything worthwhile.

It was obvious the prime minister didn’t want to make any promises during this visit, despite the mayor’s attempts to indicate otherwise. There was no mention of a commitment to the SmartTrack or the Yonge Relief Line, and he didn’t even touch on the $2.6 billion promised to the city for transit.

“We are in the middle of pre-budget consultations.” Trudeau said when a reporter asked when we could expect a cheque for infrastructure. “The infrastructure investments that the mayor is counting on are not a problem, they are part of the solution that Canada is facing.” What that means…no one knows.

Really, the only thing Justin Trudeau reiterated was his government’s pledge of $60 billion over the next 10 years towards green and social infrastructure, and public transit. There was no elaboration. Where will the money go? What are the government’s priorities? All are excellent questions that remained unanswered. The rest of the 10-minute question period included the Prime Minister dancing masterfully around each media inquiry, citing what seemed to be election promises and vaguely mentioning the Liberal’s commitment to job creation, economic growth, and international relations.

But, that didn’t matter to the fans. As one grown man standing behind me in the crowd said: “Wow, his hair really is great!”

And I guess that’s all that mattered.

Photo by Katherine DeClerq

Woman of the Week: Johanne Mullen

“I’m so glad you didn’t ask me about my work-life balance.”

Johanne Mullen would much rather talk to the media about the work she is doing than adhere to the stereotypical questions asked of women in positions of power.

What’s unique about Mullen is her confidence and her experience in a traditionally male-dominated infrastructure world. Despite her impressive range of titles — National Infrastructure and Project Finance Leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PWC) , director of the Institut pour les partenariats public-privé du Québec, director of the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships — she is down to earth and can speak as easily to one person as she can to a crowd. Her passion for her work is obvious and her knowledge and professionalism is impressive.

Women’s Post sat down with Mullen before her panel discussion on transit with Metrolinx’s CEO Bruce McCuaig at the annual National Conference on Public-Private Partnerships last week. The discussion ranged from Mullen’s background in finance to the future of public-private partnerships, and with each question her passion for project finance and infrastructure became obvious.

Mullen began her academic career at Concordia University, where she studied Commerce in Finance, before completing her Master of Business Administration in International Business at McGill University. She has over 20 years of experience in capital project and procurement advisory, as well as in project and structured finance.

In 2000, she started to work with the PWC, and fell in love with advisory and project finance. Some of her more notable accomplishments include acting as procurement and financial advisor for Saint-John’s Safe Clean Drinking Water program; advising the government of Nunavut on procurement and financing of the Iqaluit airport expansion; acting as an independent financial advisor for Nalcor Energy; and advising Infrastructure Ontario on the Pan Am Athletes Village.

“I love the advisory bit because I feel like I’m helping people develop something that is important to them, to the community,” she said. “I like the tangible aspect of the job—when I project is delivered you get to see it, you see the benefits.”

Mullen works with P3s, better known as public–private partnerships. These partnerships allow for a performance-based approach to procuring public infrastructure, which means the government does not pay for an asset until it is operational. This puts pressure on the private sector to remain accountable and to produce results. What’s unique about these projects is that the government is making a long-term investment. The cost of the asset includes 20 to 30 years worth of maintenance, depending on the contract.

According to Mullen, about 98 per cent of P3 projects are built on time and on budget.

“The reality is that if you understand the contractual model, the cost of delivering late is significant and obviously every cost overrun (the private sector) are picking up,” she said. “So they can’t afford to get it wrong.”

Right now, a lot of P3 projects are federal or provincial; however, they are trying to break into the municipal sphere. Mullen is already working on a project in Saint-John’s, and she would recommend that big cities such as Toronto look into P3 projects to help solve issues such as affordable housing.

“Personally, I think it’s been ignored more than it should be,” Mullen said of social housing.

In the meantime, Mullen has been working with municipalities such as Toronto to see how P3s can make a difference with public transit. The panel discussion she moderated at the National Conference on Public-Private Partnerships was a huge success, and promises to be a topic of discussion for Toronto’s future transit goals. At least we know there is a qualified, capable, and passionate woman leading the way.

 

Humility over hubris will fix the TTC

There is a systemic issue that has plagued the TTC for decades.  Historically the TTC has lacked strong leadership, with CEOs being fired every few years,  few of them have had the time or inclination to tackle the managers or hold them accountable for their actions.

Last week a few columnists and politicians hinted that CEO of the TTC, Andy Byford, was to blame for the Spadina extension overruns.   Like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland who shouts “off with his head” they wanted a simple solution without understanding the complexity of the problem.  The TTC’s main mandate is to deliver good service efficiently and Mr. Byford has done exceptionally well on that front, despite inheriting an organization with a long history of poor accountability and mismanagement.

Consider the recent auditor’s report that found the TTC had not been monitoring the use and maintenance of its non-revenue fleet going as far back as 2005. Take a closer look at the report and what becomes obvious is the systemic issues that CEO Andy Byford has inherited.   The auditor’s report demonstrated that accountability has not been part of the TTC’s culture for decades. To expect our new CEO to do a complete overhaul of the system in under 5 years is ludicrous.

It’s easy to criticize when it comes to failures, but much harder to understand what caused the failures.  The real challenge facing the TTC is to change the culture of entitlement and unaccountability that fills the management ranks. But Byford has taken action. He’s reviewed the TTC infrastructure department, fired those responsible for the Spadina extension overruns, and admitted that he needs help and that the TTC infrastructure department can’t handle the project. Not only did this take balls, but it took humility – exactly the trait needed to bring real change to the TTC.

Mr. Byford’s firing of the Spadina extension project managers not only tells Toronto he’s taking action but it has sent a huge message to all TTC employees –  that no matter how high ranking someone is, they will be accountable for their actions.  This is a message that many TTC employees, frustrated with the lack of accountability and the attitude of entitlement within TTC management, needed to hear. In Byford, TTC now has a leader with humility, who is determined to give the public the best service possible while at the same time weed out the hubris that will always cause an organization to fail.

Where does the TTC infrastructure department go from here?

The answer is obvious to those who work in the industry — the contractors and engineers — who have worked with the TTC in the past and now refuse to even bid on most TTC projects, to those who have spent the past decade quietly complaining to anyone who would listen, about the ineptitude of the TTC infrastructure department.  The solution the contractors, tradespeople and engineering firms suggest is to turn all the large transit projects that TTC has in their plans over to Metrolinx.

Metrolinx is the provincial transit body responsible for building transit infrastructure – most recently, the Union-Pearson Express (delivered on time and on budget).  Under the leadership of CEO, Bruce McCuaig, Metrolinx has steered its large projects through Infrastructure Ontario which has developed an efficient process (with a 97% success rate) to manage big infrastructure projects.  Add to this the fact that McCuaig has attracted some of the best in the field, and the humility that McCuaig brings to his role as CEO of Metrolinx and it is easy to see why so many in the industry see them as the great solution to Toronto’s infrastructure problems.

A partnership between Metrolinx and the TTC is the best solution for Toronto. It would allow the TTC to focus on delivering excellent service efficiently, while at the same time deliver the expertise that Metrolinx has to all our future transit expansion plans.