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Jennifer Keesmaat

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Did ambition hurt Smart Track?

A group of colleagues and I set up the Transit Alliance back in 2011 to educate the public on the need for dedicated transit funding and transit development. We believed that transit development was suffering because politicians used it to garner votes, but few bothered delivering on their promises. Our goal at the Alliance was to keep transit development in the public eye, so politicians couldn’t slink away from it. By keeping the level of discussion around transit constant, the public would demand development. We started the discussion on dedicated transit funding, we worked on building support on the use of tolls, and we advocated on the need to build the Relief Subway Line.

As I look back over our work, I realize that our biggest challenges came from politicians who tried to use transit as a stepping stone to power. Politicians, who created controversy over what and where transit lines should be built, were actually delaying the development of transit across Toronto. For example the Eglinton West subway line broke ground in 1994, but was cancelled with the tunnel filled in by Premier Mike Harris in 1995, to the horror of transit development experts around the world.

Political candidates (desperate for power) continually throw out transit plans that will garner the most votes. But transit is a complex issue and planning it properly to meet with population and density growth should be left to educated experts not campaign teams. Unfortunately, in Toronto few politicians listen to the experts.

In 2014 Mayor John Tory came out with a transit plan that was put together by some of the best transit experts in North America. Their focus was to create a transit plan that would help not just Toronto, but the entire region. And knowing the political road blocks likely to happen along the way, my guess is that they created a plan that asked for much more than what is essential, as politicians and public servants would invariably widdle down the plan over time. Mayor Tory’s Smart Track plan lived up to its name and was a smart plan for the entire region. Tory pointed out that the Relief Line was the highest priority subway line, but he also knew that the connections that moved people across the region were key to a strong transit network.

What many don’t realize is that politicians rely on public servants to deliver on their plans. Mayor Tory relied on his former chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat to figure out how to deliver Smart Track efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to do it and seemed to have stalled the process. I’ve grown to admire and respect Mayor Tory. But I know him well enough to know that he would never point this out.

Today I learned that Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner, is now blaming Mayor Tory for her failure to deliver Smart Track. Her lack of willingness to take responsibility for her failures is shameful. But to blame Mayor Tory for her lack of success makes me wonder if she might have actually worked to hold it back? As chief planner, she could have added multiple layers of red tape, she could have delayed every aspect of the planning process around Smart Track and undermined the entire project.

I remember a dinner the Transit Alliance hosted with Jennifer Keesmaat as our guest of honour back in 2015 when she was Toronto’s chief planner. Keesmaat spoke about how great the Smart Track plan was and how it would help relieve gridlock in and out of the city. After dinner, I suggested that she should go into politics, that she might gain a lot of support. Her response – “Why do you think I’m here?”

Never have the Ontario PCs needed a woman leader like they do today!

The need for change within the Ontario PC party is hitting them hard today as news that allegations of sexual misconduct have pushed Patrick Brown to step down as leader.

Many of the party faithful are wishing they had elected Christine Elliott, who challenged Patrick Brown in the 2015 leadership race. There is no doubt the party will have a tough time in the coming election. If they elect a man, the cloud of scandal won’t dissipate quickly and voters will go to the polls questioning his propriety no matter how clean his reputation.  So, they must find a strong woman willing to lead them out of the scandal, someone willing to challenge Premier Kathleen Wynne.

It’s not a job many woman would want. Chances of actually winning the election are much lower today than they were yesterday.  But, this morning Christine Elliott is probably giving it a lot of thought. Leadership candidates who don’t win are usually pushed out of the party by leaders who don’t like to be challenged. Patrick Brown didn’t like to be challenged, and Christine Elliott was pushed out of the party.

She has to know the chances of winning the election with just five months to go with the Patrick Brown scandal hanging over them are low.

Whomever steps up will have to work hard to build their recognition and public trust.

If Christine Elliott doesn’t step up, the party will have to think outside their conservative scope to find a woman with a voice big enough and strong enough to convince female voters that she is bringing big change to the party.

As I muse over who might be a strong candidate, some are suggesting Caroline Mulroney as a possible leadership candidate. She has a pretty terrific resume – a working mother of four, she has a degree from Harvard and a law degree from New York University. And she has experience in politics. She, like Justin Trudeau, will be accused of riding on her fathers coat tails when in fact she has a very strong resume and could make a very good leader. The only issue is that she may not have enough recognition to build the public trust the PC party needs to get out of mess they are in and actually win the election.  But recognition can be earned quickly if she comes out with strong ideas that earn her support in the urban markets  – like supporting dedicated transit funding.

Today I have no doubt that Ontario PC decision makers are frantically searching for the right leader – they’ll have to find someone with enough public recognition and trust to challenge Premier Wynne.

An out of the box idea might be to look further than the tip of their shoes to someone like Jenniefer Keesmaat. She has a solid reputation in urban centres. She has experience being under fire, and she understands the importance of building strong communities. And she is a woman who would give Premier Wynne some strong competition with her core supporters.  That kind of out of the box thinking is what the PC party needs to show voters they are committed to changing the old boys club image that is haunting them today.

There is no doubt the party must find a woman leader. Whomever steps up to the challenge will be doing the Ontario PC party a huge service – I just hope the old boys recognize it.

Stick to your knitting Minnan-Wong, Keesmaat is out of your league

“Stick to your knitting.” Reaction to this phrase can be mixed — and it completely depends on the context in which it is used.

For example, using it in a business meeting to indicate that employees should play to their strengths while allowing others to do the same is a commonly acceptable use of the phrase. “Stick to the knitting” when used by a professional colleague to describe an incredibly accomplished woman who has her foot in all aspects of her craft can come across as derogatory, sexist, and downright rude.

Toronto Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong is being accused of sexism for using the phrase in relation to outgoing Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat in an interview with the Toronto Sun last week. Minnan Wong said this in response to Keesmaat’s use of Twitter and how she debates municipal affairs publicly on the platform.

The history of “stick to your knitting” is a bit obscure, but the phrase has been used widespread in the business community since the mid 1800s. Many business professionals use this phrase when giving advice to young entrepreneurs. Stick to what you know and let others stick to what they know. That way you have the benefit of different experience instead of pretending to be an expert in all fields.

And yet, many politicians get in trouble for using this common phrase — and it’s all because of the context. Especially considering most of the time it’s used to describe women.

Despite its history, the phrase in itself is slightly derogatory. The person who uses it is telling their co-worker they don’t value their opinions. As a woman, this is especially offensive because women fight hard to be heard in the first place. In the case of Keesmaat, she has expertise in city building and most of her tweeting revolves around different aspects of this field. To say she shouldn’t have an opinion on how the City of Toronto is run and/or built is a bit farfetched and, frankly, sexist.

There is also the democracy angle that makes the use of this phrase even more strange. Minnan-Wong decided that posting discussion on city affairs on Twitter was not appropriate, but isn’t public discussion a foundation of democracy? Keesmaat has previously told Women’s Post that defending her planning choices and discussing them with the public was a critical step for accountability. In that case, her activity on social media is an extension of her role as city planner and an active citizen.

“If you have planners gone wild you could end up in a totalitarian type of environment, so the due diligence that comes from the vigour of being questioned by councillors and by the public is an essential part of the planning process from my perspective,” she said.

Why shouldn’t Keesmaat, or any person for that matter, use social media as a platform for public discussion? If everyone on Twitter was told to stick to their knitting, then it would be a pretty boring place. The whole purpose of social media is to allow people to share information and opinions.

And then there is the final point — why would Minnan-Wong care about the social media habits of a city staff member who is leaving their position in a month’s time? The only reason to use this phrase is to remind them that once they leave city hall, their opinions shouldn’t matter. Well, what does that mean for the rest of us? I hope Minnan-Wong’s constituents don’t have any opinions they want to share or ideas they want to suggest, because it appears like he won’t be listening to them.

Ultimately, Minnan-Wong made the same mistake many politicians make — trying to create a sound bite using clichés, hyperbole, and commonly used phrases in order to capture the attention of the media and the public.

Looks like he did — just not in the way he expected.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Jennifer Keesmaat leaving position as Toronto Chief Planner

Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat has announced she will be leaving her position with the city as of Sept. 29th “to pursue other interests.”

“It’s been an honour to work with Mayor Tory, Council, City staff and my remarkable team in the City Planning division over the last five years,” said Keesmaat in a statement. “I promised myself that after five years in public service I would review my future options. I look forward to new challenges in the important business of city building now enriched by invaluable lessons, new friends and colleagues acquired while serving the people of our great city, Toronto.”

Keesmaat has been a strong leader for the City of Toronto. She was never afraid to confront her colleagues in council or on committees, answering their questions with poise. When asked about how she deals with the politics of city building, Keesmaat always answered with respect for the democratic process and government accountability. With her aide, Toronto has begun its transformation into a more liveable and walkable city. One example is the council-approved Transit Network Plan, which will connect all regions of the GTA together under the “motherlode” of transit plans. And then there is the King Street Pilot, something that may revolutionize how Torontonians view the downtown core.

During her tenure, she also started a podcast called Invisible Cities, which touches on numerous aspects of city building. Through this podcast, listeners are able to hear her passion and the joy she gets from discussing things like density, green spaces, and automated cars.

In July, Women’s Post presented Keesmaat with the City Builder Glass Slipper Award for her dedication and leadership. It was an absolute pleasure to have her as a partner and Women’s Post wishes her the best of luck in her future endeavours.

Women’s Post presents Glass Slipper Awards to city builders

The staff at Women’s Post like to describe the organization as a social enterprise designed to help promote women and their various initiatives across the Canada. Every once in a while, we give out what’s called the Glass Slipper Award in recognition of great leadership and community service. The women who receive this award are passionate and driven, and the work they do goes way beyond the scope as defined by their employer.

At an event hosted by the Transit Alliance on Tuesday, Women’s Post presented two women with the Glass Slipper Award. Specifically, these awards were for women city builders in the private sector and in the public sector, presented to the people whose innovation, creativity, and dedication has helped this region grow.

The awards were given out with the support of John Tory, the Mayor of Toronto and were handed out by Women’s Post editor Katherine DeClerq.

The first recipient was Vickie Turnbull, Managing Director and Co-Head of the Canadian Infrastructure Finance Group, RBC Capital Markets. Turnbull describes herself as “the girl with all the money.” She was the lead financial advisor for over 21 infrastructure projects in Canada. For 12 years, she worked in the debt capital markets before she joined RBC’s Infrastructure Finance team in 2007. Her experience ranges from project finance advisory, debt structuring, and loan syndications, just to name a few.

The second recipient was Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto Chief City Planner.  Keesmaat has spent her career working tirelessly to create a walkable urban city with a strong focus on transit planning. She is a founding partner of Office for Urbanism, and has been recognized by the Canadian Institute of Planners, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, the Design Exchange, and the EDRA for her innovative projects across Canada, specifically in municipalities like Moncton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Toronto.

Here are some photos of the Glass Slipper Awards:

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Transit Alliance: financing infrastructure via P3 and AFP

Ontario has an infrastructure deficit — there is a lot of infrastructure that still needs to be developed, but very little money is available. This creates a bit of a challenge. “If we were to build all infrastructure on public balance sheets, we wouldn’t be able to get there,” said Bruce McCuaig, Executive Advisor of Privy Council Office. “Money isn’t free.”

McCuaig was a special guest at the Transit Alliance’s seminar on alternative financing and public-private partnerships. Over 80 people attended the June 20 event in hopes of learning more about the Infrastructure Bank and alternative financing models that can help push municipal projects forward.

The morning seminar began with a fireside chat between McCuaig, KPMG partner Will Lipson, and Transit Alliance Chair Brian Crombie. The conversation centered around the Infrastructure Bank, a crown corporation that will provide low-cost financing for new infrastructure projects. McCuaig is set to help launch the Infrastructure Bank through the Privy Council.

“It’s about finding the best financial model for the project,” McCuaig said. “Each on has different needs.”

Transit will play a big part of the portfolio, although clean water was also mentioned numerous times throughout the discussion. McCuaig stressed that a balance will be needed between public interest and independence within the crown corporation, and that decisions should be made using evidence-based analysis.

The Infrastructure Bank will be complimentary to Infrastructure Ontario, Infrastructure Canada, and other private agencies. KPMG said the corporation will bring about numerous opportunities for municipalities, providing more financing options than before.

“The government has been quite wise in implementing the bank,” Lipson said.

After the fireside chat, Crombie moderated a second panel that dealt largely with financing for smaller municipal projects. Special guests on the panel included Rob Pattison, SVP, LRT, Infrastructure Ontario; Don Dinnin, VP Procurement Services at Metrolinx; Olivia MacAngus, VP Corporate Development at Plenary Group; and Omer Malik, Vice President Project Financing at Stonebridge Financial Corporation.

Each member of the panel is involved in public-private partnerships or alternative financing, and believes that innovation and creativity are key when it comes to municipal projects. For most, the Infrastructure Bank is a unique opportunity, but not something to depend on. MacAngus and Malik both think there is too much unknown about the Infrastructure Bank. “We don’t need another traditional lender,” Malik said. “It should focus on a gap, where larger equity funds aren’t interested.”

Dinnin suggested the use of an agency such as the Infrastructure Bank to help spearhead the relief line in Toronto. Metrolinx, he said, has a number of funded projects using public-private partnerships, but maybe the Infrastructure Bank can fill the rest of that gap. “There is always more than one way to do something,” he said.

The collective solution to municipal infrastructure, as suggested by the panel, is hybrid-financing models and innovative thinking — partnering with the right investors to see your project completed.

The goal of alternative financing and public-private partnerships is to build and develop a project on time and on budget. According to Pattison of Infrastructure Ontario, the worst thing someone can do is drag out the construction phase.

The seminar also included a networking opportunity, where business and municipal leaders were able to approach these financial firms to discuss their personal projects and seek advice (or offer potential solutions).

“Expertise should always be evolving,” Pattison said.

Here are some photos from the event:

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More photos to come.

Photographs taken by Ethan Helfrich.

Transit-first King St. pilot moves forward

Next week, Toronto’s executive committee will vote on the proposed King St. Pilot, the first plan to enact a transit-first mentality to city planning.

The King. St. Pilot is a direct response to slow transit service and increased congestion along the downtown corridor. “King Street is not currently working well for transit,” a report prepared by Toronto’s General Manager said. “Streetcar service can be slow, unreliable, and erratic, with unpredictable travel times, especially during rush hours, but also during some late evening and weekend times. People end up having to plan for their slowest trip.”

With more than 65,000 daily TTC riders compared to the 20,000 vehicle users along King St., re-branding this corridor as transit-first makes a lot of sense.The pilot will cover six kilometres of King St., from Jarvis to Bathurst. The corridor would funnel drivers to parallel east-west routes like Queen St., Richmond, Adelaide, Wellington, or Front, while still allowing local drivers to access the street for short periods of time.

Earlier suggestions of creating a car-free roadway were dismissed, as there are a number of driveways and parking garages that must be accessed from King St. However, city staff came up with a solution that would allow drivers to access King St. without bottling traffic.

Local residents may drive on King St., but only in between intersections. At each traffic sign, cars must turn left. It will be up to the drivers to decide how best to reach their destination. This will allow for significantly less cars on the roads and for the King. St. streetcars to have unobstructed access to their own lane.

King St. Pilot
Photo courtesy of City of Toronto.

Other features of the plan include dedicated pick-up and drop off areas and designated delivery areas. There will be no dedicated cycling lanes.

The last reported cost for this project was estimated to be at $1.5 million, but it has since been determined the project is eligible for funding under Phase I of the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund. This means it’s possible to get 50 per cent of funding from the federal government, leaving the city to come up with the remaining 50 per cent.

The Toronto Transit Commission will vote on the pilot program prior to the executive committee vote. If all goes well, it will be discussed in the July city council meeting.

What do you think of the King St. Pilot? Let us know in the comments below!

King St. Pilot makes transit the priority

Thursday, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and city staff made their second presentation on the King St. Pilot, a plan that will hopefully alleviate congestion along the car-heavy corridor to make it more transit-friendly.

“What we are trying to do here is to improve transit service for the 65,000 passengers on the busiest transit route in the city,”said Jacquelyn Hayward Gulati, Director of Transportation Infrastructure Management with the City of Toronto. “That’s three times as many drivers who use the corridor. We are trying to move the most people the most efficient way.”

The pilot will cover six kilometres of King St., from Jarvis to Bathurst. The corridor would funnel drivers to parallel east-west routes like Queen St., Richmond, Adelaide, Wellington, or Front, while still allowing local drivers to access the street for short periods of time.

According to Gulati, making King St. completely car-free would take immense resources, as there are driveways and parking garages that can be accessed from that corridor. Instead, city staff has designed a plan allowing local residents to drive on King St., but only between intersections. These vehicles must turn right at the next traffic signal. Physical barriers will be used to prevent vehicles other than the streetcars from passing through the intersection.

There is also going to be designated spaces for short-term loading, deliveries, and taxis, something business owners indicated was a necessity.

Photo courtesy of City of Toronto.

“People will access the section of King that they need to access for their local trip,” Gulati said. “We are looking to have the amount of mixed traffic dialled down to such an extent that we expect to see streetcar improvements, but it is a pilot project and that’s what we want to learn from this.”

Cyclists, transit users, and emergency vehicles would be the only commuters allowed to cross intersections. However, there would be no dedicated bike lanes.

This particular corridor between Bathurst and Jarvis was chosen because it has the worst transit service on King St. The goal of this pilot would be to see additional improvements in reliability, speed, and capacity on the King St. streetcar — more people walking or using transit and less people driving.

The estimated budget level cost is $1.5 million, but that is bound to change once the design has been finalized after Thursday’s public meeting.

If all goes well, a final report will be presented at a June TTC board meeting and then will be sent to approval by City Council in July. The plan is to be able to implement the King St. Pilot by the Fall of 2017 or Spring 2018.

What do you think of the King St. Pilot? Let us know in the comments below!

King St. redesign plans put transit first

King Street is not only one of the busiest inner-city roads in Toronto, it is one of the most hectic routes in the entire country. When rush-hour hits at the end of a busy work day, walking is often faster than commuting on public transit on this street and it leaves many transit users extremely frustrated.

Luckily, the City of Toronto is taking steps to redesign King St. and make it more transit friendly. The project was announced at the Transit Alliance’s Green Cities breakfast last month.

On Monday, Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and the Toronto planning division presented three possible options in a public consultation that was widely attended by King St. commuters. The improvements are focused around access, reliability, and speed. The project would affect King St., from Dufferin St. to River St., and is set to cost about $200,000.

The first option to focus on transit on King St. is called “Separated Lanes”. This would separate the streetcars from the vehicles by providing one lane for each going northbound and southbound. This is the least popular choice so far because it would continue to allow thorough traffic for vehicles, but only having one lane would slow car commuters substantially. This option also wouldn’t give more room to pedestrians and bike lanes wouldn’t be constructed.

The second option, which has been dubbed the favourite of the planning division, is called “Alternating Loops”. This would include a dedicated transit lane for the streetcars and an alternating lane for vehicles to have one-way access, and would change every block. This alternative would allow for the lane that isn’t being used for one-way car traffic to have pedestrian access and a dedicated cycling lane. The one-way alternating street would also give delivery vehicles and taxis access to King St., but the vehicle would be forced to turn at the end of the block.

The last possibility is called “Transit Promenade” and would focus on pedestrians with widened sidewalks down the entire stretch on King St. The streetcars and vehicles would continue to be mixed mid-block, but thorough access would be forbidden. Vehicles could travel down the street mid-block and would have to turn right at the end of each block. This would allow for pedestrians and cyclists to consistently access the roadway.

Once the public consultations are complete and a specific plan is chosen, Keesmaat and the planning division will seek city council approval in July and would begin a pilot project in the fall.  Currently Keesmaat pointed out that cars are given 64 per cent of the road on King St. and only move 16 per cent of Toronto commuters, which is not simply not logical. The city will also complete a ‘modelling study’ while they complete the public consultations, which will monitor traffic on nearby routes to ensure that the plan to redesign King St. doesn’t cripple commutes in other parts of the busy downtown area.

Redesigning King St. to become more focused on transit users and pedestrians will get people moving in a way that doesn’t put vehicles first. This is better for the environment, moving mass amounts of people, and is the best way to get everyone home at the end of the day. It will be exciting to walk down King St. after the pilot project is launched, whichever option is chosen.

Over 300 people ask ‘do we live in a green city?’

On Jan. 25, over 300 people entered the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library to discuss and debate this question: How do we design, plan, and build a green city?

The Transit Alliance, a non-political organization that works with those in the transit and infrastructure industry, hosted its first Green Cities breakfast Wednesday to discuss the need for greater transit, greener building, and an overall more liveable city design. Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat was the keynote speaker. “As humans, we have the ability to shape our habitat,” she said. “The model is not sustainable.”

During her speech, Keesmaat announced the King Street Pilot Project, which hopes to help unlock gridlock in a particularly messy and busy corridor. This is the first time Keesmaat has, in an official capacity, mentioned the project. Further details will be released on Feb. 13.

While guests enjoyed their coffee and muffins, Bruce McGuaig, CEO of Metrolinx; Dr. Dianne Saxe, Ontario Environment Commissioner; David Paterson, VP Corporate and Environmental Affairs for GM Canada; and, Mary Margaret McMahon, Toronto City Councillor walked on stage to take part in a panel discussion on transit. While a variety of topics were introduced, the common denominator seemed to be this: the Golden Horseshoe needs more. The city needs more transit, more funding, and more emphasis on liveability in design.

The second panel of the morning focused on green building, both commercial and residential. The panel consisted of Mike Schreiner, Leader of the Ontario Green Party; Amy Erixon, Principal and Managing Director Investments at Avison Young; Christopher Wein, President of Great Gulf; and, Andrew Bowerbank, Global Director, Sustainable Building Services at EllisDon. Education was a big topic of interest. Building green is only slightly more expensive, but the benefits and the return to the homebuyer is much greater. Everyone agreed that educating the public as to the real costs of building green is critical to a low-carbon community. The question of the panel: Why would we ever NOT build a LEED-certified or Net-Zero home anymore?

Here are a few select photos from Green Cities:

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