Saturday, November 30, 2013

Mattamy to partner on Downsview Park redevelopment

Canada’s largest homebuilder, Mattamy Homes, has entered into a joint partnership with real estate developer Urbancorp in hopes of kick-starting construction of the first residential community on the Downsview Park lands.

The partnership, to be announced publicly Wednesday, is expected to reignite anger in the North York community among residents who had been promised by Ottawa back in 1999 that the former military base would be turned into Canada’s first urban national park.

The well-respected new homebuilder has agreed to, in essence, take over construction of some 1,000 units of stacked townhomes, single-family homes and midrise condo apartment buildings that Urbancorp has planned — and already started selling — for a 25-hectare master-planned community on the site.

It hopes to start construction next year.

The modern, urban infill community, which won approval from the Ontario Municipal Board earlier this year despite fierce opposition from the community, is a dramatic departure from the largely suburban homes for which Mattamy is famous in some 150 North American cities.

“This is something that Mattamy has identified it wants to do more of,” said Mattamy chief operating officer Brian Johnston, noting that the builder is running out of large parcels of ready-to-build land in the GTA.

It’s a bit of a David and Goliath meeting of the minds, given that Mattamy has some 60,000 new homes under its belt — some 10,000 of them in Milton’s Hawthorne Village community alone — and had been toying with moving into the highrise condo market.

Urbancorp has built 6,000 homes, many of them condo apartments or townhomes in Toronto’s King St. W. and Queen St. W. areas.

The Mattamy/Urbancorp project is the first of some five communities, totalling some 10,000 units of housing in all, eventually planned for the 231.5-hectare former CFB Downsview site which has been mired in bureaucratic red tape for much of the past two decades.

While local councillor Maria Augimeri said it gives her some comfort knowing that an experienced homebuilder like Mattamy will actually be overseeing construction of the first Downsview community, it’s unlikely to appease area residents at all.

“They are quite angry that 10,000 units of development are going to go right where they were promised a park. We don’t have the infrastructure, the roads or the sewers, for this tremendous build out and we already have nightmarish traffic.”

Johnston acknowledges that there are real issues with the site, including servicing and neighbourhood concerns.

That’s part of the reason the massive Urbancorp sales centre on the site — Urbancorp has already pre-sold more than 300 of the planned units — is being shut down and sales halted temporarily.

Mattamy has a meeting planned with Augimeri Wednesday and plans to also meet with each of the people who’ve bought so far.

Mattamy had been starting to shift more of its building focus outside the GTA — to Calgary and Edmonton and into U.S. cities such as Orlando, Phoenix and Minneapolis — because of concerns there’s not enough serviced land left and new home prices, which now average more than $650,000, are becoming unaffordable.

The Downsview lands are seen as a rare opportunity to build a new, more urban style community close to subway lines and within easy reach of the downtown on a sizable parcel of land.
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GTA Centre Markham Arena: Shovels in the ground as early as 2014

MARKHAM - Could shovels break ground on the proposed NHL-sized $325 million GTA Centre as early as next year?

“In a best-case scenario, yes,” Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said Saturday.

Added Graeme Roustan, Chairman and CEO of GTA Sports & Entertainment: “Oh ya. Absolutely. We’re ready to go.”

And with there being whispers that the NHL could expand by two teams in 2017 — the league’s 100th anniversary — well, even though both men deny that is the end game of this project, you can connect the dots yourself.

Sure, there are still monetary and bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome before the first hole is dug. At the same time, a major step, in terms of dollars and cents, appears to have been taken in the process of turning the dream of both Scarpitti and Roustan into a reality.

To that end, the two men held a press conference on Saturday announcing that two memorandums of understanding had been signed between the City of Markham and the private sector, including one from Roustan committing $162.5 million to the project — approximately half of the funds required.

The MOUs still needs to be rubber-stamped by counsellors at a city council meeting on Monday night, but both men are confident that the financial plans will be given the green light.

The second MOU includes a commitment of $70 million from developers, a huge boost to a project that would be constructed near Hwy. 407 and Kennedy Rd.

As it stands, Mayor Scarpitti said about $275 million of the $325 million estimated cost — about 85% — has been committed. That includes:

    $162.5 million through Roustan’s signed MOU.
    $32.5 million through money from a future arena lease agreement.
    $10 million collected through developer contributions.
    $70 million as part of an MOU from a group of developers with a $120 million plan to fund the arena.

The mayor is still on the hook to find $50 million in additional funding but apparently many councillors this past week agreed that progress is being made and are said to be willing to give him more time to secure the money needed.

“I always said Markham would attract the GTA Centre and we won’t have to raise taxes to get it,” Scarpitti said.

At the same time, he cautioned that no shortcuts will be taken in this process.

“We’re not in a rush to get there,” Scarpitti said. “We will see a shovel in the ground. We will see the GTA Centre in Markham.”

As for luring a second NHL team to the GTA, both men downplayed the prospect. That’s just the way the suits running the league like it. The less you talk about it, the better your chances are.

Keeping his lips sealed helped Mark Chipman bring the NHL back to Winnipeg. On the other hand, too much chatting played a role in former BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie never landing a team.

Fact is, the league would like to put a team in Seattle, a scenario which would leave Quebec City and the GTA fighting it out for that alleged “second franchise.”

Roustan and Scarpitti said there will be no issue filling dates in the new arena even without a full-time NHL tenant. Both the OHL and National women’s hockey league have made inquires about one day occupying the proposed building.

“I can’t promise the world juniors, we’re out of 2015,” Roustan said. “But I can promise no one will work harder to attract hockey at every level. I will go after everything. I will push for future world juniors.

“About 150,000 people move to the GTA every single year,” he added. “This is the largest market in the world that has just one 19,000-seat arena.”

Both men are confident that, given the recent steps that have been taken, that number soon will be two.

Two rinks, that is. And, who knows? Perhaps two NHL teams as well.
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Toronto’s manufacturing heartland turns to condos.

Condo developer Luigi (Louie) Santaguida, who is standing on a barren piece of land that he’s owned for about a decade in Toronto’s west end, points to a small park across the street and shakes his head.

“The city did a great job of putting a park in front of industrial use,” he says sarcastically.
Mr. Santaguida’s frustration shows. After buying this two-acre site in the Upper Junction, on which paint factories of one form or another had sat for nearly a century, his company, Stanton Renaissance, spent more than $5-million on underground remediation and other activities to clean it up. About five years ago, he asked the city to rezone the land to allow some of it to be for residential use. He’s still working on that.

The site, which sits directly below St. Clair Avenue West, to the east of Mulock Avenue, is emblematic of a protracted transition that’s taking place in what was once a manufacturing heartland, and the tension that has developed as the city seeks to preserve employment lands in an area that has seen a slow and steady decline in industrial jobs. The railway tracks that sit directly to the east of the property once fed a vibrant hub of factories. These days the trucks that try to get into the remaining factories find themselves in snarled traffic, while better public transit will increasingly be shuttling the growing number of local residents.

Mr. Santaguida argues that manufacturers are no longer interested in moving into the neighbourhood, and says he’s called the city’s bluff by trying to sell the land to industry.
“We’ve challenged the city to bring us employment, we’ve offered the property to local industry,” he says. “You can’t find employment uses, otherwise it would have been there already. It really must be converted or it will sit here like it sat here for the last 20 years,” he says, noting that the Benjamin Moore paint factory that had sat on it had shut down in the late 1990s, long before he bought the land. “Industry is not coming into this quadrant, it’s over.”

City councillor Peter Milczyn, who chairs the planning and growth management committee, does not want to see the neighbourhood veer too much toward residential.
“There are still some large sites left in the Junction that condo developers would snap up in an instant if they felt that they could just walk in and get permission for a condo, but that in fact is not what the city wants to see,” he says. “I personally don’t want to see that happen. I like the idea that along the avenues, where we have public transit along the edges, that where appropriate you can have a bit of a mix of residential and commercial, but behind that the appropriate types of businesses and smaller industries can very well coexist side-by-side and actually mean that somebody can walk to work, they can live and work in their neighbourhood.”

Mr. Milczyn does agree that it’s becoming more challenging for big industry to function in the neighbourhood, but he points to smaller employers like cheese makers, carpenters and furniture-makers that he’d like to see remain.

He says that Mr. Santaguida’s site, “6 Lloyd, is one of these little mixed pockets where you have single family homes across the street from what we would today consider pretty nasty industries, but they co-existed for decades and decades.”

The property has some advantages when it comes to seeking the ability to build condos, Mr. Milczyn suggests, including its proximity to St. Clair and the fact that “there are single family homes across the street, so it’s already on a street that you might want to quote unquote try to clean up a little bit.” In addition, Mr. Santaguida’s proposal includes using some of the site for employment uses, with sculptor Abraham Ruben, who currently lives in Vancouver, saying he will open a teaching school on the property and move his own business there.

The proposal scored a win last week, when the planning and growth management committee decided to delete the recommendations of city staff and instead recommend that two-thirds of the property be allowed to convert to mixed-use areas with residential, while some of the property will be carved out for employment lands on which such things as an arts school, creative arts studio, gallery, theatre, farmers’ market or museum would be permitted. City council will look at the recommendation in December.

“I really believe that this is an area that needs to be revitalized,” says local councillor Frances Nunziata. “This little pocket where [it] is, it’s been sort of neglected. It’s really an eyesore, it’s a forgotten part of the city.”

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Dufferin Street bridge demolition means train, traffic disruptions for Toronto

TORONTO - Train service along the Lakeshore West line is a no-GO this weekend as road crews tear down the Dufferin St. bridge.

GO Transit said trains and buses won’t be running on the Lakeshore West line on Saturday and Sunday due to the demolition.

GO is running special train service along the nearby Milton line all weekend to help accommodate affected passengers.

Also Via Rail will suspend stops at Oakville on train numbers 72,73,75, 76, 79 80 and 81. Service will be provided at Aldershot.

A detour between Toronto and Aldershot will cause a delay of up to an hour. As well, trains 31, 78, 97 abd 98 will be replaced by bus service between Oakville and Toronto.

Pedestrian and motorist access to the bridge will be off limits until Dec. 7

Pedestrians can cross the railway tracks between Liberty Village and Exhibition Place via the GO Station tunnel at Atlantic Ave. Motorists can enter Exhibition Place from any of the entrances on Lake Shore Blvd. or from Strachan Ave.

“The city thanks the public for their patience as we undertake this important work to improve infrastructure in the community,” city spokesman Steve Johnston said in a release.

A temporary pedestrian is expected to open by Dec. 7. Two temporary bridges are slated to open for vehicular traffic by February.
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Mixed reaction on Ford Nation YouTube show

TORONTO - Stand clear. The Ford fiesta is starting up and going global.

Rob Ford and his brother Doug are taking their new found fame — some would say infamy — to the world.

No sooner had Maclean’s magazine named Toronto’s controversial mayor its “newsmaker of the year” Thursday then his sibling Councillor Doug Ford made an announcement of his own.

He revealed the pair intends to start a new show on YouTube next month and we’re all invited to watch.

This follows what he calls interest from everyone from Dr. Phil to Oprah asking the brothers to co-operate in a reality concept show.

“There’s a massive market in the U.S.,” Doug Ford said confidently.

The plan is to go straight over the heads of traditional media, City Hall reporters, critics and supporters by reaching out to fresh online audiences.

Their program’s working title: Ford Nation.

This was also the name of their briefly lived television segment on Sun News that set viewer records for the fledgling network.

Some are already impressed with the possibilities.

“The Fords are perhaps becoming the Kardashians of Canada,” Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly said when asked about the possible Ford reality show.

What better place to road test the concept of this new vehicle for the Fords but Nathan Phillips Square in front of City Hall.

Who will be watching?

You can count Andrew Thomas of Etobicoke out.

“No, I am just not interested at all,” Thomas said. “I grew up in Toronto and lived for a while in Vancouver before returning.

“On the whole I am not a fan of the Ford family. I agree this city seems to run OK but they could do more, the whole council could do better.

“Roads and infrastructure are falling to bits. That won’t be helped by a show on YouTube.

“I also have the feeling sometimes that the world isn’t laughing with Toronto but at it, at us. More of the Fords won’t help that.”

Rachel Kornhaber is not so sure. She is a tourist from Sydney, Australia and visiting friends in Canada’s biggest city.

She said Rob Ford is “huge” in Australia and she would happily watch him and his brother.

“What fantastic psychodrama, what a cast, yes, I love it!” she said. “Everyone has seen Rob Ford back home in Australia and I really think he would be a hit anywhere.

“Talk about the best free show in town. The Ford family follies would be a must-watch.”

Laoise Renwick is another visitor. She hails from Ireland. Renwick says she heard about Rob Ford “before I even stepped on the plane to leave Dublin” but is not going to be part of the target audience.

“No, I don’t think so really. I am sure it would be appealing in a car crash TV sort of way, maybe even mildly hypnotic, but not for me.

“I have a few other things going on in my life. Watching Rob Ford and his brother isn’t one of them.”

The last word goes to Tim Carter. The tourist from the English midland city of Nottingham also heard plenty about Rob Ford before he left the U.K.

“You couldn’t avoid him really. He was on so many late night TV shows,” he said.

Carter is sitting on the fence when it comes to the YouTube production and is not committing himself either way.

“Yes, Rob Ford is a global phenomenon but that doesn’t mean he will be ‘must see’ when he goes live and unscripted.

“Don’t forget it won’t be like a radio show where people call in.

“He will just be talking with his brother. That doesn’t make for very watchable TV. In fact it might just send people to sleep so I am undecided.”

There is one advantage of YouTube.

“If you don’t like them, you can turn them off,” Carter concluded.
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Toronto Gridlock: The $6 billion (at least) problem

On a sunny autumn morning in Forest Hill, Koryn Greenspan is hard at work. Her four-legged charges — two labradoodles, a black Labrador, and a collie — keep her moving briskly along the Kay Gardiner Beltline trail.

“I like to say that my life has gone to the dogs and my clients. It feels like this is what I’m meant to be doing with my career,” Greenspan said.

She started her company, Urban Dog Walks, about a year ago. Greenspan doesn’t really mind the days with freezing cold and pouring rain. When you’re a professional dog walker, it goes with the territory.

But driving is another story.

To get the dogs out on time for their mid-morning walk, Greenspan starts her day before 8:30 a.m. She checks her email for clients asking for last-minute scheduling changes. She loads up on water and snacks (people and doggie). She gets into her car to pick up the dogs — then she hits the traffic.

“This street will be jammed. Just jammed, I know it,” she says, steeling herself for a long line of cars trying to get westbound on Eglinton Ave. W. near Bathurst St.

Some traffic, particularly in urban areas, is good. It’s a sign of a healthy economy. But it’s no secret that Toronto is suffering from a bad case of congestion.

On an average day, major highways from Durham Region to Hamilton are clogged. Traffic on main streets north, south, east, and west is backed up. GO trains, subways, streetcars and buses are at capacity.

Throw in construction and a traffic accident or two and we’re left at a standstill. Literally. It’s gridlock out there.

Whether you’re in your car or on public transit, it takes longer to get to work, to get home, to get to the gym, the mall, or the kids’ soccer game.

That affects everything from your monthly car insurance bill to your health to the region’s economy. Some consequences are more visible than others. They all add up.

The estimated annual cost of congestion in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area in 2006 was $6 billion. The figure is part of a seminal study on the subject conducted by HDR Corp. and released by Metrolinx in 2008.

“That $6 billion sounds so big and like it’s somebody else’s problem,” said Leslie Woo, vice president of policy, planning and innovation at Metrolinx.

“But that’s money and time we could put into other things to improve our quality of life.”

Here’s how that big number breaks down. The biggest component, $2.2 billion, is delay for vehicle users. This is the estimated value of the work you weren’t doing or the leisure time you weren’t enjoying. The time cost for transit riders is another $337 million.

A trip that would take 20 minutes in free-flow conditions will take 38 minutes during peak travel times, according to the report. The average commuter in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area incurs an excess delay of 11.5 minutes per day and 50 hours per year.

For drivers, the costs add up substantially. Think of all that extra gas you need for your car when you’re moving slowly up the Don Valley Parkway, or wear and tear on your brakes. That alone adds up to about $479 million.

Congestion creates a higher propensity for accidents. That’s because the longer a vehicle is on the road, the greater the risk that it will be involved in a collision, explained Pete Karageorgos, manager, consumer and industry relations with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The stop-and-go of gridlock adds to the problem, Karageorgos said. As people try to get to work or get home, and they’re taking longer, they may try to multi-task. “There’s the temptation to use your smartphone and do something that you shouldn’t when you should be keeping your focus on the road and your hands on the wheel.”

The greater number of collisions in high-density areas is one factor that drives up the cost of vehicle insurance.

Insurance premiums are based on the driver’s age and driving record, as well as where he or she lives. Geography is an important factor.

Consider this comparison: A 40-year-old male, married, with a clean driving record, who drives his 2011 Toyota Camry 10 kilometres to work would pay anywhere between $1,856 to $2,791 per year for auto insurance in Toronto. That range drops to $1,677 to $2,050 in Mississauga. But it’s far lower in Orangeville, where premiums would cost from $1,195 to $1,397 annually, according to insurance quotes obtained by Anne Marie Thomas, an insurance expert with Insurancehotline.com

There are other factors at play in large metropolitan areas, such as higher risk of theft and fraud, “but the congestion plays a huge part. It’s a significant fact,” Thomas said.

The Metrolinx report pegs the cost of congestion-related accidents, including medical and police costs, property damage, lost work time, and insurance administration costs, at $256 million.

Then there’s the cost of additional greenhouse gas emissions from idling cars. Extra vehicle emissions cause medical problems and pollution. The study pegs these costs at $29.6 million, though it concedes they are difficult to estimate.

For Toronto Public Health, the connection is clear. In 2007, the agency estimated that traffic is linked to 440 premature deaths and 1,700 hospitalizations every year in Toronto.

“We know that traffic is the largest source of air pollutants in the city of Toronto,” said Ronald MacFarlane, a manager in Healthy Public Policy. “There’s more pollution being created because vehicles are not moving at the optimal speed.”

Add it up and the price tag for commuters is $3.3 billion, according to Metrolinx.

It’s difficult to put a dollar figure on other aspects of cost of congestion, but the effects are damaging, experts say.

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that every hour spent in a car on a daily basis is associated with a 6 per cent increase in the likelihood of obesity. Obesity, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

A longer commute stretches your day. The longer your day, the greater the likelihood you will rely on packaged or fast food, skip the exercise, and not get enough rest or leisure time, said Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family.

So there are long-term implications for your health. When you fall ill, it’s more likely to be serious.

“The ripple costs are hard to measure, but we do know there are ripple costs associated with really long days,” Spinks said. “There is a cost on your physical, emotional, and financial health.”

In addition to the cost to commuters, the Metrolinx report estimated that congestion costs the regional economy another $2.7 billion.

The report estimates that congestion costs the region 26,000 in 2006 and resulted in approximately$260 million in increased operating costs for industry. Those include fuel expenses, labour costs, and missed deliveries.

The Toronto region is competing on a global stage with cities such as Chicago or Madrid. A business deciding where to locate a new manufacturing plant or head office may take a pass on a region where it takes too long for employees to get to work or goods to get to market.

“That has a cost to us. That means there’s fewer jobs,” Woo said.

Those are the costs that add up when we’re all stuck sitting in the car or on transit.

But what about when congestion is so bad that you decide to avoid the trip altogether? You opt to take a lower-paying job close to home, or work from home rather than commuting an hour each day. Or you pass on going to a show or taking in a baseball game because you just know the traffic will be horrendous.

There’s an economic cost to that too, Benjamin Dachis, senior policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute, argued in a ground-breaking report published in July, 2013.

Here’s a simple example: Instead of staying home, you and your family venture downtown for dinner and baseball game. Obviously, the restaurant, the team’s owners and the venue get an economic benefit when you open your wallet to buy tickets and pay the bill for your meal.

But there’s an indirect, intangible benefit to the entire community when there are more baseball fans and restaurant patrons.

That’s known as urban agglomeration. Basically, it’s the benefit of being surrounded by people in strong urban cores. An efficient transit system decreases congestion, and that increases the number of people who can move easily around the region, taking in baseball games, going to restaurants and enjoying the urban-ness that a place like Toronto has to offer.

In other words, there are positive effects when people “created demand for more business, entertainment and cultural opportunities which, in turn, benefit other people,” Dachis wrote in his report.

“When congestion makes urban interactions too costly to pursue, these benefits are foregone, adding significantly to the net costs of congestion.”

Dachis estimates the range of that additional cost to be between $1.5 billion and $5 billion per year in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area.

What’s bigger than the cost of congestion? The cost of doing nothing, experts say.

With no action, the cost of delay to commuters alone would increase to $7.8 billion per year by 2031, according to the HDR report. The hit to the regional economy would balloon to $7.2 billion per year by 2031 from the current estimate of $2.7 billion.

“We do adapt to needing the extra time. We leave home earlier or bypass a shopping trip,” said Linda Weichel, vice-president of Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance. The citizen lobby group is best known for its “What would you do with 32?” campaign that aimed to raise awareness about how an investment in regional transportation would cut average commute times.

“What we’ve been trying to convey is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It could be so much better and it will get worse if we don’t do something about it,”

Metrolinx has developed a $50 billion Big Move plan to expand public transit through the Greater Toronto-Hamilton region. The plan calls for subway extensions and new LRT routes. The first phase, $16 billion, has been funded by all three levels of government.

But the second phase is unfunded. With governments feeling tapped out, Metrolinx has proposed raising the next $34 billion through a hike in the HST, a gas tax, and a commercial parking levy and development fees.

Metrolinx says that depending on how much you drive and where you live, these additional taxes and fees would add $477 a year on average to the cost of living in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area. But it pegs the cost of doing nothing at $1,600 a year on average per household in lost productivity.

“While it sounds like a lot to take out of our pockets, the benefits over the short, medium, and long term are even more significant,” Woo said. “The costs if we don’t invest are even more scary.”

Businesses in the Toronto area are desperate for solutions, said Carol Wilding, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

“As we say over and over, it’s time to stop staring at the problem and talking about it and get on with building, but building on a consistent basis.”

But there’s no easy fix here.

For example, the Toronto Industry Network, a lobby group for the manufacturing industry, supports improvements in public transit. But it has concerns about plans for the LRT on Finch Ave. W. The LRT would mean reduced lanes from Dufferin St. to Islington Ave., a stretch used by thousands of trucks each day.

“They want to get people out of their cars, which is important, but freight is not going to go on the subway or on a bicycle,” said Paul Scrivener, the group’s director of external affairs.

The primary reason for the gridlock that Greenspan faces in the Eglinton Ave. and Bathurst St. area is the construction of the Eglinton LTR. Eventually, it will ease congestion. But for now, it’s making the problem worse.

Greenspan has learned to give herself at least 20 minutes to make a 10-minute drive. “My clients all know. I say 15 minute buffer. With traffic, a 30-minute drive can turn into 45 minutes. They understand. We’re all dealing with it together.”

The cost of gas is another issue. Greenspan spends about $220 per week on gas for her pup-mobile, a 2001 Jeep Cherokee. It’s a gas-guzzler, Greenspan admits, but “it’s perfect for this.”

Greenspan is taking on more clients, but has to consider whether she can manage the traffic. Refusing a client is a worse-case scenario, but there are times when it comes to that.

“I have to do the back-end scheduling and logistics to make sure the front end of my company runs properly,” Greenspan said. “I have to switch my route if I know I can’t make it.”

Greenspan swings back and forth from hating the construction to trying to be positive. “Ultimately, anything that can help public transit, I’m all for it,” she said. “But you can’t just drop this everywhere in the city at the same time and not provide any solutions. It’s frustrating.”

Her last walk is in the late afternoon with Dr. Jones, a golden lab, at Bloor St. and Spadina Ave. The nearly 5-kilometre trip from Bathurst and Eglinton can take as long as 30 minutes. Running it could be faster.

On the drive home, when Bloor St. is jammed, she sometimes goes further west and north, only to come back south and east to get home.

“I know it’s silly. It’s a waste of time and it’s bad for the environment,” Greenspan said. “But it’s the fastest way to get past the traffic.”
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The high cost of GTA commuting

Traffic congestion in the GTA is making the drive to work increasingly insufferable for people living in Toronto as well as those who live in the suburbs and commute.

Experts and commuters say the situation is going to get worse as investments in new roads fail to keep pace with suburban growth. What was once a one-way flow into the city in the morning and out again in the afternoon along major arteries like the 401 and Queen Elizabeth Way, is now a two-way street. As jobs have moved to the suburbs, commuters have followed. For many, GO Trains and a patchwork of regional transit services don’t work.

Tough trip to work? Drivers, tell us your commuting horror stories.

“We are experiencing unprecedented levels of congestion, and the problem is evident with all modes of transportation,” said Baher Abdulhai, a professor in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto. “It’s getting out of hand.”

Abdulhai said decision-makers need to revamp their thinking on transportation in the GTA, which is causing stress to drivers and pressure on their vehicles, he added.

“The longer we wait without providing significant solutions, the magnitude of deterioration (of congestion) from one year to the next will be much, much worse,” he said.

As part of a week long look at transit in the GTA, The Star has profiled two commuters to get a street level view of the problem. One drives from Oakville to Brampton every day and the other from Oshawa to Scarborough.

Here’s what they think, how they manage and what they think can improve things.

Terry Mathews, 54, Oakville to Brampton

Oakville resident Terry Mathews tries to be at work in Brampton every day for 7:30 a.m., so that he can leave earlier in the afternoon to beat the traffic and make it home before his 8-year-old son goes to bed.

While suburban dwellers who drive between their home and workplace in Toronto struggle daily with massive traffic congestion, things are not that much better when commuting from one GTA suburb to another.

Mathews, director of financial services at Hudson’s Bay Company, takes the same route every day: the 403, then the 410, and finally Queen St. in Brampton.

The morning drive isn’t so bad – about 30 to 40 minutes – but in the afternoon, Mathews is on the road for at least an hour and 10 minutes, almost triple the time it would take to make the 40 km drive in normal traffic.

“In the morning, the commute is boring, repetitive, slow, mind-numbing, but I don’t find it frustrating, because I’ve just gotten used to it,” said Mathews, who has lived in Oakville since 2001 with his wife and two sons, aged 15 and 8.

“In the evening, I have the radio, I have blue tooth, so I can have a business conversation. I try to make the drive as productive as possible.”

Mathews, who also coaches hockey in his dwindling spare time, said he aims to leave work no later than 5 p.m. so that he can be home before son Luke’s 8 p.m. bedtime.

“There’s no question that the time I spend in traffic has an impact on the time I spend with my family,” he said.

But Mathews admits his options to make the drive easier are limited. His family has no intention to move, and Mathews loves his job in Brampton.

There are of course some things that Mathews said could be improved in terms of transportation infrastructure, but he isn’t holding out much hope. They include keeping trucks out of the left lane, more frequent GO Train service and a comprehensive study looking at the usefulness of High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.

So for the foreseeable future, he will continue to drive his relatively fuel-efficient BMW 1 Series to Brampton every day, at a cost of about $75 in gas, plus the occasional fee for taking the 407, which he calls “prohibitively expensive.”

“(Sitting in traffic) is a car killer, and there’s a significant cost to that,” he said. “But also, sitting on your rear end for 40 hours a month in traffic is just not good for your health.”

Dennise Campbell, 48, Oshawa to Toronto

In recent years, Dennise Campbell has been leaving her house in Oshawa earlier and earlier to make it to work in Scarborough.

Campbell works in IT for one of the big banks, and is usually on the road by 5:30 a.m. in the hopes of beating the traffic.

“But it doesn’t work,” she said. “I get on the 401 at Harmony Road, which is the easternmost exit in Oshawa, and usually traffic has already stopped by the next exit…Because I live close to the 401, you’re kind of hostage to the 401. There really isn’t an alternative.”

Campbell has lived in the Oshawa area all her life, where the housing is much more affordable than closer to her workplace, and has been working in Scarborough since 1993. When she first started her job, she said the near 48 km-drive was easily about 35 minutes each way.

But now, it can take that much time just to navigate through Scarborough traffic to get up to the 401 from her job in the Birchmount Road and Eglinton Avenue area, making the drive home as long as three hours sometimes.

The GO Train isn’t an option because Campbell needs train service with a more flexible schedule. She has three children at home, two of whom are still in school and busy with extracurricular activities. None of them is awake when their mother leaves in the morning.

“Luckily, my mom helps me out by taking them to school. If I didn’t have that, I’d be really in trouble,” she said.

She said while she’s fortunate she doesn’t need to be at work for a certain time, the drive is nonetheless very stressful.

“I don’t let it bother me,” she said. “I put the music on and I shake my head some times, wondering how some people get their driver’s licenses.”

Campbell drives her mother’s Chevy Cobalt during the week, which is easier on gas. She estimates she spends about $50 to $60 a week on gasoline, about half of what she believes she’d be paying if she took her own car, a Chevy Traverse.

She said she would like to see better alternatives to the 401 other than the 407, which is too far for Campbell’s purposes and expensive.

“They’re doing all of this house building in Oshawa, but none of the infrastructure is being kept up to accommodate all these residents,” she said.

Campbell is very much looking forward to the spring, when her office is set to move a bit closer to the highway, saving Campbell some time on the road.

“But I’ll still have the 401 to contend with.”

A tale of two drivers

Name: Terry Mathews, 54, Finance executive

The commute: 40 km. - Oakville to Brampton

The verdict: Morning trip 30-40 minutes. Afternoon commute 70 minutes or more.

Cost: About $75 in gas a week

Quote: “The time I spend in traffic has an impact on the time I spend with my family.”

Wish list: Trucks out of the left lane, more frequent GO service, proof HOV lanes work.

Name: Dennise Campbell, 48, IT for big bank

The commute: 48 km. - Oshawa to Scarborough

The verdict: On the 401 at 5:30a.m. GO Train not an option. Afternoon drive, once 35 minutes, can now take several hours.

Cost: $50 to $60 a week

Quote: “You’re hostage to the 401. There really isn’t an alternative.”

Wish list: Better options to the 401. Better roads to keep pace with development.
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Friday, November 29, 2013

Traffic congestion in Toronto is a solvable crisis

It’s not true that Toronto traffic congestion has reached the breaking point, even though global surveys have shown that the GTA suffers among the worst vehicle-traffic congestion of any major city in world.

If our gridlock really had reached the point of utter unacceptability, GTA motorists would by now have switched en masse to alternatives: walking, public transit, car pooling, taxis and Zipcars and other rental vehicles for only occasional use.

The reality, as we know too well, is that we continue to clog GTA roads in a metropolis that has long since ceased to have a distinct “rush hour.” And in which some of the most severe rush-hour conditions occur on Sundays, a day of panicked shopping and other chores with the advent of two-income families and widespread Sunday shopping.

The price we pay for traffic congestion, which ranks among our toughest challenges in a town that in many ways is even more “the city that works” than when it first attained that sobriquet in the 1970s, is in some respects incalculable though obviously enormous. Other factors — and I’ll get to them in a moment — are quantifiable.

Traffic congestion exacts a high price in impeding the work of policing, fire, EMS and other emergency services, whose practitioners speak of a “golden hour” — the need to get to the burning building or the heart-attack victim as rapidly as possible.

The police in my 11 District precinct in Toronto’s west end curse a bottleneck on the principal north-south artery of Keele St. that keeps them from reaching an escalating domestic dispute in time to prevent the worst manifestations of spousal abuse. And pollution generated by vehicles loads the air with toxins, a debilitating condition for Torontonians suffering respiratory ailments.

Traffic congestion is thus a public health crisis.

North America long ago adopted a “just-in-time” economy. Which means the lightening-fast delivery of goods and services in order that businesses can be both adequately in stock (people will not return to a store that’s chronically out of stock) and carry an absolute minimum of costly inventory. When a corner grocer, pharmacist or computer-software design studio notices it is running low on pomegranates, painkillers or semiconductors, in the 21st-century economy it must be able to order and receive those goods on a few hours’ notice.

Well, good luck with that when the GTA’s main thoroughfares and side-streets alike are perpetually clogged. Increasingly, businesses defect from the GTA to less-congested locations, and others rule out a Toronto office or factory in the first place.

Traffic congestion is thus a threat to our economic prosperity.

Chronic gridlock adds significantly to commuter times — minutes and hours you’ll never have again, as they say — effectively lengthening the standard eight-hour workday to 10 hours. And plenty of folks will laugh bitterly at that number, reporting that for them it’s more like 12 or more hours.

Time spent in the motionless car or streetcar stalled by a traffic snarl is “dead time.” Its cumulative effect is stress to the point of debilitation, poor morale and absenteeism in the workplace (yet another drag on the GTA economy), and fatigue on returning home that has us collapsing into bed rather than spending time with loved ones, or even preparing a decent meal — which is a therapeutic exercise, as is a healthy walk before bed.

Traffic congestion is thus a quality-of-life issue.

I said earlier that we are able to quantify aspects of this crisis.

Metrolinx, the umbrella group for confronting GTA traffic congestion, estimates the cost of gridlock at a staggering $6 billion in lost productivity alone. Queen’s Park collects close to $1 billion in fuel taxes, vehicle license fees and other levies — funds not available to the municipalities that actually maintain our roads, bridges and public transit.

The cost of keeping a vehicle on the road, apart from the daunting purchase price of the vehicle itself, varies from the roughly $6,000 a year that I pay as a low-use, low-risk motorist (according to the actuarial tables) for fuel, insurance, repairs and maintenance, and parking and licences, to some $13,000 for higher-risk, high-use motorists. That works out to between 12 per cent and 26 per cent of average Canadian pre-tax per capita income.

These costs are a misallocation of our limited social resources that should be spent on more and better health care, education, affordable housing and daycare spaces, culture and recreation facilities and other contributors to higher quality of life.

How did we get here? Our complacent city and Queen’s Park have chronically underinvested in transportation for generations. We stopped adding to our network of 400 superhighways, the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway so long ago that perhaps one-third of GTA residents weren’t alive when those now congested arteries were built. And on rapid transit, which we expanded by 135 kilometres a decade in the 1960s to the 1980s, we’ve added nothing consequential in recent decades.

Fortunately, congestion is a solvable crisis.

“The Big Move,” a $50-billion megaproject overseen by Metrolinx, and the most ambitious urban transportation upgrading of its kind on the continent, is underway. If properly funded beyond the $16 billion allocated so far, The Big Move promises to cut commuting times by one-third; accommodate 50 per cent more people in the GTA with less gridlock than we currently endure by The Big Move’s targeted 2031 completion, despite a projected 56 per cent increase in the GTA’s population over that period; increase rush-hour service by an upgraded GO Rail; provide six times the GTA’s current number of bike lanes and walking and cycling trails; and cut greenhouse gas emissions by a stunning 50 per cent, reducing both “smog days” and the GTA’s complicity in global warming.
Our social customs are changing. Young people, especially, have for several years been opting for alternatives to motorized vehicles, which, if you fall into the highest-risk category of males aged 16 to 34, can mean an annual $4,000 annual insurance bill. And the rise of social networking, by means of text messaging, Skype and so on, makes motorized-vehicle operation even more of a false luxury.

We are also making liberal use of best practices worldwide. Cities similarly afflicted with gridlock are innovating with everything from a hefty tax to buy a car (hyper-congested Singapore); reduction of inner-city parking space (Hamburg, Copenhagen and elsewhere); and restricted hours for vehicle use in selected districts (Bogota, Rome). There are even more futurist notions afoot, such as the European Union’s call for vehicle-free inner cities by mid-century, and the ambition of some governments to design and build car-free cities from scratch.

The twin impediments to solving gridlock are political resistance to upfront investments that pay long-term dividends; and our own clinging to the overrated personal freedom of mobility that a car still represents to so many of us. Even those are melting away, though, especially as young people who haven’t bought into the heavily marketed “car thing,” and are also the most environmentally conscious generation in history, are increasingly running the show in the GTA, immensely for the better.
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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and brother Doug Ford plan comeback on YouTube

After losing their weekly radio talk show, and having lasted only one episode on television, Rob and Doug Ford are planning a comeback on YouTube .

The show will feature talk about local issues and also branch out to world events because it’s expected the mayor’s international notoriety will attract plenty of attention.

“We’ll talk about some issues around the world because it’s going to be a world-wide audience,” Doug Ford told the Star Friday. “We’ll have the Ford lovers and haters around the world viewing it.”

Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly on Friday called the pending show Canada’s version of Keeping Up with the Kardashians , the American reality television series focusing on sisters Kourtney, Kim and Khloe.

While calling Kelly a “good guy” and a “very, very nice man,” Doug Ford said he didn’t agree with the comparison.

“We’ve done a lot more than the Kardashians,” Ford said in a telephone interview. “I’ve never watched the Kardashians but good for them – I’m sure they’re good people – but I just don’t agree with that comment from Norm.”

Ford said YouTube will allow him and his scandal-plagued brother to get their message out as Mayor Ford prepares to run for re-election next year.

Candidates can register as early as Jan. 2 for the Oct. 27, 2014 vote. If the program continues after Ford registers to run again for mayor, the cost of producing it will be reported as a campaign expense, Doug Ford said.

But he doesn’t expect costs to be high.

“With today’s technology, you can get a camera for $300 and get superb quality on it, so I think that’s what we’re going to do.”

The first program will likely be pre-taped, but the Fords will likely have to bring in technical help if they go to a live show like their Sunday afternoon radio program, The City, on Newstalk 1010, he said.

The two-hour weekly radio show, which took calls from the public and politicians, was recently terminated in the midst of the mayor's crack video scandal.

Ford said the talk show format allows the brothers “to get our message out and not have the media put a spin on everything we say. I think it’ll be fun.”

“It’s not going to be a nasty, knock 'em down, drag 'em out. We’re going to take the high road and just talk about what we believe in and the direction the city should be going.”
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Saks sets sights on Yonge-Bloor in Toronto

 It looks like Saks is set to take over the Hudson’s Bay Centre on Bloor St. as its Toronto flagship store.

“We are planning on putting a Saks at Yonge and Bloor, but it is not confirmed at this time,” Hudson’s Bay Company spokesperson Freda Colbourne said in an email Friday.

Richard Baker, HBC’s chairman and CEO, has been scoping out locations for the luxury retailer since announcing a $2.9 billion (U.S.) takeover of Saks Inc. last summer. The deal was finalized three weeks ago.

The U.S. real estate mogul played coy on Black Friday when asked if HBC’s current longtime digs at Yonge and Bloor will be the new Canadian site of the high-end department store.

“While it’s an excellent location, it’s not confirmed,” he told the Star.

“We are definitely planning on rolling out Saks in Canada and we are still debating locations,” he added.

He wouldn’t provide a timeline, but analysts expect it will be soon, given the quickly moving retail landscape in Toronto.

Embattled Sears Canada laid off another 800 staff last Tuesday in the midst of closing down its Eaton Centre store, along with stores in the Yorkdale Shopping Centre, Square One and Sherway Gardens. Liquidation sales are underway leading up to the closures in early 2014.

The new tenant to take over the Sears location that anchors the Eaton Centre – prime real estate near the Queen St. Hudson’s Bay store – remains the subject of much speculation in industry circles.

Meanwhile, U.S. retailer Nordstrom announced it is setting up shop across Canada next fall, starting in Calgary.

“Bloor St. is a really obvious location for Saks since The Bay has never been particularly good there,” said Toronto retail analyst Wendy Evans.

“It will be a draw and a great addition to Bloor St.,” she said.

She added the Saks Fifth Avenue brand in that particular spot would give Holt Renfrew on Bloor St. W. a run for its money. The current Hudson’s Bay outlet is also more than twice the size of Holt’s, at 342,000 square feet.

“They have to come out big because Holt’s has commanded Bloor St. for a long time,” noted Evans.

Saks carries luxury brands such as Hugo Boss, Prada, Giorgio Armani, Chanel and Dolce and Gabbana, which is a perfect fit for the high-fashion destination, she said.

Under the HBC banner are 90 Bay stores, 48 Lord and Taylor stores and 69 Home Outfitters, along with 42 Saks locations across the U.S.

Brookfield Properties, which runs the Hudson’s Bay Centre, declined comment.
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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford could be denied entry to U.S.

Canadian to be turned away at a crossing. The absence of criminal charges, let alone a conviction, doesn’t matter.

U.S. officials declined to discuss the specifics of Ford’s case, citing privacy laws. But they readily addressed the question of whether a hypothetical Canadian citizen would be welcome in the U.S. after speaking publicly about consuming crack cocaine.

In an email exchange, Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer Mike Milne quoted from the controlled substances section of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which says someone is “inadmissible” to the U.S. if he has either been “convicted of” or “admits having committed” a violation of drug laws in the U.S. or elsewhere.

When pressed to clarify, Milne highlighted the words “admits having committed” and “inadmissible” in bright yellow. Translation: the admission of crack use is itself grounds for refusing a foreigner entry.

Lawyers specializing in cross-border legal questions say there are workarounds. Among Ford’s options: he can apply in advance for a “waiver of inadmissibility” from the U.S. to ensure safe passage.

Waiver requests are judged case-by-case and often depend on the reasons for travel. The application fee is $585, and the process can take up to a year.

Ford may test his luck as early as December. He told the Toronto Sun he “definitely” wants to attend the NHL’s Jan. 1 Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., when the Toronto Maple Leafs will face off against the Detroit Red Wings in front of 107,000 fans.

Ford’s chief of staff, Dan Jacobs, and lawyer, Dennis Morris, did not respond to a request to say whether the mayor has applied or will apply for a waiver.

“My advice to Rob Ford would be, ‘Don’t leave town.’ The short version of a long story is yes, he has a border problem,” said lawyer Joel Sandaluk of the Toronto firm Mamann, Sandaluk & Kingwell LLP.

“Even people who flippantly mention to a U.S. customs agent that they smoked a bit of weed in their life can have problems,” Sandaluk said. “And I believe in Ford’s case, he said ‘a lot’ of weed. And then (he) spoke about smoking crack.”

The letter of U.S. law isn’t always applied evenly at the border. Take Justin Trudeau, for example, who made headlines in August after admitting that he smoked marijuana as recently as three years ago. Two months later, he had no difficulties when he travelled south for his first visit to Washington.

But the difference here isn’t just pot versus crack. It’s known versus unknown, immigration lawyers say. Trudeau’s family name may be a familiar one in U.S. political circles, but most Americans wouldn’t be able to pick the current Liberal leader out of a lineup. Rob Ford, on the other hand, is now a globally familiar face to watchers of news and late-night comedy shows alike.

“At this point, Rob Ford is a unique individual,” Sandaluk said. “I tell other clients in a similar situation, clients who haven’t been in the news, that their chances are 50-50.
“If you aren’t questioned specifically, if it doesn’t come up, then it’s ‘Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies’ and you’re in. With Ford, my advice — out of an abundance of caution — would be different.”

Ford has been let into the U.S. repeatedly despite his 1999 conviction in Florida for impaired driving. (He had a marijuana joint with him when he was arrested; a possession charge was dropped.) Impaired driving is not one of the offences for which foreigners are denied entry, according to the CBP website.

Ford has spent time at his family’s condo in Florida during his mayoral term. He has also led business missions to Austin and to Chicago, where his family business has an office. A planned mission to Boston was called off in the wake of the crack scandal, and no other official trips are currently planned for the last year of Ford’s term.

Councillor Michael Thompson, the Ford-appointed chair of the economic development committee, said Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly could represent the city on a future trip Ford was not permitted to make. But he said that “it does pose, obviously, a problem” to have a mayor who may not be able to promote the city.

“Look, even if the U.S. had said the mayor would be allowed, the question would be, would other mayors and other folks stand with our mayor?” Thompson said.
Abby Deshman, direct of the public safety program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said it is “really concerning” that U.S. border officials deny entry to Canadians on the basis of non-conviction information about such things as mental illness and 911 calls. Ford, she said, “has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
But given that Ford has himself admitted to crack use, Deshman added, “It definitely would not be the most concerning case I have seen of non-conviction information being used to infer guilt or innocence of a person. We are more concerned about allegations that are levied by other people.”
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Toronto group wants gay-lesbian sports facility

A Toronto community centre wants to build a sports facility that caters to LGBTQ groups — and it has a thus-far anonymous donor willing to contribute more than $33 million for it.
The 519 Church Street Community Centre is proposing a $100-million sports and recreation centre at the Wheel and Foundry complex site at Eastern Ave. and St. Lawrence St. in the West Don Lands development area.
While LGBTQ-focused, the facility would be open to everyone in the neighbourhood, as its population is set to boom, said Maura Lawless, executive director of the 519, which draws its core funding from the city and fundraisers to cover costs of its programs and services.
“We do know that realistically, across the city of Toronto not every recreation facility and sports centre is accessible and welcoming to the LGBTQ community. There’s no question about that,” said Lawless.

The philanthropist offering up a third of the budget doesn’t want to be named yet, said Lawless.
“The donor was very interested in this particular project because for them, they understood how profound the opportunity to participate in sports and recreation in a welcoming space for LGBTQ people transformed their particular life,” she said.
Under the proposal, which will go to the city’s community development and recreation committee next week, the 519 would raise another third of the costs and request government — municipal, provincial and/or federal — kick in the remainder. Once opened, the city would provide core funding and the 519 would raise money for programs and services.

The 32-hectare former industrial area of West Don Lands is undergoing a major construction effort to build the athletes’ village for the 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games. The proposed building is currently a vacant heritage site owned by the province.
At the end of the Games, the neighbourhood will have 6,000 new housing units with an estimated 11,000 residents.
“This development is driving a need for greater recreation and community space,” according to a city staff report that states that homophobia and transphobia in sports is well-documented.
Shawn Sheridan, chair of OutSport Toronto, knows the experience all too well.
Growing up in Stouffville, about 50 kilometres northeast of Toronto, Sheridan said bullying, teasing and threats started early.
“I may have wanted to play soccer or rugby but it was those same guys who were saying they wanted to beat the crap out of me after school that were on those teams,” said Sheridan.
“I was limited growing up, in terms of where I felt comfortable and safe. So as a kid, I was a loner and I did very little in terms of team sports. My biggest physical activity was riding my bike around town.”
Society has come a long way in accepting diverse sexual orientation but still has a long way to go, said Sheridan.
“There is still an unhealthy machismo in a lot of particularly the male sports that are out there.”
If the proposal passes committee and council, the city would begin negotiations with the province to acquire the site and begin planning the work. It’s believed this would be the first LGBTQ-focused sports centre in Canada.
Construction would begin at the end of 2015 and take about two years to complete.
In a statement, the councillor whose ward the facility would be located in said she was “incredibly excited.”
“The capital funding arrangement is remarkable, with the city providing new, innovative community recreation space at a fraction of the cost,” said Councillor Pam McConnell.
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Rob Ford affair not the only scandal to rock Toronto mayor's office

TORONTO - Let’s see if I can get through a whole column without mentioning Rob Ford.

Oh, damn, did it again.

Hard not to, when the name has 9.88 million hits on Google, Jon Stewart has nightly updates on the guy, and there were even bus tours of RoFo landmarks in Etobicoke this week.

Time to move on to other misdeeds, at least until the next bombshells about what’s-his-name.

For instance, you could do a Mayoral Miscreants Tour without setting foot in Etobicoke or even mentioning whozits.

Sort of an anti-RoFo tour.

Step right up, ladies and gents, for a trip down infamy lane from Muddy York to the Megacity. Who needs thingamabob? Leave the kids at home. Helmets on? Let’s roll.

On your right, the mighty Royal York hotel. Look way up. Suite 1735, on the corner. Allan Lamport’s Roman orgy room. Site of Toronto’s last Scandal of the Century.

There, “Lampy,” mayor in the 1950s, lavishly entertained with bubbly, steaks and cigars at taxpayers’ expense. You can read about it in historian Mark Maloney’s upcoming book on Toronto mayors, as soon as he re-writes the chapter on whatshisface.

Mark says Lampy spent $360,000 in today’s money over two years, unbeknownst to city council.

A chatty chambermaid spilled the beans. A formal inquiry petered out, mostly because Lampy had moved on to the TTC.

“None of anybody’s business,” he said of Suite 1735. “I don’t think any mayor should be called upon to make explanations for his actions.”

Ahhh, the good old days, eh, you-know-who? And you can take heart that Lamport remains one of our all-time most popular mayors.

OK, folks, we’re movin’ on up, to Nathan Phillips Square, a Mecca of mischief.

Notoriously hot-blooded councillor Adam Giambrone’s office canoodling couch is lost to history, but let’s commune with the pigeons and reminisce about the time mayor June Rowlands banned the Barenaked Ladies or David Miller bureaucrats barred Miss Universe, Toronto’s own Natalie Glebova, as a symbol of rampant sexism.

Place gives me the creeps, folks, no matter which regime.

Let’s get the hell out of here. Quick, up to Dundas Square, my ‘hood. Here we are, outside a dark-brick townhouse on Bond St., home to Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. A newspaperman, but even that was not his worst sin.

Little Mac led the Rebellion of 1837 against Toronto’s tax-happy and anti-democratic elite. (Sound familiar?)

OK, up Yonge St. just north of Eglinton. On your left, see that art deco post office? Montgomery’s Tavern once stood there, centre of the rebellion.

Dec. 7, 1837 was a date that will live in infamy, mayorally speaking. Opposing former mayor Mackenzie was loyalist John Powell, who shot a rebel captain in cold blood and tried to snuff Mackenzie, too, but his pistol jammed.

These actions made Powell so popular, he became mayor a month later. (And if murder can be a campaign boost, why not a little crack?)

Even before the uprising, Mackenzie ran afoul of another future mayor, Henry Sherwood, who led a mob that ransacked wee Mac’s newspaper office and hurled his type into the harbour.

And you thought civic politics of 2013 were vicious?

We’ll now deke south and west of Yonge St. and King, the old St. George’s Ward once represented by George Gurnett, Powell’s predecessor as mayor.

Furious George, also a newspaperman, was part of a gang that tarred and feathered a political foe, and not in a good way.

Lucky for today’s council, the practice is passe, else they’d be constantly picking sticky patches of skin off themselves.

A quick wave at Old City Hall, where mayor Sam McBride, in the Roaring Twenties, threw councillors up against walls or smacked them with rolled up documents.

Next, we’ll head west, to Lambton, birthplace of 1920s mayor Thomas Foster. Not so much a reprobate as a cheapskate.

A wealthy landlord, he was his own handyman and made his chauffeur pay for the matches in his car. At city hall, he advocated reimbursing robbery victims rather than wasting money on police.

Foster’s penny-pinching saved taxpayers millions. (Ring any bells?)

OK, look west across the Humber River from Lambton. That’s Etobicoke. Home of so-and-so.

Let’s not go there.
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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Highway robbery: Pirates are costing Ontario drivers billions

As rush hour approaches on Canada’s busiest highway, the forces of the towing industry assemble. Customized Vulcan Intruders and V-8-powered Ratlers rumble into position near the on-ramps, taking up their stations like carrion birds circling above the Serengeti during migration season.

These tow trucks are specialized machines, bristling with radio antennas and hydraulic tail stingers that can whisk a car away in minutes. The drivers tune in to the police frequencies and wait, hoping for a payday that could range anywhere from $150 to five figures, depending on their luck and connections.

For drivers who crash or break down on Highway 401 in Ontario, it can go one of two ways. If lucky, their vehicle will be towed away by a reputable operator who will charge a reasonable amount for the service. If not, they may find themselves plunged into a netherworld of extortionate fees, kickback-laden referrals, and barbed-wire impound lots where their car is held hostage until the bill is paid.

Running through the heart of the country’s biggest city, Highway 401 is the Grand Banks of towing – and sometimes, its Somali coast. According to a provincial task force that investigated insurance fraud, unscrupulous tow truck operators are at the front line of a black-market enterprise that costs Ontario drivers $2 billion each year.

“I think the towing industry is worse than those guys in Somalia,” says Doug Nelson, executive director of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario (PTAO). “At least the pirates let you know what they’re up to. They stick a gun in your face and take your ship and your money. When it comes to towing, you don’t even know you’re getting robbed until you see the bill.”

The provincial task force calculated that fraud adds an estimated $700 to the insurance bill of every driver in the Greater Toronto Area.

“There are responsible companies, and there are flat-out pirates,” says Rick Dubin, vice president, Investigative Services, at the Insurance Bureau of Canada. “It’s luck of the draw.”

Although there are plenty of reputable tow operators, there are also pirates lured to the business by lax regulation and the potential for windfall profits. Drivers can earn commissions of up to 20 per cent on everything from bodywork to legal services to medical care. Some drivers have told the PTAO about doctors offering them a flat fee of $1,000 for bringing in a new patient after an accident.

“There are guys who make $10,000 a call,” says Nelson. “They work the system.”

My first glimpse into the darker recesses of the towing industry came while researching a story on insurance fraud. Among the people I met was a tattooed, 385-pound tow truck driver who showed me the workings of an ugly roadside game that included padded bills, under-the-table payments from paralegals, rehab clinics and body shops.

One trick: Drivers sometimes cross city borders to evade the rules that exist in certain jurisdictions.

“You might get towed out of Toronto by a truck from Richmond Hill, and he takes you to Markham,” says David Zimmer, Ontario Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, who has worked on province-wide legislation that would regulate the towing industry. “So whose rules apply?”

In many cases, the answer is: no one’s. There are 444 municipalities in Ontario, and only a few have rules covering the towing industry. “Anyone can buy a tow truck and start hauling away cars,” says Zimmer. “It’s not a good situation.”

Zimmer introduced two private members bills that would have created standardized province-wide regulations for tow operators. One bill fell by the wayside when the legislature was prorogued, and the other was derailed by an election.

Depending on where they are, a motorist involved in a crash or breakdown may encounter entirely different circumstances. In downtown Toronto, police have contracts with five established towing companies that follow posted rates, with the average cost of a tow and impound about $165. But in a municipality with no rules, all bets are off -- and on the 401, which runs through multiple regions, you are in a legislative no-mans-land.

“It’s a Wild West situation out there on that highway,” says Sgt. John Winter, a police officer who runs Toronto’s towing impound program. “The consumer definitely does not come first.”

There is no shortage of horror stories. Among the cases in Nelson’s files is a woman who was picked up on the 401 after crashing in Whitby, only to have her car towed more than 70 km. After the crash, the woman told the tow truck driver to take her car to a nearby GM dealer. Instead, he towed it to Mississauga, where a body shop paid him for bringing in business. When the woman found out where her car had gone, she ordered the towing company to return the car to the Whitby GM dealer. The company complied, but refused to release the car until it was paid $2,400 for the two-way trip across the GTA.

Then there’s the case of Dennis Ablett, an IT executive whose son and daughter both had minor accidents near their home in Thornhill back in 2010. The accidents happened just days apart, and an odd choreography was repeated at each scene: Ablett arrived to find a damaged car, a distraught child, and a tow truck that had magically appeared, even though no one had called for one.

In both cases, Ablett told the drivers that he was a CAA member and would wait for a tow, because the cost would be covered by his membership. The drivers told Ablett that the scene had to be cleared, so he couldn’t wait. When Ablett asked what it would cost, the drivers told him not to worry, it would be covered by his insurance. Both cars were towed less than 10 km. The bill for one car was $1,400, and included fees for towing, storage, and crossing a municipal boundary (the bill was later reduced to $1,080). The second bill was for $610.

“I had no idea that anyone could try and charge that much for such a simple service,” Ablett says. After seeing the bills, Ablett sent a letter of complaint to Kathleen Wynne, the provincial Minister of Transportation at the time, writing: “I suggest that if such imaginative, inflated and usurious rates were charged in any other area, the police would swoop in and arrest the perpetrators for criminal activity.”

Among those pushing for industry reform are Ontario’s police chiefs and the PTAO, a group of tow operators who believe that the business needs to clean up its act before public outrage leads to draconian legislation.

George Gladish, a former police officer who works as an investigator with the IBC, is amazed at the overcharging and scams he’s uncovered. “Kickbacks have been going on forever,” he says. “They’re built into the game.”

Joey Gagne, owner of Abrams Towing, which operates 150 trucks, is frustrated by the under-handed tactics of the roadside pirates: “It’s hard to get people to come into the industry because of its image,” he says. “That’s unfortunate, because there are good people here. Having a negative experience with a tow operator is no different than having a bad experience at a restaurant. There are bad waiters, and there are bad tow truck operators, too.”

Although the fraud cases drive up the cost of insurance, the most obvious annoyance for the average driver is a lack of consistent pricing, and towing bills that can hit the roof.

While researching the industry for his private-members bills, Zimmer says he saw towing charges that reached $3,000.

“There’s a lot of anger toward the industry,” he says. “And it’s easy to see why. A lot of consumers have been abused.”

Drivers who opt for a freelance tow at an accident scene may face a bewildering array of charges. Although reputable companies follow standardized rate schedules, some operators specialize in bill inflation and fee add-ons. Among the charges you may face: an arrival fee (for showing up on the scene), an inspection fee (for looking your car over before towing it), a hook-up fee (for connecting your car to the truck), a drop charge (for releasing your car), storage fees (for holding your car at the impound lot), and mileage fees (which add cost for distance travelled). There may also be surcharges for using a dolly, for towing a car from a multi-lane highway, and for waiting time.

How to protect yourself from a roadside pirate

Tow truck operators are often the first to arrive at the scene of a crash or breakdown, and an unscrupulous one can take advantage of a disoriented driver. Once your car is hooked up, a driver may try to direct you to companies that pay them referral fees and kickbacks for everything from bodywork to medical care. They may also charge unreasonable fees for towing, storage and other services, and hold your car hostage until you pay. To protect yourself:

    If you crash or break down, call your insurance company’s hotline and ask to be referred to an approved tow operator and service centre.

    Do not allow a tow operator to hook up your car without the approval of your insurance company.

    Join a reputable roadside assistance program such as CAA. In exchange for a fixed annual fee, you will receive several tows as needed (details vary by specific program). Some car manufacturers also offer roadside assistance programs.

    If your car is impounded by a tow operator who is demanding unreasonable fees, you can pay the contested amount to a provincial court, ask the court to release the car, and wait for a ruling.
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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Remaining Rob Ford-Lisi info in police document to be released

TORONTO - A Superior Court judge has ordered all remaining blacked-out information in a police document about Mayor Rob Ford and pal Alexander “Sandro” Lisi be released.

The Toronto Sun and other media launched a court battle last month to try to expose all of the censored portions of a police document known as an information to obtain (ITO) that outlines an investigation into Ford, a video of him appearing to smoke crack cocaine and Lisi.

On Wednesday, Justice Ian Nordheimer released his decision permitting the remaining sections, including wiretap information, to be made public.

But that information won’t be released until at least Dec. 6 at 4:30 p.m., Nordheimer ruled, to give the provincial Crown attorney time to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. As an intervenor, instead of a party, the provincial Crown has to appeal to the Supreme Court instead of the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The investigation by Toronto Police into Ford as Toronto mayor has enormous public interest, Nordheimer noted.

“We are dealing with the actions of the duly elected mayor of the country’s largest city and the extensive investigation undertaken by the police into those actions,” Nordheimer wrote in his decision released. “In terms of legal proceedings, it is hard to conceive of a matter that would be of more importance to the public interest, at this particular point in time, than the one that is presented by this case in the context in which it has unfolded.”

“A result that would preclude public scrutiny for two or more years of the information related to the actions of the mayor, and to those of the police” tips the scales in favour of public interest over secrecy, Nordheimer wrote in his judgment.

Nordheimer said Lisi’s fair trial rights wouldn’t be compromised by the release of these documents. He alluded to the fact that despite considerable publicity, juries could be selected for the trials of schoolgirl killer Paul Bernardo and those accused in the Boxing Day murder of Jane Creba.

Lisi could be facing a jury trial on his extortion charge, alleging he threatened two men believed to have possessed and tried to sell the Ford crack video to media outlets in May.

He’s also facing marijuana trafficking charges as well but these matters will be heard in a judge-alone trial.

“A publication ban on the contents of the ITO cannot be justified. The applicants (media) are therefore entitled to have access to and publish the contents of the ITO edited solely for categories of confidential informant privilege and (police) investigative techniques,” Nordheimer said.

The provincial Crown argued to keep the information police learned in wiretaps censored, but media lawyer Iain MacKinnon stressed the information was in the public interest as it related to Ford and should be released immediately.

Nordheimer declined to give the Crown 30 days to consider an appeal, calling the delay “excessive” and granted them until next Friday for appeal purposes.
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Deputy mayor focused on Toronto island airport expansion

TORONTO - The debate over the expansion of the Toronto Island airport is about to land at executive committee again.

Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly said Tuesday he’s focused on the proposed airport expansion.

Porter Airlines has been pushing to expand the airport and allow jets to use the facility to grow its routes. The issue is expected to come back to executive committee next week.

While Mayor Rob Ford had supported the push, he’s no longer running the committee.

Kelly, the chairman of the executive committee, said he wants to ensure the island airport makes a “significant contribution” to the city’s economy “one way or the other.”

“I think there is merit in (Porter’s plans),” Kelly said. “Let’s just make sure that the merit we perceive in his plans is actually there.”

Kelly met with Porter CEO Bob Deluce at City Hall on Tuesday.

“Sometimes you can get buried in information and what you have to do to advance the file one or the other is to cut to the essential items or issues that are involved in it,” he said. “Otherwise there is an avalanche of data that descends on you.”

Councillor Adam Vaughan wasn’t surprised by Kelly’s openness to the airport expansion.

“Norm Kelly has flown all over the world on the Toronto Port Authority’s dime, he owes them huge,” Vaughan said. “I appreciate that Norm has always been a big airport booster, he’d pave the whole lake if he thought it would help Mr. Deluce, but that’s not the issue.”

Vaughan claimed the expansion would require around $1 billion in infrastructure.

“It doesn’t fit even if you could do it,” he said. “We don’t have the money, we don’t have the land and we don’t have the will.

“He may like jets and read Popular Mechanics a lot, but that doesn’t mean the Ottawa International Airport is going to fit on the Toronto waterfront.”
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That time Toronto had a system of pneumatic mail tubes

toronto tube mailFor Toronto's tireless city hall reporters, filing copy is quicker and easier than ever thanks to the Internet: write directly into a special web application, paste text into an email - both reach editors in seconds.
For the Toronto Star in 1930, however, filing a story from its bureau at Old City Hall took considerably longer. A draft dashed off on a battered Smith Corona typewriter would be handed to a copy boy who would sprint from the press gallery, down Bay Street, and over to the paper's towering art deco headquarters on King West.
Then the paper did something that would change all that; it teamed up with the Toronto Telegram to install a system of pneumatic tubes under Bay Street capable of sucking a sealed canister from the press room of Old City Hall - then home to courts, police headquarters, and the offices of aldermen - to either paper's headquarters in 70 seconds. Sending a reply was just as fast.
It was the first time in North America that newspapers were directly linked with a beat via tube.
paris post pneumatiqueThe system, while novel and exciting for the Star and Telegram, was far from new. Paris' Poste Pneumatique, the most extensive such system in the world at its peak, blasted letters, telegrams, and other physical media through more then 400 kms of pressurized pipes beneath the city's streets. By 1919, it handled around 12 million pieces of mail.
The network was installed on the inside of sewer pipes and linked the city's various sub post offices. To send a piece of mail, a perfumed note to a sweetheart, say, all one had to do was pay the postage and hand it off to the local "tubiste."
The precious cargo would be sealed inside a cylindrical canister and dropped in the end of the correct pneumatic tube. The result was similar to vacuuming something large off a carpet. The pressure of the tubes, generated by a giant central steam plant, would suck the canister at speeds approaching 30 km/h to its destination. Well, most of the time.
As architectural historian Molly Wright Steenson recalls in the excellent 99% Invisible podcast on pneumatic tubes, Paris' tubiste's would fire a gun into a blocked pipe and use the resulting echo to locate an obstruction.
Practically every major city had a similar system. Even Toronto had one.
toronto postal workersIn April 1904, Sir William Mulock, a prominent lawyer, businessman, and postmaster-general, wrote to the Toronto's board of control offering to lay a network of iron tubes connecting the city's post offices with a new central distribution office to be built near Old Union Station, if the federal government could be convinced the chip in the cash.
"Owing to the peculiar local difficulties in securing rapidity of despatch of the Toronto mails between all parts and the Union station, I have come to the conclusion that these difficulties cannot be overcome by vehicles or streetcar service and the only solution, it seems to me, is the Pneumatic Tube System," he wrote, recommending a site behind the customs house on York Street.
Mail would come off trains, be quickly sorted, and delivered to the appropriate sub post office by mail tube where postal workers would be waiting to deliver it, Mayor Thomas Urquhart said.
It was an ambitious plan but one with almost universal support. A company in Glasgow had started making the pipes when, later that year, the great fire of Toronto destroyed a swath of downtown buildings, leaving prime real estate east of Old Union Station on the south side of Front Street up for grabs.
The Grand Trunk Railroad wanted to build a new, larger Union station between York and Bay, which by now was the city's preferred site for its pneumatic mail depot. Canadian Pacific wanted part of the action too, and the three squabbled about who should claim the vacant land. In the end, the railways built the current Union Station and the high-tech pneumatic post office idea faded.
But that wasn't the end of tube mail in Toronto. Eaton's and other large businesses like the Royal York Hotel and the Toronto Star had internal systems, staffed by teams of dedicated operators, for sending paperwork between departments.
toronto mail tubesIn a rare show of co-operation in 1928, Canadian Pacific and Canadian Nation Railways laid what would become the foundation of the Toronto Star and Telegram system by running an elaborate 4,500-metre pneumatic tube network from their respective transmitting offices - at Yonge and Melinda and Bay and Temperance - down Bay to Postal Station A at Union Station. A small spur connected to the mail room at the Royal York Hotel.
Each property had two tubes: one for receiving and another for sending. The Royal York was connected to the CP building, CP and CNR were connected to the station post office but not to each other. Manholes every 300 feet down Bay provided access to the 2 1/4-inch copper tubes - which were laid on a concrete foundation and encased in creosoted wood - in case a canister became stuck.
It took almost a full minute for the eight-inch fibre containers to travel from the 15th floor of the CP building, down to the street, under Bay, to the mail room at Union Station. A special percussive buffer attached to the front of the canister absorbed the shock of delivery. Similar systems were in use in Montreal and Winnipeg, but this small network was the biggest in Canada.
toronto mail tubesTwo years later, the Star and Telegram joined the pneumatic mail system, installing two sets of pipe in parallel down Bay Street. At its extent, the system included 7 properties, though there was no central exchange and most were only connected to one other place.
It's not clear when the pneumatic tubes fell into disuse. The Royal York still has the transparent pipes of its internal system on display but, sadly, its staff have found more convenient (though infinitely less exciting) ways of getting messages through the giant old building.
Of all the properties that were ever connected to the pneumatic mail system, the Royal York, Old City Hall, and Union Station are the only ones still standing. No-one working in any of the buildings knows anything about the old network. Presumably much of it would have been destroyed when the TTC excavated Union subway station under Front Street in 1949.
toronto union stationIn later times, Robarts library opened with a pneumatic tube system, NASA's Houston mission control centre had one, and the devices were briefly in vogue with banks before fully automatic ATMs.
The Bay and Front branch of Royal Bank introduced the first "Television Banking" terminal in 1976. Users would walk up, press a button, and be connected to a teller in a secure part of the building via a closed circuit camera. The transaction would be carried out via pneumatic tube and loudspeaker, with checks and cash dropped into the whooshing pipe. A telephone receiver was available for sensitive matters.
"You don't feel cut off from the customers even though you're only watching them on TV," said Anna Sauve, one of the tellers. One of the first users, 62-year-old Saul Shapiro of Bathurst Street was less than impressed: "big deal," he said when the Star asked him what he thought of the new technology.
Pneumatic banking worked better in the suburbs where drivers could pull up to a special terminal and transact business from their seats. Several of these systems lingered in to the 1980s and beyond.
Amazingly, the biggest system of them all, the underground air mail system in Paris, would last until 1984. In Toronto, tube mail is now largely confined to supermarkets.
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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Remark

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What newsstands used to look like in Toronto

vintage newsstand torontoThe newsstand was once a fixture a busy intersections in Toronto. Loudly branded with the names of the major dailies — Daily Star, Toronto Telegram, The Globe and Mail — the shack-like structures came complete with barking attendants hocking the headlines of the day. There's a certain nostalgia caught up in the image of these huts, be it on account of the vintage advertising and graphics they're adorned with or merely the inevitable realization one has that they were replaced by coin-fed metal boxes, which are themselves likely to be erased from the streetscape in the coming decades. Less an occasion for mourning, it would be fair to say that these photos capture the passage of time with a peculiar force, one that belies their benign imagery.
The photos below date between the 1920s and '40s, though the corner newsstand would last quite a while longer. The arrival of subway entrances/exits reduced the available space at many Yonge Street intersections in the mid 1950s, but the newsstand remained a fixture for at least another decade. There was a newsstand on the southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas until at least 1970 (it's harder to tell at Yonge and Queen from the photos I've consulted), but as the decade pushed on, the remaining holdouts bit the dust, and with them our street corners lost a bit of character and gained a bit of space.
Here's what newsstands used to look like in Toronto.
vintage newsstand torontoYonge and Dundas, 1922
vintage newsstand torontoYonge and Queen, 1922
vintage newsstand torontoKing and Bay, 1931
vintage newsstand torontoBathurst and College, 1937
vintage newsstand torontoBathurst and College, alternate angle
vintage newsstand torontoBroadview and Queen, 1937
vintage newsstand torontoGerrard and Jones, 1937
vintage newsstand torontoSt. Andrew and Spadina, 1938
vintage newsstand torontoYonge and Queen 1940s
vintage newsstand torontoYonge and Queen, 1940s
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