In Toronto, political ambition and partisanship get in the way of our ability to unite around anything truly visionary or significant. There is a growing division between suburban and downtown, between wealthy and poor, between drivers and cyclists. But there is also an opportunity to end the division, and it rests in the shared issues that arise as Toronto grows as a city and urbanism reaches out to the suburbs.
It is hard for politicians to step out of the divisive political arena, but compromise is the key to uniting the city, and to compete on the world stage we must have a strong, united city or risk falling behind.
I thought about this when studying the casino proposals for Toronto. The casino issue is working as a wedge to divide our city. It has strong support among the suburban councilors and strong objection from many in the downtown wards. Support is focused on the jobs and income potential the casino complex could bring to the city while objection aligns around the evils of gambling and the harm a casino complex could bring to the surrounding community.
I, for one, don’t support either position. I understand the positive arguments suggested by the pro-casino advocates, but I also worry about the negative aspects pointed out by those in opposition.
Looking closely at the jobs that an entertainment resort and casino might bring to Toronto one might think it fantastic — but the sales pitch around the project sounds a little too good to be true. For example MGM’s proposal is suggesting its entertainment resort and casino on the Exhibition grounds will bring thousands of “high-paying jobs” in the hotel and services industry. But resort casinos in other cities often reduce the price of hotel rooms and meals in order to attract customers into their casino. If a resort casino at the Exhibition grounds did this, it would very likely cannibalize from existing hotels and restaurants in Toronto’s core, drawing customers to the resort for cheaper meals and rooms. This means job loss in the core – which translates more to a shift in job location rather than a large gain in overall jobs. As well the average wages being bandied about in the discussions seem inflated, with suggestions of approximately $60,000 average wage, but the average wage casino workers in Toronto earn closer to $25,000.
While I don’t buy into the casino sales pitch I do see the potential, and the positive impact such huge investment could have on Toronto. But there is also a huge risk that a box-like casino would turn the area into a slum. The only solution is a tight and stringent design plan that recognizes the importance of the surrounding community.
With an issue like the casino it is easy, and almost second nature for some politicians, to jump to partisan positions in order to create the political controversy needed to unite supporters in time for the next election. The lines are being drawn, the insults are starting to fly but now is the time to tread carefully. There are a core group of councilors who are weaving their way carefully through this minefield. They see the political posturing for what it is, and they want to have more insight into the actual casino proposals. It is these Councillors who can and will set the stage for a new approach to city building — they have the opportunity to unite the city through their actions, their words, and their ability to compromise.
Nobody can ignore the huge empty parking lots at Exhibition Place and the need for redevelopment. Investment dollars could turn the space into a hub of activity. Instead of trying to shut the entire project down, we should focus on creating strict design requirements to gain as much as we can from the investment dollars brought to the city, and provide the best possible outcome for all residents in Toronto. The first step is to outline conditions for consensus and I recommend each and every councilor write out the conditions that would allow them to support the huge investment that an “entertainment resort and casino” would bring to our city.
For example would they support a resort casino complex if it had these conditions:
- The resort would be built at Exhibition Place and the first requirement before any buildings go in would be to tunnel Lakeshore Road and create a park and pathways over it from the Exhibition grounds to Ontario Place.
- The land would remain under city ownership with a long-term lease issued to the developer. Exhibition Place is one of the most valuable pieces of property that Toronto owns and ownership of the property must be kept for future generations.
- A height limit of 10 stories on all buildings so that sunlight and views to the lake would not blocked to residents in the Trinity-Spadina area.
- All parking to be built underground.
- Toronto is losing too many historic buildings (100+ years) and the design requirement for the casino resort must be unique and stand out from all other resorts. Each structure built must reflect design features of the Beau Arts style of architecture (Liberty Grand) or the Art Deco Style (Horse building) that were originally built on the Exhibition grounds.
- The resort would have to have mixed use and allow 7% space for artists studios and start-up offices for tech/media at significantly reduced rents to create an arts and innovation hub for the city.
- The casino portion of the resort would not exceed 7% of the entire complex.
- All work (construction) to be done by trades registered in Ontario.
- A community garden with fish pond and greenhouse, producing local food demonstrating cutting-edge green technology, should be part of the resort complex, kept and maintained by the resort.
- Full accessible transportation must be provided around the resort complex and tie into the transit already coming into Exhibition grounds.
- All historically significant buildings must be kept and maintained.
Creating requirements like those above are a small step toward building consensus. There will be councilors from both sides who oppose but it is those willing to enter into the discussion who show their true leadership