Province fires Waterfront Toronto directors
Members turfed after report critical of board’s pace on development
Toronto’s priceless undeveloped Port Lands have a “question mark over them” says the woman fired by Premier Doug Ford’s government as chair of the intergovernmental board overseeing waterfront development.
“There is a risk — Waterfront Toronto has been very careful and deliberate over 15 years of planning on behalf of residents and taxpayers,” said Helen Burstyn, who was told by Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton on Thursday night she and two other board members were turfed.
“It has been a very democratic process and produced excellent results,” she said in a Friday interview. “There’s a question mark going forward. If you accelerate the sale of the land, the way the province sold the Hearn (former generating site), I don’t think that bodes well for the future of the waterfront that we aspire to and that people deserve.”
Burstyn, appointed by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in 2016 and elected chair by the board in 2017, was removed along with fellow provincial appointees Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, and Michael Nobrega, an accountant and former chief executive of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System. Burstyn said McNaughton gave no reason for her dismissal, but she assumes it’s related to a highly critical report by provincial auditor general Bonnie Lysyk released Wednesday.
Lysyk urged the province to “reassess” if it’s appropriate for Waterfront Toronto, a provincial-federal-city agency, to “act on its own” developing a partnership with Google sister company Sidewalk Labs to build a high-tech neighbourhood called Quayside near Queens Quay E. and Parliament St.
Lysyk also accused Waterfront Toronto of moving too slowly to get shoreline land developed.
Burstyn said she and the board accepted the auditor general’s recommendations for improvements moving forward, but disagreed with some of her findings.
She agreed with Lysyk that the Waterfront Toronto structure provides some structural barriers to being effective, but said “over the past 15 years Waterfront Toronto has done an amazing job,” redeveloping over 290 acres of waterfront with projects including Sugar Beach and the Queens Quay redevelopment.
Also, getting three governments to share the cost of $1.25 billion in flood-proofing, including a “renaturalization” of the mouth of the Don River and creation of a new river valley, which will unlocked the Port Lands for hugely valuable development benefiting the city and province, Burstyn added.
The Ford government’s move sets the stage for a shift in the agency that will help determine the fate of Toronto’s eastern waterfront including the sprawling Port Lands, former industrial sites ripe for development. He can now appoint four new members — replacing the three he removed and Julie Di Lorenzo, who quit the board in August — to the 12-member board.
It remains unclear how the replacement of four board members and the auditor general’s findings will affect plans for Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to complete in early 2019 a master plan to build Quayside, subject to approval from both sides as well as the three governments.
Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang said the Man- hattan-based company remains “committed to working with all three levels of government to be responsive to any issues of concern.”
McNaughton said in a statement the auditor general’s report “made it clear that oversight needs strengthening. Specifically, the report stated that Waterfront Toronto failed to properly consult with its overseers. This is unacceptable.
“I was also shocked to learn the board was given one weekend to examine the most important transaction in its history before being asked to approve it,” the minister said, citing reports of projects going over budget. Burstyn said some of the cited overruns exceeded the target budget but were within a board-set range of acceptable costs, and were balanced by other underbudget projects.
McNaughton wouldn’t speculate on any other changes besides new board members.
Ford has declared Ontario is “open for business” and, while a city councillor from 2010 to 2014, pushed for quicker development of the Port Lands, possibly including a mall, casino, hotel and Ferris wheel.
Waterfront Toronto itself controls only a small segment of land including Quayside. Most of the 800-acre Port Lands are owned by the City of Toronto. Ford and Mayor John Tory met behind closed doors Thursday, and waterfront development was one of the topics they discussed.
Tory told reporters Friday that Ford gave him advance notice of the board firings but assured the mayor the Progressive Conservative government has no plans to “blow up” the waterfront corporation or try to grab control of city property in the Port Lands.
“He said to me that we’re go- ing to make changes to the board, they had some concerns about different aspects to things the waterfront corporation was doing, but there was no plan that accompanied making changes to the board that would constitute anything that would imperil the waterfront corporation. I take him at his word on that,” Tory said.
When reporters noted Ford decided to unilaterally cut the size of city council in midelection with no formal consultation or notice, Tory said he warned Ford if he tries anything similar with the waterfront, “he would have a big problem with me on that and I think with the whole of the city of Toronto and the city council. He indicated that was not something that was in the cards.”
Provincially owned Ontario Power Generation recently sold the 16-hectare former Hearn coal-burning plant on Unwin Ave. on Lake Ontario to a private company for $16 million, without notifying the City of Toronto or Waterfront Toronto even though the site figures in Port Lands plans.
Seven Waterfront Toronto board members remain. Three are City of Toronto citizen appointees, with a fourth city representative, a city councillor, soon to be named. Four are federal appointees. Burstyn’s term on the board was to expire in February.
Di Lorenzo, the prominent Toronto developer who resigned from the Waterfront Toronto board in July over the Sidewalk Labs partnership, said the fired board members are “good people” in “extraordinary” circumstances.
She said the auditor general’s report shone much-needed light on the agency’s work with the urban innovation firm.
Helen Burstyn said the Waterfront Toronto board accepted the auditor general’s recommendations for improvements moving forward, but disagreed with some of her findings.