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Toronto has potential to be stunning, too

STANDING ON the docks in the city’s neglected port lands east of downtown last Friday, Toronto seemed so beautifully foreign.

Not drop-dead gorgeous like Olympic city Sydney; not yet, not ever. But spectacular just the same, and a city with enormous potential to charm and surprise, even stun the world.

I’ve just spent three weeks in Sydney, Australia, more consumed with how the city and its citizens were affected by the Olympics than with athletic performances at Olympic stadium, out in the suburbs at Homebush Bay.

It’s a magical, romantic city, and especially so when draped in Olympic glory, festooned with flags and banners, and bathed in festive spirit.

But I saw nothing in Sydney that made me question Toronto’s ability to stage the Olympics.

In fact, day in and day out, in a city that feels like Toronto and whose man-built form doesn’t take the breath away like, say, Barcelona’s, one is inclined to think Toronto is sophisticated enough to handle the challenge.

Sydney, for example, has the glorious harbour and a world-class architectural masterpiece in its photogenic opera house. But much of what we saw in Sydney resulted from a $320 million investment from city hall between 1996 and the 2000 Olympics.

The Olympics-inspired preparation was the largest local government capital works program in Australian history - over and above the $2 billion or more the state government spent on Olympic infrastructure.

At its peak, the city was spending more than $10 million a week.

Toronto, of course, is not ready today. But it is closer than a week ago when the very proposed site for the Olympic village and central activities was a largely polluted wasteland with no money earmarked for remediation.

Last Friday, the Prime Minister, the Premier and the Mayor did more than just talk about staging the greatest Olympic Games ever in 2008; they put their money where their mouths are, in the form of $1.5 billion for soil cleanup and infrastructure.

Now, one can be tempted to believe.

Few Torontonians have likely been to the port lands, off Cherry St., and seen the neglected treasure there. Why go to a no-go, inhospitable polluted place?

Fewer still can imagine the spectacular venue this site would provide as a staging ground for the Olympics.

With one or two architectural masterpieces commissioned for this event, the images beamed across the world would be of a Toronto that few, even among locals, can now fathom.

An athlete’s village across the street, the track and field stadium up the road, the aquatic centre nearby, the rowing course filled with canoes and kayaks where ocean tankers now sit.

Some 300,000 people from around the world bustling along the plazas and promenades that are now polluted pools of post-industrial waste and byproducts. And just beyond it, across the shimmering and cleaned-up Lake Ontario, the magnificent skyline of the financial district.

In the popular sport of comparing the attributes of cities, the playing field is not level. Some cities are laid out along mountain ranges, others on coastline. Madrid is landlocked, Barcelona sits on the ocean.

When God laid out the protective harbours and foreshores and inlets that were to form a 1,586 square kilometre conurbation for Sydney’s 4 million people, He must have had something special in mind because He blessed it with unspeakable natural beauty. The Greater Toronto Area, Sydney’s equivalent, can’t match the subtropical climate and the 37 beaches nestled along numerous harbours, bays and coves and offering breathtaking views along the eastern suburbs to Coogee Beach and Bondi, Vaucluse and Botany Bay.

At Cloveley, eight kilometres from the central business district, even the dead have an ocean view from the cemetery. The inmates at the detention centre at Long Bay have views of the Pacific, a testament to the profusion of water vistas.

With those assets, you’d think Sydney needed little or no makeup to beguile the world.

City Hall didn’t take any chances. It provided an unprecedented sprucing up in anticipation of the Games, a complement to the $8 billion worth of private development in the city since 1996. The city provided:

  • A $70 million facelift for the main drag, George St., making it more pedestrian-friendly.
  • Beautification of several civic spaces. They were widened, given benches and kiosks, and transformed to mall-like environments. Martin Place, a popular locale for watching the big-screen telecasts of the Games, received $13 million.
  • $6 million for Chinatown, $2 million for the Spanish quarter and the retail core was showered with $7.5 million.
  • 45,000 square metres of new granite paving throughout the central city, 1,400 new trees on city boulevards, and new signs pointing visitors to attractions.
  • $35 million for a new recital hall. And the first 10 artworks commissioned for the Sydney Sculpture Walk, an permanent outdoor exhibit completed in time for the Olympics.
  • New street furniture comprising 140 benches, 116 bus shelters, 106 payphones, 58 kiosks for newspapers, fruits and flowers, 700 stylized litter bins, 100 recycling bins, automated public toilets etc.
  • Traffic lights upgraded to twice the normal illumination.
  • More than 1,000 smartpoles, designed specifically for the city, that accommodate traffic signals, street lights, pedestrian signals and controls, signs, banners, and surveillance cameras. Grooves in the poles make it more difficult to attach flyers and easier to clean graffiti.
  • New parks and upgrades to existing ones, such as the $6 million spent on Hyde Park to restore monuments and put in new pavement.
  • Flying squads set up to clear graffiti, garbage, even chewing gum from sidewalks, as soon as reported or sighted.

Add to that 100,000 blooming plants in almost 1,000 planter boxes, 930 square metres of floral displays, 1,500 street banners, all strategically placed to be captured by television filming events like the marathon.

The city was one continuous construction zone for four years, but when it emerged for the Olympics, it impressed even local residents.

Some opponents of an Olympics in Toronto would have you believe that Sydney has been an efficient, well-run city for decades and that the city just continued business as usual into the Games.

That sentiment is meant to show that Toronto is so lacking, by comparison, that no amount of preparation could make Toronto ready for the big show.

If that were true, why were Sydneysiders so shocked that their city held up so well and performed so spectacularly well for the world?

A common remark on phone-in shows was how the city looked sparkling, where new gardens had been planted, how the trains were suddenly running on time, how the problems with the airport baggage system miraculously ended days before the crush of visitors, how traffic was less than anticipated, and how citizens won’t tolerate the old ways now that they’ve been shown better.

“I’m absolutely dumbfounded,” a 20-year resident of Sydney told The Star a week into the Olympics.

For example, said Debbie Fong, the transit system that performed almost flawlessly, moving almost 300,000 to and from the Olympic Park in one day, couldn’t possibly be the same that frustrates daily commuters.

“People were predicting chaos, absolute chaos. Lots of my friends left the city to wait it out. Efficient is not a word we would attribute to Sydney,” Fong said.

“It’s dramatic what’s been done here. We walk around with our mouths open. This thing was dreaded. Now, it’s magic.”

That’s what the Olympics accomplish, properly planned and executed as a people event that celebrates sports and arts and excellence, not commercial excess.

Sydney feels a lot like Toronto. A quarter of its residents were born overseas. Its people come from 140 nations and speak 180 languages. Toronto is even more of a United Nations.

If Sydney can do it, what’s to stop Toronto? Our citizens are just as deserving and just as skilled and talented. Already, more than 60,000 Torontonians have signed up to be volunteers should Toronto win the 2008 Olympics.

Every deficit here - from too few rail lines to an underused waterfront, too-few plazas and squares and promenades - can be turned around with the catalyst of an event like the Olympics.

All it takes is vision, money and will.

Royson James’ column usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.