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Expo 2015 now fair game

Council allots $1M to explore city bid

Public input will be crucial, mayor says


Toronto City Council has voted overwhelmingly to spend $1 million to explore making a bid to host the Expo 2015 world’s fair.

“What I like about the world’s fair is we have the world in Toronto, and it’s time to show Toronto to the world,” Mayor David Miller said after yesterday’s 32-8 vote.

He promised the initial study — which requires a $1.1 million contribution from the provincial government — will include canvassing public opinion.

Consultants hired by the city have set out a schedule in which council would decide by January whether to enter a bid against such expected competition as Moscow, Buenos Aires, Tehran, Istanbul and Turin.

The Paris-based Bureau Internationale des Expositions is to declare a winner in late 2007.

World’s fairs have greatly benefited host cities in the past, including Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, London and, most recently, Lisbon in 1998, said Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone.

“There they took a waterfront site, the port lands, one of the most contaminated parts of Lisbon, and transformed it into a real active people place where people live and work. It’s truly wonderful,” said Pantalone (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina).

“It would be foolish not to grab this opportunity to rehabilitate brownfield lands and remove the ugly warts on the waterfront. There’s a lot of ugliness out there.”

A preliminary study says a six-month waterfront-based extravaganza could attract 70 million visits and cost $3.6 billion, posting a loss of $645 million. Consultants expect the costs would be offset by income and sales tax revenues from the fair.

Alfred Heller, considered one of the leading international experts on all things Expo, says that cost overruns and post-exhibition debts have been commonplace in most world’s fairs.

“So you have to watch the costs very carefully,” he says.

“On the other hand, there are precious few cities that are not very happy to have hosted them. They have had lasting and positive impacts in most of the cities where they’ve been held.”

Councillor Michael Walker, who was a vocal opponent of Toronto’s failed bid for the 2008 Olympics, is 100 per cent behind an Expo bid.

“I think it will be a roaring success if we package it and promote it the way I know we can,” said Walker (Ward 22, St. Paul’s).

“It’s an opportunity to kick-start the redevelopment of downtown Toronto.”

The consultants selected the central waterfront and Downsview Park as possible sites. They prefer a venue that includes the Cherry St. port lands and island airport, with an underwater transit tube shuttling fair-goers across the harbour.

That would require closing the money-losing airport, a decision that can only be made by the federal government, which isn’t commenting until a formal request is made.

While solidly backing the project, council insisted on some caveats:

  • Forget about filling in the Western Gap to create a land bridge linking the island airport site to the mainland, as the consultants have suggested.

  • Serve notice that after the fair ends, developers can’t put up a slew of high-rise condominiums on the airport site.

Those resolutions, which passed 24-16, helped placate waterfront residents who want the airport closed and turned into a park. “We want sustainable structures on the park which are green and clean and fit in with the community’s vision,” said Dennis Findlay, spokesman for the newly formed residents group, Waterfront Action.

A world’s fair could help in achieving that vision. Many of the events have allowed their hosts to reclaim large tracts of derelict lands, said Heller, who has attended 16 of the internationally sanctioned fairs dating back to the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition of 1939.

Expo 86 in Vancouver, for example, helped that city reclaim large segments of its waterfront, while fairs in Seattle (1962), Spokane (1974) and Lisbon (1998) also knitted run-down areas into the usable urban fabric, Heller said.

Heller, 76, said most also left improved civic infrastructure and increased international prestige that have long outlived the five- to six-month duration of the events.

“They always say about world’s fairs that they lose money,” said Heller, founder of World’s Fair Inc., an independent organization that has published a magazine on Expos.

“But even though (fair) infrastructure does cost a lot, you have to measure the full range of benefits to the city, the region and the nation for that matter.”

Some have created lasting monuments of international importance, such as Vancouver’s Science World dome, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome in Montreal and Paris’s Eiffel Tower. Most world’s fair monuments, however, have traditionally been dismantled soon after the fair ended, said Bruno Giberti, a professor of architecture and world’s fair expert from California Polytechnic State University.

Giberti said the lingering physical footprint of a world’s fair has almost always been a revitalized piece of property, rather than lasting structures.

Montreal, which created an island in the St. Lawrence River to host part of Expo 67, has converted much of the site into tree-lined parkland, says Tourism Montreal spokesman Gilles Bengle.

But Expo 67’s lasting impact has been felt most off-site. Bengle says the rapid development of the Montreal Metro, many of the city’s major hotels and roadways and its international reputation can all be traced back to Expo.

“It changed us from a provincial town to an international, cosmopolitan city for the rest of the world,” he said.

Still, others argue that world’s fairs do not create civic renaissances, but rather are dependent on them for success.

Joseph D’Cruz, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said Expo 67 proved an unmitigated success because Montreal was on the verge of an unprecedented economic and cultural flowering.

D’Cruz said Toronto is currently on the verge of its own cultural and economic resurgence — which will see the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario expansions and the Canadian Opera Company hall open over the next two years — that will be well underway by 2015 and the city would not benefit significantly from hosting an Expo under those circumstances.

Still others, like Giberti, argue that the fairs are pass�, an anachronism in this age of instant global communications and mass tourism. “You have to ask yourself, who really needs a world’s fair when you can look up the world on the Internet?” Giberti says.

But Heller points out that a small Expo in Aichi, near the city of Nagoya, Japan, this year is expecting to host some 15 million people, while Shanghai predicts about 70 million for 2010.