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Spadina extension a costly luxury for the very few

Thursday June 23rd page A16
John Barber

Now that the sideshow is over, it’s time to usher the real York University scandal into the limelight. The real scandal is not how much York received when it sold a chunk of its campus to friendly developer Howard Sokolowski�a sum recently determined to be perfectly reasonable by retired judge Edward Saunders, following his independent review of the transaction. The scandal is what both parties subsequently built on that key site, virtually next door to a planned subway station.

Although it was not his main intention, Mr. Saunders’ thorough report nonetheless documents the real scandal rather well. He reports that York once hoped to earn as much as $100-million from the residential or commercial development of its Southlands, and notes how it gradually lowered its sights, ultimately agreeing to accept a much less ambitious plan for a basic-issue subdivision, plus a few apartments.

As an aside, Mr. Saunders points out that the university’s own planner objected to the emerging plan for suburban tract housing, arguing that “more urbanity and high density was desirable.”

Then strictly by-the-by, he reports how York and Mr. Sokolowski’s company, Tribute Communities, modified their plan to “considerably reduce” the number of apartments they planned to build. And then to eliminate the last one: “Under the current building plans, there are no low-rise apartments,” he writes.

TTC chairman Howard Moscoe puts the scandal in a nutshell: “York had a grandiose secondary plan that called for High-rise development and that was the justification for the subway. Now they’ve responded to the market, built the low-rise development, and still expect the province to kick in the subway. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

It doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean the scheme won’t work. After all, the Spadina line has been a disaster from the beginning, and every extension has only dramatized its failure. The latest station, Downsview, still sits in the middle of a yawning, undeveloped emptiness. The next proposed station, as detailed by the Toronto Transit Authority yesterday, will be located in derelict, always-empty Downsview “Park” before proceeding north toward Finch and Tribute’s “village” at York University. Even before the Spadina line enters the campus it will cost almost $1 billion to take it from nowhere (Downsview Station) to another nowhere (the alleged park) to a barely-there village. Its final destination is a very large parking lot.

The powerful forces of urbanization that smart cities rely on to justify subway construction don’t exist along this line�and wherever they threaten to come into play, even more powerful forces snuff them out. To the detriment of the citizenry, it is politics that designs rapid-transit in Toronto.

There is no doubt that politics currently favours the new line. While York continues to fight bitterly against a new “busway” that would serve its students more than adequately, provincial Finance Minister Greg Sorbara is keen to build the line that will do so much for his own constituents in Vaughan.

The environmental assessment is almost complete; all that’s needed is $1.5-billion to build the line.

The joke is that Mr. Sorbara wants the private sector to help build the line in accordance with a new provincial determination to enlist private capital in all its big infrastructure projects. But what business would invest in a scheme that’s bound to fail?

In cities that work, both private and public enterprise make subways pay by capturing revenue from intensive real-estate development along the line. The “string of peals” visible along the original Yonge line�concentrations of high-rise development at each of the original stations-proves that Toronto once knew what it was doing. Today, however, retrograde politics and short-sighted decision making�a “village” at York, a grotty “park” on an army base crying out for intensification�forecloses that style of revenue-producing growth even before any new lines are built. Like the ill-fated Sheppard line, the Spadina extension will provide luxury service to the very few, at massive expense to the many, ignoring the needs of the city.