Build it, jerks!

Thursday’s Globe and Mail will bring another in a recent trend of thin arguments in favour of reasonably debatable development projects, written by Marcus Gee.

In his latest, Gee, who has recently used his column to attack critics of the Bathurst St. Walmart project and the island airport expansion, has turned his sights on anyone who dares ask irritatingly detailed questions about the Mirvish/Gehry project, a set of 3 super-massive towers, complete with a truly Gehry-esque crumple of newspaper at the bottom, proposed for the northeast corner of King and John. The project, which would include an art gallery/tax write-off (something dutifully noted by anyone writing in favour of the project), would, in it’s currently proposed form, require the demolition of a number of heritage buildings, as well as the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Writing with exactly the right level of exasperation, Gee bemoans Toronto’s small-mindedness and nitpicking, the sum of which he describes as “pettifogging”. (One suspects he wrote the entire column just to have a chance to use the word pettifogging, thinking it might make him sound Conrad Black-ish.) Not only does Gee think the City of Toronto is making life too hard for Messrs Mirvish and Gehry, he also tries to convince us that the specific concerns with the project, as raised by Toronto’s planning staff, are frivolous.

Naturally, Gee offers nothing, beyond his gut instinct and his individual notion of common sense, to back up these assertions. Although, that’s not particularly surprising; this is the same Marcus Gee who asserts, straight-faced, that noise and pollution concerns about an airplane that only exists in prototype and which only a small handful of select Torontonians have actually seen or heard, have “faded”.

He continues that logical winning streak in the Mirvish/Gehry column by offering that concerns about public transit in the King and John area, for example, are similarly unfounded. “[T]he King streetcar goes right by”, he says, “and St. Andrew subway station is steps away”. Never mind that the King streetcar is already the city’s busiest surface route, and regularly over capacity. The thing is right outside the front doors of the Gehry towers, so what’s the problem?

Gee’s advice to those who just spent a million dollars on a fancy Frank Gehry condo is, essentially, to get on the streetcar (if you can) and shut up. Or, if that doesn’t work, St. Andrew Station is so close. Of course, the cornerstone of any argument in favour of the development is that it will attract residents who will live and work downtown. In that case, one suspects that the only place residents of the towers are likely to go is away, as quickly as possible, from the sardine can lifestyle into which they’ve bought.

Of all the unsubstantiated gee-golly contentions in the piece, the most galling is the quick and easy manner with which Gee dismisses the concerns raised by Jen Keesmaat, Toronto’s Chief Planner, and the Planning Dept as a whole, whose job it is to look at new developments in a broader context; one that goes beyond “is it cool?”, “did a celebrity architect design it” or “what will the neighbours think”. Gee casts aside both their concerns and their role in city development as the irritations of provincial thinkers and perpetual small-timers. “Get out the way, jerks”, he seems to say, “there’s buildin’ to be done!”

Gee, and those like him, would have us believe that if a project is large enough, with enough obtuse angles, and funded by the right people, that we ought to get out of the way as fast as possible and let it happen. Heaven forbid someone think we’ve stopped reaching for the Holy Grail of silly anointments, that of “World Class City”. This fear-based knee-jerkery isn’t unique to Toronto, as the proliferation of expensive, celebrity-designed buildings will tell you. It is, nonetheless, nonsense.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a city, even ours, asking tough questions about large projects. In fact, the larger the project (*ahem* island airport expansion) the more questions we should ask and the more deliberate should be our decision-making process. Neither is there fault with having and maintaining standards, just as there’s nothing necessarily enlightened or forward-thinking about quickly prostrating oneself or one’s city at the feet of a celebrity architect and his or her rich patron.

The project might be a boon or a boat-anchor; the truly small-minded people are the ones who insult the City and its citizens for taking the appropriate amount of time to figure out which is which.

Read my related post about the loss of the Princess of Wales Theatre here:

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