Cycling Ontario Travels Urban Planning

Brantford’s downtown was the “worst in Canada” – but has it bounced back?

Interior of former Eaton Market Square, 2018

On Labour Day weekend, I paid a visit to Brantford. I brought my bike on GO Transit, taking a train to Aldershot and a bus from there to the Telephone City. I then biked from Brantford to Hamilton on one of Ontario’s best rail trails.

Over a decade ago, Mayor Chris Friel called Brantford “the worst downtown in Canada.” It was not hard to understand why. Colborne Street, Brantford’s main street, was lined with neglected commercial buildings, many with boarded up streetfronts. In the 1990s, many of the plywood hoardings had been decorated with pretend business names and silhouettes of customers, either as an attempt at beautifying the street or recalling the variety of businesses that had once occupied the strip. Only a few stores and restaurants remained open.

4360965559_d1aa044078_o.jpgBoarded up storefront, Colborne Street, 2010

There were several reasons for Downtown Brantford’s decline. In the 1980s, Brantford’s major industries, including the once-mighty Massey-Ferguson, had shut down local operations. Other industries like Cockshutt (later White Farm Equipment) had also departed Brantford. By the early 1990s, the unemployment rate hit 24 per cent.

Cockshutt plant offices in 2004, and the remains in 2018

The city also made some questionable urban renewal decisions. The old open-air marketplace at Colborne and Market Street, along with a whole city block was cleared for Eaton Market Square, which opened in 1986. The city also built a new parking structure to the south, as well as a new office building across the street from the new mall. Like most downtown malls built in Ontario, Eaton Market Square was a commercial failure. Brantford already had two suburban malls — Lyndon Park Mall, anchored by Sears, and Brantford Mall, anchored by the Right House, a Hamilton-based department store, Woolco and Loblaws.

While parking at the suburban malls was free and plentiful, customers had to pay to park downtown, and Eaton’s in the 1980s was too upmarket for a smaller, blue collar city. Brantford’s downtown parking garage, built by the municipality, was to be paid for with parking fees.

Eaton Market Place dropped the Eaton name after its anchor closed, but the mall’s past has since revealed itself

While Eaton Market Square brought in many of the remaining retailers that were left on Colborne Street when the mall opened, as the mall floundered, most major tenants left as soon as their leases were due for renewal. By 1997, when Eaton’s entered bankrupcy and closed the Brantford store, many of the other shops had already closed.

But the mall wasn’t the only thing Brantford officials did to try to revitalize its city centre.

Like Flint, Michigan’s efforts to attract tourists and shoppers downtown coincident with the decline of its manufacturing base (described in Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me), Brantford pursued other projects along with the new mall to revitalize its downtown core. The provincial government planned a new electronic processing centre, but was cancelled by the NDP-led government in the early 1990s due to budget pressures.

Icomm was to be a new telecommunications museum, science centre, and research hub, built on an old industrial site just south of downtown. While the building was completed in the early 1990s, it was left vacant after Bell Canada pulled its funding for the venture. Though city officials hoped for a post secondary educational institution, the Icomm building became a casino. Next to the casino, a commercial plaza, including a supermarket, fast food restaurants and a LCBO store was built, along with free surface parking.

IMG_7676-001.JPGMarket Square

Eventually, Brantford found a viable solution for revitalizing its downtown core. In 1999, Wilfrid Laurier University opened a satellite campus, starting out in the old Carnegie Library sold by the city for $1. By 2002, there were 340 students; today, enrollment is  about 3,000. Laurier now owns dozens of building downtown, including a previously abandoned movie theatre, and even the old old Eaton Market Square building. Hundreds of students live in local residences.

IMG_7664-001The old Carnegie Library, Brantford

Yet, there is still little retail downtown, though there are now several newer restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

It hasn’t been all good news. Nipissing University, based in North Bay, also established a satellite campus in Brantford. In December 2014 it announced that it would be winding down its presence there, including its joint programs with Laurier. The Ministry of Education had capped the number of funded spaces for Bachelor of Education students and reduced funding for the program. The joint programs were one of Brantford-Laurier’s main draws.

4360965043_88fea24940_o.jpgColborne Street, January 2010

Meanwhile Colborne Street continued to languish. In 2010, the city expropriated and demolished the entire south side of the street, including several commercial blocks still occupied. A new joint Laurier-YMCA athletics and recreation facility was built on the site, which will open by the end of the year. Sadly, the new building contributes very little to Brantford’s main street.

IMG_7674-001The architecture of the new YMCA-Laurier athletic building is sterile compared to the old Colborne Street storefronts

At the least, Laurier’s Brantford campus has brought some life back to a moribund downtown core that suffered through misguided urban renewal schemes, a major restructuring of the local economy, competition from suburban retail developments, and urban neglect.

But a satellite post-secondary institution on its own isn’t necessarily a panacea for other suffering downtowns. As Norma Zminkowska pointed out recently in an article for TVO, satellite campuses aren’t necessarily permanent boosts to the local economy. In Barrie and Bracebridge, small campuses were closed for financial reasons. They weren’t able to attract enough students. Small campuses, especially those with fewer than 3500 students, often struggle to attract students and faculty — and scattering programs can weaken the institution. This is a warning worth considering as Laurier plans another satellite campus in Milton and Ryerson plans its second campus in Downtown Brampton.

As an aside, Brantford is an interesting town, and is well-positioned at the junction of three major cycling trails connecting it to Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo to the north, Simcoe and Port Dover to the south, and Hamilton to the east. The Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail is one of Ontario’s best trails, in excellent condition, and a gentle grade climbing the Niagara Escarpment.

Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail

Within Brantford itself, there are several interesting sights. The Bell Telephone building features a statue of Alexander Graham Bell, who resided just outside of town for a number of years. The world’s first long-distance telephone call was made between nearby Paris, Ontario and Brantford in 1876. The area surrounding Victoria Square north of Colborne Street and the mall is reminiscent of a New England town square.

IMG_7649.JPGBell Telephone Building

Brantford was named for Joseph Brant, the anglicized name given to Thayendanegea, the Mohawk leader who allied with the British in the American War of Independence. His community, which previously resided in what is now Upstate New York, was given a large land grant on the Grand River. That land grant shrunk to what is now Six Nations. Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks is one of the oldest buildings in Ontario, built in 1785. It is worth a visit. Nearby, the Woodland Cultural Centre is a museum and art gallery housed in a former residential school. The museum is dedicated to the history and future of the province’s First Nations.

IMG_7727.JPGHer Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks

IMG_7709-001.JPGWoodland Cultural Centre. This building formerly housed the Mohawk Institute, one of many residential schools built as part of Canada’s shameful attempts at eradicating Indigenous heritage. It is now a First Nations museum and art gallery. 


Election Maps Politics Toronto

Mapping the 2018 candidates for Toronto City Council, Bill 5 edition (updated)

Toronto City Council voting on a legal challenge to Bill 5, August 20, 2018

September 21 update: nominations are now closed, and I updated the map. Councillor Cesar Palacio dropped out in Davenport; this practically ensures that fellow incumbent Ana Bailao will be re-elected. There are 19 candidates in Toronto Centre, where popular incumbent Kristyn Wong-Tam is facing former mayoral candidate and provincial minister George Smitherman and appointed councillor Lucy Troisi.

I’ll add a proper update later this weekend.

September 19 update: the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in the province’s favour today, issuing a stay of the September 10 Ontario Superior Court ruling against Bill 5. So with just over a month before election day, October 22, there’s now certainty that the 25 wards imposed by a vindictive Premier Ford will be used.

That puts out a lot of good candidates looking to run in the 47-ward structure. Candidates Dan Fox in North York, and Chris Moise and Ausma Malik downtown, will not run. This is unfortunate and very disappointing.

According to city hall reporter Arianne Robinson, incumbent councillors Paula Fletcher and Mary Fragedakis will run against each other in Toronto-Danforth.

Without the City of Toronto’s online list of candidates live, I haven’t been able to make authoritative updates to the 25-ward map of candidates, but I have been trying to keep up with the news. Once the city’s list is live, I’ll make a definitive update.

September 6 update: Councillor John Filion, who previously announced his retirement from municipal politics, registered to run in Ward 18 – Willowdale in the new 25 ward election. He felt his registration was necessary to prevent a non-progressive candidate from running (possibly David Shiner) and winning against relatively unknown candidates. It’s a terribly unfortunate result of going to 25 wards from 47 — it shuts out many fresh new faces and favours incumbents and other politicians with strong name recognition.

Because of rapid population growth in the North Yonge corridor, Filion’s North York ward was essentially being split into two. Filion had endorsed his executive assistant, Markus O’Brien Fehr for the Ward 28 council seat, and Lily Cheng on Ward 29. If the challenge to Bill 5 is successful, and the 47 wards are restored for the 2018 election, Filion will not run.

In other developments, the first battle between two progressive-leaning incumbents under the 25 ward model has emerged in Ward 12 – Toronto-St. Paul’s. Josh Matlow, an outspoken critic of John Tory’s transit plans, is running against longtime incumbent Joe Mihevc. Matlow is affiliated with the Liberals, while Mihevc is aligned with the NDP.

There are now nine wards in which two sitting councillors are running against each other.

I have updated the 25 ward map below.

Bill 5, the so-called “Better Local Government Act, 2018,” was passed by the Ontario Legislature on August 14. This legislation reduces the number of council seats from the 47 wards approved by City Council to just 25, despite three years of study by independent experts and several rounds of public consultations. Passed in just over two weeks from the Premier Doug Ford’s surprise announcement on July 27 — the same day nominations for city council were scheduled to close — Bill 5 disrupted the municipal election campaign already in progress. Two hundred and ninety-two candidates had registered to run in one of the approved 47 wards.

Bill 5 is vindictive, grossly unfair, and sets a bad precedent for provincial meddling in municipal affairs. It only targets the City of Toronto, which rejected Doug Ford’s late run for mayor in 2014, and delivers a blow to hundreds of candidates that registered to run in good faith. But legally, the City of Toronto must follow the province’s edict and elect only 25 councillors with wards based on the current provincial riding boundaries.

Before Bill 5 was announced, there was an excellent chance for renewal at Toronto City Hall. Councillors Janet Davis, John Filion, and Mary-Margaret McMahon announced their retirements, while Shelley Carroll and Chin Lee resigned to run in the June 2018 provincial election. Councillors Ron Moeser and Pam McConnell died in office, replaced by appointees who promised not to stand for election (though Lucy Trosi later broke this promise). Councillor Josh Colle announced that he, too, was not going to run for re-election, but his father, defeated MPP and former councillor Mike Colle, would run instead. Meanwhile, Justin Di Ciano and David Shiner never registered.

With three new wards, this meant that there were up to thirteen open races without an established incumbent. With only 25 wards, all but two wards are guaranteed to have at least one incumbent running for re-election, and at least ten wards with two incumbents running against each other.

On Monday, August 19, nominations opened for any candidate wishing to run in one of the 25 wards. Nominations will close at 2:00 PM on September 14, just over five weeks before election day on October 22. Council candidates who registered under the 47 ward system or the 25 ward system may also withdraw by that date.

There remains a faint hope that a court case, scheduled to be held on Friday August 31 will delay or overturn the provincial legislation, allowing the planned 47-ward election to go ahead.

I expect that many candidates, especially progressive incumbents and challengers not eager to face off against each other, will wait until then to decide. But sadly, it means that great people like Chris Moise, who registered to run in Ward 25, will withdraw from the race.

I will be maintaining and updating a Google map of the 25 ward races, similar to my 47-ward map. This new map appears below.

As of Tuesday, August 28, there are eight wards in which two incumbents are running against each other. For example in Ward 1, Etobicoke North, Ford ally Vincent Crisanti will be running against Michael Ford, nephew of late mayor Rob Ford and Premier Doug Ford.

But downtown, no incumbent councillors or high-profile candidates have registered under the new boundaries. I suspect they, like many of us, are waiting to find out what will happen on August 31, and that if the 25 wards go ahead, we will lose some promising new choices for city council.

Election Politics Toronto

How do you solve a problem like Mammoliti?

Giorgio Mammoliti, long-time Toronto City Council, is a great poster child for what’s wrong with municipal politics. Arrogant and obnoxous, Councillor Mammoliti has made a name for himself by flouting council rules and election laws, by demeaning his constituents, picking fights with other members of council, and pursuing media attention with crass stunts and outrageous comments. Toronto would be a far better place without him at City Hall. His 23 years in municipal office have made him a convincing argument in favour of term limits, but I don’t agree that it’s the best way of getting rid of troublesome politicians.

Mammoliti has been in municipal office since 1995, when he was elected to North York City Council. Before that, he was elected an MPP for Yorkview as a member of the provincial NDP. He is well-known for his socially conservative views against LGBT rights, social housing, youth recreation, and. In 1994, he voted in opposition to his party in the provincial legislature against allowing same-sex couples spousal insurance benefits.

At city hall, his attention-grabbing antics have made him well-known. In 1999, he ripped off his shirt in front of news cameras to protest a decision permitting a clothing-optional section of beach on the Toronto Islands. In 2014, Mammoliti offensively called Parkdale, a lower-income neighbourhood, a “pedophile district.”

Even though the Jane-Finch area, which is partially represented by Mammoliti, has a high proportion of visible minorities, high rates of poverty and underemployment, and poor transit access, Mammoliti has undermined rather than improved things for the community. He strongly opposes the Finch West LRT project that will provide an improved connection to the subway at Keele Street and Humber College. He has called residents of local community housing developments “cockroaches” in interviews for the Toronto Sun and alt-right Rebel Media. In a recent re-election advertisement, he posed in front of a nearby TCHC development with a sledgehammer in hand; the text of the ad read “saving our community begins with knocking down social housing. You deserve better!”

This week, the Toronto Star reported that Mammoliti missed nearly half of all council votes in 2018, the worst record among all 44 councillors. During the 2014-2018 term, he missed 43.1 percent of all votes.

The Ontario Provincial Police is investigating a failed Toronto Parking Authority land  deal in Ward 7 that Mammoliti had an involvement in. Allegedly, the councillor threatened a senior city staffer to recommend that the sale go ahead in a report to council. Auditors determined that the five acre site at Finch Avenue and Arrow Road was overvalued by $2.63 million. Mammoliti was previously interested in erecting a giant flagpole on that site.

It’s not the first time he’s been under police investigation. In 2013, he held a $5000-a-table fundraiser in Vaughan, despite rules forbidding raising funds outside of election campaigns. Several prominent lobbyists were in attendance at the event, which raised $80,000. In 2014, Council docked him three months’ pay, the strictest penalty available.

The people of northwest Toronto deserve much better than Giorgio Mammoliti. But one solution championed by some political observers — term limits — isn’t the right one, even if it would finally remove such a toxic member of council.

Last month, Spacing’s John Lorinc argued that term limits would be “…the magic bullet reform that would blow open local government to new voices.” While term limits might be an easy way to get rid of Giorgio Mammoliti, it wouldn’t fully solve the incumbency advantage. Instead term limits would remove some of Council’s brightest and hardest working members, without guaranteeing a more diverse council with fresh new voices.

Name recognition does not only come from years of incumbency, it may also come from a famous family name and political connections. Many “new voices” elected to city council when an incumbent chooses not to run for re-election are councillors’ constituency assistants, often given access to contact lists and the organization built up over the years. Or they’re politicians previously elected from other levels of government. Or they’re the sons, daughters, spouses, or in one case, the nephew, of a well-known public figure.

Councillors Josh Colle, Joe Cressy, Stephen Holyday, Mike Layton, and David Shiner are the sons of previous municipal politicians. Councillor Cristin Carmicahel Greb is the daughter of former Conservative MP John Carmichael, Frances Nunziata’s brother John was a Liberal MP in the 1980s and 1990s, and Councillor Michelle Holland is married to former Liberal MPP Lorenzo Berardinetti, and is running for re-election as Michelle Holland-Berardinetti.

And there’s the Ford family.

In September 2014, Rob Ford, citing his poor health, announced that he was no longer running for mayor. His brother Doug, who was at that point councillor for Ward 2, but was not running for re-election,would run for mayor in Rob’s place. Rob and Doug’s nephew, Michael Ford, who was running for councilor, stepped aside for Rob and ran for trustee instead. Michael Ford changed his last name from Stirpe (his father’s surname) in February 2014 to take advantage of the famous Ford name.

After Rob died, Michael Ford ran in the Ward 2 by-election and won by an easy margin. And Doug Ford, taking advantage of the folksy populist image his brother Rob fostered, ran for the leadership of the Ontario PCs and became premier in 2018. Doug Ford’s father, Doug Ford Sr., was an Ontario PC MPP from 1995 to 1999.

On July 25, the week that nominations were scheduled to close (and two days before Premier Doug Ford announced his rushed and vindictive plan to cut council to 25 seats), Councillor Josh Colle (who was first elected in 2010 and served just two terms) announced that he was not going to run for re-election in his North York ward. But his father, Mike Colle, recently defeated as a Liberal MPP, would run instead. Term limits would not have stopped father and son from swapping places every eight or twelve years.

While term limits would prevent a Norm Kelly, Frances Nunziata, or Giorgio Mammoliti from spending decades on council, it would also stop popular and well-regarded representatives such as Joe Mihevc from continuing to serve their communities. Institutional memory would also be lost on Council. Councillors Gord Perks, Paula Fletcher, Michael Thompson, Paul Ainslie, and many others would also be required to leave office this year if a three-term limit were imposed. Gord Perks’ knowledge of council procedure and his defense of the Parkdale neighbourhood would be sorely missed.

Term limits also do not prevent lacklustre candidates from being elected.

In 2014, Cristin Carmichael Greb was elected in Ward 16 with only 17.4% of the vote, a 1.2% margin over her nearest competitor. This was despite the support of John Tory’s campaign. Carmichael Greb has proven to be an ineffective councillor. In Ward 5, Justin Di Ciano has made a name for himself opposing democratic measures such as ranked ballots, new ward boundaries, and supporting a questionable development proposal backed by a firm with which he has close ties. Like Mammoliti, Councillor Di Ciano has found himself under OPP investigation.

I continue to prefer other methods of limiting the power of incumbency. Ranked ballots would be a good first step. In 2014, Ward 12 incumbent Frank Di Giorgio, in office since 2000, won with only 29% of the vote in a four-way race. Ranked ballots could have made a difference there.

I also believe that all adult permanent residents, not just Canadian citizens, should be able to vote in municipal elections. As municipalities have the responsibility for delivering local services, such as police, parks and recreation, roads, transit, libraries, and water and waste services, all residents have a stake in how they are being delivered. Extending the municipal franchise could help community engagement, especially in neighbourhoods poorly represented by indifferent or antagonistic city councillors. In contrast, non-resident property owners are permitted to vote. Council voted to request the province to allow non-citizen voting in 2013, but the province was under no obligation to respond to the city’s request.

I was hoping that in 2018, Giorgio Mammoliti would finally be defeated. TDSB trustee Tiffany Ford is a promising young candidate that had a good shot of defeating him under the new 47-ward model. However, with the 25 ward boundaries imposed by Premier Doug Ford, Mammoliti will be up against more challengers, including fellow incumbent Anthony Perruzza. Perhaps Perruzza or Tiffany Ford will still be able to defeat him.

While term limits sound like a great solution for solving a problem like Mammoliti, they aren’t necessarily a great solution for improving local democracy.