Cities change; government's job is to manage it

November 7, 2012

"Don't let the condos eat my job!" That is the catchy slogan the labour movement has adopted to fight what it sees as a rising threat to the city's manufacturing base from the condo boom.

It cites two examples. In the first, the owners of the Christie cookie plant in south Etobicoke have announced plans to shut down the facility, which provides jobs for more than 550 people. John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, calls it "the act of a ruthless profiteer." He told a news conference on Wednesday that if the land at Park Lawn Road and Lake Shore Boulevard is turned over to condos, making the owners "a windfall of millions of dollars on the back of workers," the whole neighbourhood, indeed the whole city, will suffer.

In the second example, labour has joined with the west-end Nestlé chocolate factory to fight a developer's nearby Sterling Road project that would include townhouses, multistorey residential buildings and commercial space. A company flyer sent around to residents read: "More condos mean fewer good jobs." Nestlé worries that if a wave of new residents move in, it will face complaints from neighbours and might have to refit the facility to meet higher environmental standards.

Concern about lost jobs is understandable, but cities evolve. A few decades ago, much of Toronto was filled with factories – first tanneries and mills, later tractor and chemical plants.

Many of those industries have moved on. The Distillery district has been converted to theatres, bars and restaurants. The site of the old Massey Ferguson farm-equipment complex along King Street West is now lined with townhouses, condos and offices. The Burroughes furniture factory that my father's family ran at Queen and Bathurst now hosts trendy offices, shops and event spaces. Life moves on.

Mr. Cartwright wants Mayor Rob Ford to "fight like hell" for the Christie factory. He wants the provincial government to step in and declare a special interest in the property, in case the Ontario Municipal Board intervenes to allow a condo development even if Toronto City Council denies a rezoning request.

But there is a limit to what governments can, or should, do to mould how economic life in the city develops. True, Toronto has lost much of its old manufacturing base. The city shed 58,300 manufacturing and warehousing jobs in the 2001-2011 period. But as a report to city council last month noted, that loss has been more than offset by growth in office, service and institutional jobs (in hospitals and universities, for example).

A surprising number of plants remain. Think of Redpath Sugar on the waterfront or the Quality Meat Packers abattoir on Wellington near Strachan.

When and if they make plans to move on, government's job isn't to force them to stay. It is to help something good move in to take their place. Toronto is extraordinarily lucky that developers are bidding to build on old industrial lands. In many cities, abandoned factories just sit there for years, blighting the cityscape.

Local city councillors worry that developers will build a thicket of – wait for it – 27 condo towers on the site of the Christie plant. It seems unlikely in the extreme that such a thing will ever take place. In the likelier event that a more modest condo development rises there, it will join a growing new lakeside community south of the Lake Shore, enlivening the neighbourhood and bringing in new commerce for local stores and other businesses.

As for the Sterling Road development, it would revive a neglected area bounded by railway tracks. Many local residents (though not all) think it is a good idea and have been co-operating with the developer to make it an asset to the community, with a mix of employment and residential uses.

"This is not a case of NIMBYism," says Sukhvinder Johl, speaking for the Canadian Autoworkers' Union at Wednesday's news conference. "We are not against responsible intensification. Toronto can only build up." But he insists that you can't build condos on lands that were earmarked for industrial use decades ago.

That is just the point. Toronto was different decades ago. Cities change. Government's job is to manage that change, not stand in its way.

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