On the evening of June 16, the Pug Awards for architecture were handed out at an event in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s handsome Baillie Court before a large crowd made up of much of the city’s design community, and those interested in design. In conjunction with the awards, a mayoral debate was held to ascertain the views of the six leading contenders concerning their vision for architecture, design and planning in Toronto’s future.

Introduced by former mayor David Crombie, The Globe and Mail architecture columnist John Bentley Mays moderated as candidates answered questions put to them by Gary Switzer of MOD Developments. Participants included Rob Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, Joe Pantalone, Rocco Rossi, George Smitherman, and Sarah Thomson.

David Crombie, Toronto's former "tiny perfect mayor" opens proceedings. Photo by ed007Toronto

The candidates were prompted by a video of Adam Vaughan from the May 5 Pug Talk ‘Space between Buildings’ – A Conversation on Toronto’s Public Realm. In the clip, Councillor Vaughan noted that the next mayor will oversee the hiring of a new chief planner, will commence review of the official plan, and will be subject to the continued influence of dozens of new and ongoing developments. Vaughan argued that, because of its influence on all realms of public and private life, planning and development should be the primary campaign issue.

Drawing on Vaughan’s statement, questioner Switzer included a request for each candidate's vision for urban planning (with the exclusion of transit), changes they would make to the city’s planning approvals process, and whether they were willing to spend money to raise architectural and design standards in the city.

The panel takes a question from Gary Switzer. Photo Ed007Toronto

So where does each candidate stand on these issues? Other than Rob Ford, each of the other five participating mayoral candidates presented their vision for Toronto’s built future, while Ford stuck pretty close to his standard campaign talking points, at one point prompting an exasperated audience member to yell "Answer the question!". With the pending selection of a new chief planner, Rob Ford argued that Gary Wright, the current head of planning, should remain in the position, despite the fact that Wright will be retiring later this year.

In regards to local planning issues, Ford admitted that he and other city councillors have no idea what is happening beyond the reach of their Community Council, and therefore should not have the right to approve (or vote down) those developments at City Council. This statement, however, contradicted an earlier argument that city council should vote on each planning decision and that more time should be given in session for involved groups to state their support or dissent of a development.

Since Councillor Ford stuck to his campaign points, his vision for urban planning for Toronto lacked much substance. Ford's best quote was that he had "made Rexdale look like Rosedale," which prompted a derisive response from the crowd.

Giorgio Mammoliti, unlike the other candidates, spoke directly and exclusively to the developers in the audience, an indication that he was confused about the primary thrust of the evening and the concerns of the majority in attendance. Mammoliti promised to improve the opportunities for developers in Toronto, and to battle bureaucracy and NIMBYism on their behalf. Mammoliti made no bones about his wish to eliminate the bulk of the planning department and its lawyers, which he sees as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Instead, lawyers and planners on developers’ staff would approve plans and completed projects, much as private engineers now assess the structural compliance of new developments. Without the delays inherent in public bureaucracy, Mammoliti argued, he would be able to ensure that development applications are processed within 6 months.

Councillor Mammoliti did advocate for literally bringing in everyone to the table during the development approval process (the city, the developer, hydro, waste management, etc.) to eliminate developers’ need to visit multiple offices and manage competing demands. Throughout the debate he touted his success in coordinating public private partnerships, such as those he has initiated with the Emery Village Business Improvement Area, which he characterized as a $10 billion success story.

While no other candidate argued with Mammoliti’s claim, that number sure raises an eyebrow. With only new area signage and historical markers, improved landscaping, and a proposed (not yet built) 50-story flagpole supported entirely by area businesses to show for their work, one wonders where the rest of the $10 billion commitment is.

Mammoliti advocated for further involvement of BIAs in the planning process, as well as more mixed-income communities like the one currently under development in Regent Park. Mammoliti's bold gestures (such as eliminating the planning department except for a management team) certainly offered a very different approach from all the other candidates, and signaled a major departure from the status quo.

Speaking of keeping things the same, Joe Pantalone primarily argued that Toronto should stay the course. He inferred that the city must be doing something right since there are about 100 construction cranes in the air, many more than would currently be seen in other major cities. He advocated for a pro-active planning department and pro-active chief planner to achieve its goals - once the city decided what its goals are. Pantalone clearly saw opportunities for public private partnerships through offering naming rights in exchange for financial assistance in building city infrastructure (providing Piazza Johnny Lombardi in Little Italy and BMO Field as examples).

John Bentley Mays and panel members listen while Joe Pantalone fields a question. Photo by ed007Toronto

Throughout the debate Rossi, Smitherman and Thomson each suggested that Pantalone was in part responsible for problems with current planning processes, as he has had ample opportunity as councillor and deputy mayor to address these issues.

Of all the candidates, Rocco Rossi spoke in the most detail and with the most confidence on the role of planning in shaping future development in Toronto. With high praise for the neighbourhood involvement model created by Ward 20 Councillor Adam Vaughan and the statement that "planning is the foremost task of City Hall," Rossi advocated for further implementation of Vaughan's archetype in conjunction with rebuilding Toronto’s planning process in the model of New York City where the chief planner reports directly to the mayor.

Rossi would create a more detailed official plan that would first focus on adding density around current and future transit lines, so that the transit would have the ridership to pay for it. (One might surmise that if Rossi had been mayor the unique Giraffe development at High Park would have been approved.)

Another Rossi policy would be that “great design goes to the front of the line”. Proposals that enhanced the public realm or were deemed to represent good architecture or design would move through the approvals process faster than other applications. Finally, Rossi argued that a multi-year budgeting model for operations would better allow the city to prioritize its spending on public works.

George Smitherman also offered high praise for Councillor Adam Vaughan and the work he has done involving all the communities in his ward in the planning process. Smitherman saw planning and economic development to be closely linked, with a pro-active planning board. He wished for more green space and improvements to the public realm. He lamented the costs of going to the OMB for both the city and developers. This process, he argued, wasted resources that could more usefully be allocated to additional planning resources. Planning energy, Smitherman argued, should be invested in the initial stages of a project, and would represent the shared interests of developers, planners and neighbourhoods.

Smitherman left about an hour into the 90-minute debate for another engagement, so he only participated in two of the moderated questions. Smitherman did not speak substantially about his role in the provincial government (and perhaps how as mayor that experience might pay a role in city development). On many points, Rossi and Smitherman seemed to agree.

Sarah Thomson announced her love for the ideals espoused by Jane Jacobs and had a number of well-received initiatives in her Toronto vision. While failing to acknowledge that a Design Review Panel now exists in Toronto, Thomson said she would create a design review board and beautification panel to ensure attractive buildings and public spaces were built in the city. She advocated burying hydro lines, promoting eco-friendly buildings and developments, creating mixed-use spaces, protecting heritage buildings, and embracing local architects.

Thomson argued strongly that good design needs to be formally recognized, and advocated for the establishment of a certification program for well-designed projects that would function much like current LEED certification. She also promoted the idea of portable rental subsidies to promote mixed-income communities. Thomson touted her skills in turning around financially troubled companies and abilities to create a consensus among disparate groups, the latter a skill that would be quite useful in the amalgamated city.

As the debate concluded, a question from the floor asked if each candidate could name their favourite building from the award list and why. John Bentley Mays' otherwise loose moderation came tight as he unfortunately only allowed Rocco Rossi to voice support for one of the Pug nominees. Rossi selected the Harbour Light Salvation Army building for, in his words, its success in adding a combination of social, aesthetic, and economic value to the immediate neighbourhood. As Rossi spoke, Ford and Mammoliti thumbed through the award nominee catalogue, as if they were unfamiliar with the choices.

While each candidate was at times unwilling or unable to explain how they would translate their vision for Toronto into policy, one speaker prior to the debate provided a clear vision for Toronto planning – to great applause. Ray Watts, a Grade 8 student at Jesse Ketchum Public School and one of the winners of the Pug Ed bursaries (based on his re-visioning of Maple Leaf Gardens), proposed a three-pronged platform built on green space, funding for historic sites, and the preservation and integration of heritage building facades in development plans in order to “position Toronto as the young but deeply historical city it is.”

By Tyler Greenleaf and Emily Greenleaf