Right-of-way dominates mayor's debate

[attach]2421[/attach]A mayoral debate got downright rowdy Friday night at Oakwood Collegiate, where members of the Regal Heights and Corso Italia communities raged over the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way debacle.

Residents and business owners from neighbourhoods along St. Clair packed the school auditorium, hurling questions and cat-calls as mayoral frontrunners George Smitherman, Joe Pantalone and Rob Ford debated transit, the planning process and construction delays.

Jose Perez, chair of the St. Clair West Revitalization Committee and one of the debate organizers set the tone for the hour-long debate when he asked hopefuls to explain how they’ll bring St. Clair back to life after a difficult four years.

A divisive and controversial election issue back in 2006, the St. Clair dedicated streetcar right-of-way is now complete from Yonge Street to Gunns Loop. Businesses and residents along St. Clair, particularly in neighbourhoods west of Bathurst, say they continue to suffer from the fallout of construction overruns and a lack of patron parking.

In the spring, several businesses launched a [url=]$100 million lawsuit[/url] against the city, the province and transit commission seeking compensation for loss of business.

As the debate began, Pantalone admitted that “in hindsight, the St. Clair project was a mistake.”

He took a swipe at Councillor Joe Mihevc, a huge supporter of the St. Clair right-of-way project, saying he probably shouldn’t have listened to Mihevc regarding the plan to build dedicated lanes. Mihevc recently endorsed Smitherman for mayor.

[attach]2422[/attach]Saying he knew the St. Clair right-of-way project would be “a disaster from Day 1”, Ford drew loud applause from the audience when he said he’d build more subways, not streetcars, if elected mayor.

Ford also said he thought business improvement areas should have more say regarding projects in developments in their communities but added it wasn’t appropriate to make BIA membership mandatory.

Smitherman shot back at Ford, saying the councillor was speaking out of both sides of his mouth on his support for BIAs.

“It’s not possible to have optional involvement in business improvement areas, that’s the sad reality of it, and anyone who’s actually studied how a BIA works is going to know that,” Smitherman said.

Asked how they would prevent loss of revenue during construction disruptions like the ones on St. Clair, Roncesvalles Avenue, and the stretch of Bloor Street in Yorkville, Smitherman promised to implement a timetable for capital street projects and issue penalties to the city and contractors should projects experience cost overruns. That money would then be transferred as a rebate to affected businesses.

Calling St. Clair an open wound that needs to be healed, Pantalone said he would encourage more special festivals for the street in order to attract patrons back to the community. That drew a reaction from the crowd, including St. Clair business owner AnnaMaria Buttinelli, who repeatedly shouted at the candidate, “We already tried that.”

In speaking about an integrated transit plan, the trio hopefuls mostly avoided talking specifics about St. Clair, and the debate shifted to bike lanes. Smitherman said the recent decisions regarding bike lanes at council were made at the expense of other modes of transportation, but he still includes lanes in his transportation plan.

Ford said like many in North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke, business owners on St. Clair don’t want bike lanes, and as mayor he would respect each community’s individual needs. Pointing out that cyclist fatalities had recently occurred on Toronto streets, Pantalone made it clear that he would pursue a expansive plan for lanes as the city has an obligation to accommodate cyclists.

After the debate, Buttinelli, the lead plaintiff for class action suit from St. Clair businesses, said she had intended to ask each mayoral hopeful whether they would seek compensation on her behalf, and her vote hinged on their responses.

“It does matter to me, it’s my bread,” she said.

But for business still reeling on St. Clair, that may only be up to the courts now.