Tuesday, May 31, 2011
One of the most famous stories about Roland Caldwell Harris, the longest-serving Toronto works commissioner, is that when he approved the design of the Bloor Viaduct shortly after taking the job in 1912, he insisted on fitting out the bridge with a second platform capable of supporting subway tracks. His foresight would prove enormously useful when the city got around to building the Bloor-Danforth line in the 1960s.
Here’s another example, which I learned this weekend during the Door’s Open tour of the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant. Harris’s initial design for the filtration building (the upper-most structure) was only half its current length. But he made sure the whole operation was scalable, down to the configuration of the pipe fixtures (T-joints instead of elbows) buried deep inside its elegant art-deco walls.
Why? Because Harris knew a growing city’s consumption of water will invariably increase. Indeed, a second wing opened in the 1950s, several years after his death, its construction facilitated -- and made more affordable -- by Harris’ capacity to think ahead.
I think it’s safe to conclude that Rob Ford’s council would never have approved the construction of a water filtration plant decked out in marble and brass, nor that second platform for the viaduct.
In terms of the former, the design would have been assailed by the gravy fighters as too “fancy” and unaffordable for a city in the throes of a devastating depression: `Marble and brass for a water treatment plant! Are you nuts?’
As for the subway platform, the Fordists would have shot down the proposal as a nonsensical waste of taxpayer dollars: `Why,’ they’d ask, ‘should homeowners have to ante up millions for something that may never get built?’
Of course, Harris did encounter precisely that kind of political opposition in his day. But he was a deft and far-sighted bureaucrat who knew how to bring council, the media and the city’s residents around to the recognition that city building is about much more than the next property tax bill (or election).
He understood that urban infrastructure is for the ages.
Harris also grasped that civic infrastructure and high-minded design travel comfortably together through time -- a reminder that the urban experience is as much an aesthetic experience as a social one. He got it. As a reporter for The News observed in a 1914 profile, “He sees all the romance in the development of the city.” “A city,” Harris said in a 1922 speech, “is something into which men put their souls.”
I think the vast majority of Spacing’s readers would readily understand those sentiments, as do the thousands of Torontonians who turn out for events such as Door’s Open, Jane’s Walk, Nuit Blanche, etc., etc.
The concept, however, appears to be lost on this administration -- utterly and totally lost. The brothers Ford see the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Ironically, the relentless elimination of forward-looking city-building expenditure is the antithesis of “respect for taxpayers.” Such cuts leave Toronto poorer in every way, including financially, because delay always leads to higher cost down the road.
How much higher? Consider this: Between 1909 and 1912, a New York consulting team had drawn up plans for a Toronto subway system north along Yonge Street. Voters rejected the proposal in a plebiscite. Subsequent attempts by the Toronto Harbour Commission to revive the concept were met with derision from the mayor of the day, Horatio Hocken, and ultimately led nowhere, except perhaps, to the construction of that second platform on R.C. Harris’ Bloor Viaduct.
The estimated cost of that proposed subway, for the record: $7,708,550. And, no, I didn’t forget any zeros.