Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wagering on a Location for a Toronto Casino

iStockphoto, found at the website.
Casino consultations are now underway in Toronto, the first of which was held last Wednesday at City Hall. The reception to the downtown consultation was, overall, negative. I myself enjoyed the consultation, and am trying to see if I can sit down with another planner to discuss what went well/what went wrong. In the meantime, Toronto still needs to figure out if we're getting a casino, and if so, where it will be.

It's the will of council - who may bring their own prejudices to the table - that will ultimately decide whether we get a casino or not. This puts city planning in the odd position where (despite opposition) they must come up with a rationale for choosing one site over another. The consultation is attempting to get feedback on the four potential areas a casino could go, so they in turn can make a recommendation to city council.

Below is a summary of options, listed in what I feel is the "worst" to "best" order for a casino in Toronto. They're accompanied by abstract "ratings" from one to five, based on the following criteria:

1) Transit access: a site with a high rating is easy to get to via public transportation, which in turn reduces car use. A site with a low rating currently is lacking such infrastructure, and is therefore more likely to spur car use.

2) Existing uses: ideally, the casino (and its related uses - restaurants, hotels, etc.) would "fit in" well with the existing context. Places with more compatible existing uses will receive a higher score.
3) Potential: how likely the casino is likely to benefit the neighbourhood - not accounting for social issues. A high score here indicates that there is potential to capitalize on this project.

I will leave other comments below. Like Roger Ebert's ratings, don't put too much thought into a "2/5" versus a "3/5"; I will try and explain myself in each section.

(As a note, I am using the term "casino" to include an "integrated entertainment complex that includes a casino", because I find the difference between the two negligible.)

#5. The Port Lands

Image copyright 2013 the City of Toronto.

The Port Lands - located east of downtown Toronto along the waterfront - is undergoing a slow change from an industrial past to a mixed-use future. Without getting into too many details, the plan is eventually to see a range of new housing in this area. After a bit of fiasco at city hall, council ordered that development in the area be "sped up".

Transit access: 2/5
Existing uses: 3/5
Potential benefit: 2/5

Currently, the transit access to the site is poor. The closest node would be the Queen streetcar, which is still several blocks away from the site. There are plans (although subject to change) to bring some form of rapid transit (potentially a LRT, at least bus rapid-transit), and perhaps a casino could speed that up.

This site offers something close to a blank slate for potential development; unlike other areas, the major conflicts would be with the remaining industrial uses in the area. However, the plan for the area does not envision a major "attraction" such as a casino going in. Councillor Doug Ford was rebuked by council earlier when he advocated putting in a mega-mall and amusement park; it's difficult to believe that somehow a casino would be a more appropriate land use. This site was planned primarily as a place people would want to live; a casino (and accompanying "entertainment complex") seems antithetical to this vision.

The biggest "plus" for this site is that a major entertainment complex would spur investment into the area, particularly infrastructure. With such infrastructure in place, it would be potentially easier to attract new development. That said, the area is not what I would call "well connected" to downtown; I would fear the area becoming something akin to an "island", separated from greater Toronto. Unlike the other sites, everything would have to be built here. Great for investment, potentially poor for residents near Queen who are then sandwiched between the downtown and a casino.

Out of all of the potential locations, I find this one the most disagreeable.While I think all the sites come with positives and negatives, the Port Lands in particular feels too much like cramming a casino into an area because it might be easy - not because it might be worthwhile.

#4. Exhibition Place

Image copyright 2013 the City of Toronto.

Lauded as "Canada's largest entertainment venues", Exhibition Place is home to places such as the Canadian National Exhibition, Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex, and BMO Field. And uh, Medieval Times (if that's your thing). The area is home to a lot of historical buildings.

Transit access: 3/5
Existing uses: 4/5
Potential benefit: 1/5
Unlike the Port Lads, Exhibition Place already has the distinction of being a destination. Unlike other sites, one could potentially fit a casino in without causing much conflicts. The potential for re-purposing a historical building for the casino could also give it a unique feel, helping to better integrate it into the existing context, rather than sticking out like a sore thumb in others.

While there is no access via a subway, there are currently two streetcars (the 509 Harbourfront and 511 Bathurst) that currently run to the area,  and the Harbourfront streetcar connecting into Union station and downtown Toronto. The area also sports a GO Rail stop. There were plans - foggy, uncertain plans - to bring an LRT to the area, but that's a bit of a long shot currently.

The proximity to the Billy Bishop Airport bring both positives (easy access for tourists) and negatives (the airport limits the potential height of new structures). One of the biggest questions for the site is where a casino could go, as the potential space is limited; whereas other sites might "comfortably" fit an entertainment complex somehow, the need for additional parking, and a prior agreement with the city limiting the number of hotels on the space makes Exhibition Place a big question mark in terms of whether a casino could integrate itself with the neighbourhood well.

#3. Woodbine

Image copyright 2013 the City of Toronto.

The Woodbine area, located in the former city of Etobicoke, is the current home of Woodbine Entertainment. It currently hosts a horse track and slot machines. Of the four proposed areas, it is the only one that isn't located in or near downtown Toronto, putting itself closer to Brampton and Mississauga.

Transit access: 1/5
Existing uses: 5/5
Potential benefit: 3/5

Out of all the sites, the Woodbine would undeniably be one of the worst by a public transportation metric. At best, you'll take the Bloor subway all the way east to Islington or Kipling station to take a thirty minute bus-ride north. There is, to my knowledge, no plans to increase transit access to this site, the closest being the proposed Eglington and Finch LRTs, both of which would require a further bus to access. Yep, if you're a tourist you're almost certainly driving.

On the other hand, this is potentially the best spot in Toronto on the basis that there's already a major gambling facility there. One could view a casino as merely an expansion of the existing Ontario Lottery and Gaming facilities. There are already over 3000 slot machines there as it is; if one is making a case for "least harm" from a future casino, that's a compelling place to start.

Depending on how it's integrated, a casino might help the beleaguered Woodbine Racetack, or at least fill some sort of void (however awkwardly) should the racetrack not survive to see a casino built there. Additionally, one must wonder if a casino elsewhere in Toronto wouldn't put a nail in Woodbine Racetrack's coffin (as well as harm the existing OLG operations there). The biggest question however, is whether a casino so far removed from downtown Toronto would be worth it. The estimated difference between a downtown casino and a Woodbine one is a projected $150 million less annual income for the city and 1000-2000 less jobs.

#2. Downtown

Image copyright 2013 the City of Toronto.

What isn't there to say about downtown Toronto? Home to towering buildings, one of the city's major subways, and a bundle of activity and nightlife, the downtown area is a continually evolving mix of new residents and uses.

Transit access: 5/5
Existing uses: 3/5
Potential benefit: 2/5

There is no question that if you want a site that you can get to easily, you can do worse that downtown. With a trio of subway stations (St Andrew, Union, and King), a handful of streetcars, the Union GO station, and future access with the proposed downtown relief line, car use would likely be kept to a minimal at a downtown site.

The biggest obstacle is likely the "new" residential uses here. The local councillor, Adam Vaughan (who would probably hate me for putting his ward so high), has been fighting "inappropriate" uses in the area. I would think a casino would probably lend itself to less overt violence and public mischief than the nightclubs that once were a feature of the area, but certainly, figuring out where to put the casino would undoubtedly require some work.

Potentially there already exists a gaggle of related uses, from restaurants, hotels, and other entertainment venues. But the need to locate it well is probably the most critical factor in figuring out whether a casino could be appropriate here. It could potentially feed into the nightlife amongst the existing office buildings. However, there's already a great deal of variety downtown; the economic benefits to the city aside, I'm doubtful a casino would make downtown Toronto anymore "fun" or "interesting", just potentially "depressing". Certainly not a ringing endorsement for a downtown casino; I see it as the lesser of four evils.

#1. No Casino

I'm not convinced that a casino is really required to make a space a "destination" place. If you want a great city, then let's invest in building one! But let's not jump at the first investment opportunity that comes along, just because it brings a lot of revenue with it. Each of the downtown sites have many attractive qualities that the city can capitalize on, but not all of them are appropriate for large-scale construction, especially when many lack transit infrastructure. Particularly given the land the city owns in the Port Lands and Exhibition Place, it seems more prudent to me to invest in the things we know makes neighbourhoods great.

One of the greatest strengths of Toronto is its ability to show you something new and unexpected, something you won't likely find in a building whose purpose is to suck people into a one-sided conversation between themselves and a slot machine. The great thing about places like Kensington Market and the Toronto Islands is that they don't demand your singular attention. Rather, they encourage you to engage them in the context of the city.

I've written about my thoughts about a Toronto casino before, so I won't repeat myself except to say that there are good and bad reasons to want a casino downtown, but I think the worst argument is that the tax revenues could go towards the general budget. If you want a balanced budget, don't "create" one on the back of a building that will surely cause a rash of social ills. The consultation continues tonight; I'm curious whether there will be the opposition to a casino up in North York as there was at City Hall last Wednesday.

How would you rate a casino in Toronto?