Sunday, August 29, 2010

Topic: Toronto is Not a Waterfront City and That’s Ok, Discuss

File this under blunt observations.

So Toronto City Council endorsed Waterfront Toronto’s latest land development this past week, a project known as Bayside. Bayside, located just east of the New Sherbourn Common park, is an $800 million residential, commercial and retail development that will include 1,700 condo units and space for almost 2,400 workers (if of course we can find them in what appears to be a double dip recession). $10 bucks there will also be at least one Starbucks. Any takers?

The entire development will be centered along a newish main street: Bonnycastle Street, which for some reason reminds me of pirates, although I’m not sure why. Bayside is currently the single largest land parcel that Waterfront Toronto has tendered, so far. The 10 acre project is dwarfed by Waterfront Toronto’s grandiose vision for the entire waterfront, which encompasses almost 2,00 acres and is projected to cost around $12 billion, approximate to the nearest billion (or two).

So I actually like the plans for Bayside. The drawings look nice and the rendered people look happy shopping along Bonnycastle Street. Plus I’m secretly hoping that the gay village moves to Bonnycastle Street because the name sounds kind of gay and we can call it Bornercastle.

[Also - I zeroed in on the rendering, but is that Bob Rae on the second floor smirking? Anyone think he’s planning a takeover of the Liberal Party of Canada circa 2014?]

But what I find most amusing about the saga of Bonnycastle Street, Bayside and Waterfront Toronto is how Torontonians become so weirdly passionate about our lack of a pedestrian friendly waterfront. Unlike other issues that wax and wane waterfront paranoia has been pretty constant. Here’s a fun game at your next dinner party; mention Toronto’s waterfront. Chances are at least 5 people will say: “It’s a disgrace.”

As my father is apt to note: “They’ve been talking about fixing up the waterfront since I moved here in the seventies; it still looks like shit.”
Most Torontonians are apoplectic about our shitty waterfront. And various levels of government have been trying to fix it up since the 1970’s when the Federal Liberals threw Toronto a bit of pork called the Harbourfront Centre in order to ensure election victory (classic). Brian Mulroney actually called a Royal Commission on the state of the Toronto waterfront at some point during his later years in office; because nothing says “let’s get things done” like a Royal Commission. Current Waterfront redevelopment began in 1999 when Mel Lastman, JC and Mike Harris announced the creation of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Taskforce, now known as Waterfront Toronto. Still the Waterfront is a mixed bag that Torontonians love to debate and bemoan.

This is where it gets awkward, I think. As Torontonians we need to accept the fact that Toronto is and will never be a waterfront city. Our waterfront obsession is weird and we need to move on.

Why is Toronto a fake waterfront city? Look at its history of urban development as a centre of manufacturing and services. When former Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe laid out Yonge Street and Dundas Street as his two primary military roads, he created a central spine for the city that ran perpendicular to the lake. Yonge street didn’t even go as far as Lake Ontario, when it was laid out, in the late seventeen hundreds, Yonge ended at Bloor. It wasn’t extended south of Queen Street until after 1812. Initially a connector road linked up the muddy city of York to Yonge Street. Eventually Yonge would become the City of Toronto’s main drag and urban development mirrored traffic patterns, which by then weren’t so much about the lake but about Yonge Street. Because Toronto’s main streets were built with zero relationship to the lake as the city grew and developed around these arteries Toronto moved further and further away from being a lake-side city.

Toronto’s poor relationship with Lake Ontario is not because of the Gardiner Expressway or the rail lands, which many presume cut us off from our beloved waterfront, rather its historical.

Unlike Paris, which has grown up along the Seine, or other port city’s that are invariably connected to their water; Toronto actually grew up a couple kilometer’s north of the lake. The building on the Bloor subway cemented the fact that Toronto was no longer a lake-front city.

That being said, however, Toronto has been shaped by its natural environment. Just as Vancouver is shaped by False Creek and mountains, Toronto has had to bend to nature. However, in our case, nature isn’t our lakeside its our inland valleys.

And yet for some reason Torontonians are frantic about our waterfront, or lack there of.  Its another thing on the list of things that supposedly have to get down before our city can officially be declared “World Class”.  Toronto is like the girl who has pretty curly hair and desperately wants straight hair. Dear Toronto, not everyone has to have Frank Gerry designed straight hair along their waterfront, know what I mean? Talk to friends when they come back from Chicago and the first thing they’ll talk about is the waterfront; ditto for Barcelona. “Now that’s a city,” they’re likely to say. “A city with a waterfront.” What Harold Hill sold us the bill of goods that we couldn’t be a top-tier city unless we had a beautiful waterfront?

“You Got Trouble Toronto. And that starts with G and that rhymes with T and that stands for Gardiner.” (Stay tuned as I endeavor to re-write the entire lyrics of the Music Man about Toronto and its relationship to the lakefront!)

This is not to say that beautifying our waterfront should not be a priority for both Torontonians, and our elected officials (and by elected officials I’m talking about Mayor and by talking about anyone but Ford). Beautification should be important to us. And god bless any federal monies that actually flow into Toronto.  But a waterfront is not a panacea to Toronto’s ills; it isn’t some sort of steroid injection that will ultimately make Toronto be a better place for all of us.

Sadly our waterfront is a chimera for a city that is still trying to define itself. It is also a sad lament on the fact that in Toronto and in Canada we can talk about city-building initiatives for 40 years and still diddle about. What I find most disappointing about Toronto’s obsession with our waterfront is that Toronto is blessed with a unique geographic feature that you can’t find in most other cities; Toronto isn’t a waterfront city - it’s a ravine city. We may not have the Seine, but we have reams of emerald jewels that connect our disparate parts of urbanity together. It is this geography which has undoubtedly shaped Toronto and it is this topographical feature that we should in fact celebrate, protect and show off.

So just as we’re likely to deplane from our Porter Flight from Chicago and revel about Chicago’s Waterfront, why can’t Chicagonians return to Chicago and extol the virtues of Toronto’s ravines?

As with anything else in this world, Toronto just needs to shake what her mama gave her.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What Do you Do?

In describing how she became a comedienne, Sarah Silverman is fond of questioning: “How exactly do we become what we do? How is he a lawyer? How is she a hooker?” The answer: “As we grow up, we have all of these dysfunctions - they form an individual formula for whatever it is that drives us to be what we are. For comedienne’s, its humiliation... I was raped by a Dr. which is bitter-sweet for a jewish girl.”

So how is it that we become what we do? Or to be philosophical, how is it that what we do becomes who we are? And I guess more importantly what is it that we do exactly, beyond push paper, respond to emails and sign emails with multi-word titles such as: Assistant Manager, so and so Division.

The question of what it is that you do, sadly comes up a lot in life. Sometimes I take issue with it, “I can’t believe so and so asked me that. Does my career define me?” But just as I am quick to judge its usage you’ll probably find me standing awkwardly at a cocktail party and asking a newfound friend the rather boorish: “so what is it that you do exactly?” And worse of all, I am probably prone to judge the answer, “Did you here what so and so does?” Then again we’re all prone to dismissive introductions: meet my friend Josh, he’s a litigation lawyer, or have you met Dan, he works in private equity?

“So what do you do?” may be just the most banal and yet most popular conversation starter out there. While question has become a rather ubiquitous crutch in today’s society it is quite frankly something that our ancestors would have frowned upon our frequent usage of. While hanging out at a friends farm on a rainy sunday I ended up leafing through: Book on Etiquette (published in 1923). Funnily enough the topic of employment rarely comes up, even amongst such chapters such as “how to treat the servants” and “correct napkin placements”. What does come up time and time again in 1920’s etiquette, however, was the importance of Cards. As the book notes: “On a man's business cards the title "Mr." is omitted, the name of his firm, their business, and address, being engraved in the lower left-hand corner.” No need to ask what one does, the Card is always handy, “On entering at a reception, or afternoon tea, one leaves a card in the salver offered by the butler or attendant who opens the door.”

Conclusively the etiquette book declares: “A man appears in society simply as an ordinary individual, to win favor and position by force of his personality, or to lose it thereby.” As the book notes: “honorary titles are omitted. There should be no pretense in regard to social position, as pretense is easy and futile.” How novel of a concept, non?

Of course such social cues were probably related to that fact that in “polite society” people didn’t really work, they uhm went to social gatherings and hung out at society clubs. Those in the chattering classes either had money (family money) or they didn’t. I suspect this wasn’t just 1920’s gilded age excess. Think about it, what does Darcy do in Pride and Prejudice? Homeboy doesn’t have a job. He has rank and family money. You think people are all like, “so Darcy where you working these days?” Bitch, please.

Today of course, such a question comes up again and again in polite society because we spend a significant time doing exactly what we do. If we didn’t work... well, what exactly would we do?

And therein lies the rub. We may let work define us even as we itch to make it not. I was out for dinner a couple of weeks ago which an interesting group of people all of whom bemoaned their lack of time work on charitable endeavors because of their paying job. One sort of facetiously and sort of truthfully admitted that she’d love to be able to concentrate full time on her philanthropy. If only she were independently wealthy... the charities she would start!

I begged to differ. The most interesting people I know are so because they want to ensure that their work does not yet define them. The drive to go beyond work and into the arts, or philanthropy is mutually supportive.

Besides if we didn’t work what would we do? Sit around and judge each other’s business cards?

Taking Care of Business, Everyday; Taking Care of Business, Everyway

Here’s another one of my attempts to re-interpret the business section for the masses.

The biggest news this week on Bay Street and whatever the main street in Saskatoon is (apparently its 1st Street), is the proposal from Australian mining consortium, BHP Billiton Ltd, to takeover Saskatchewan’s largest corporation (and the 8th largest Canadian company by market cap): Potash Corp.

So what did the good folks at Potash Corp do concerned that their company was being undervalued by thieves from down under? The executives at Potash instituted a poison pill in order to stall a takeover.

So I know what most of you are thinking way back in the 1980’s Michael Douglas made that movie about Wall Street (I think it was called Wall Street) and the term poison pill was bandied about so frequently you sort of thought septuagenarian Douglas was actually talking about past due Viagra but were too na├»ve to ask what a poison pill really means… (that’s EXACTLY what you’re thinking right, to a tee?)

To answer said question: Uncle Jono what is a poison pill?

Well if you’re George Smitherman in the 80’s (haay) a poison pill was a party cocktail that probably loosened inhibitions and allowed you to partay into the early morning.

But if you’re in the business world a poison pill is a shareholder reaction to hostile takeovers which attempt to protect current shareholders from having to accept a hostile takeover. In Potash’s case what Potash executives did was amend their ownership structure, so that if any shareholder takes a 20% stake in the company (ie the Russel Crow of the mining world BHP) existing shareholders would get the right to buy a lot more shares at a discounted price, making a takeover prohibitively expensive from BHP’s perspective as suddenly they’re competing with shareholders who can buy shares in the company at a lower price.

But like, that’s all pretty confusing for the lay-person, so let’s break this shit down.

Imagine you’re in grade nine and you’ve just been assigned a group assignment: you and your three besties are to pick one country and do a complete economic, social and political overview of it. You and your posse of girls (let’s call them the Mean Girls) have totally decided that they’re going to work together and everyone is like totally psyched, OMG, about it. Unfortunately, your teacher, Mrs. Fitzhenry, is all like… ya know that weird girl who transferred here from Australia? The girl with the weird accent? Apparently she really wants to join your group and like the thing is… you know that that the weird girl isn’t just going to join your team. She’s totally going to take over your team. It’s not really a merger people. It’s a takeover. She will takeover and suddenly instead of divvying up the work between her house and your house all the work will be done at her house and instead of you doing cool research, she’ll be doing all the cool research, because you know she’s the type of girl who walks around with tonnes of toonies in her pocket and she thinks she knows what is what. When she doesn’t know what is what. Ya know?

So what do you do? You undervalue your own group and tell your teacher that you’ve already completed the assignment.

Poison Pill = Mean Girling.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Queen D is Your New Bestie: Or How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love your Debt.

When you start asking your Starbucks barista for receipts (which according to the hyperbolic Toronto Star are pieces of paper laced with the evil Bisphenol A) you know you’re bordering on an obsessive compulsive disorder. However, asking for receipts becomes necessary when, at 27, you’ve given yourself your first budget and are trying to live within your means, or if that's not possible, at least control outflows. For many 2010 is both the year of Convocation but also the year of fiscal restraint. To quote one recently graduated and recently budget minded friend: I’ve been living like a rockstar for the last three years, its time to pay the piper.

For something we use everyday money is one of those things that most people know scant about. Like where exactly does money come from, beyond an ATM? Such fiscal immaturity is probably tied to the fact that we deal with two very different types of money (and I’m not talking of fiat money versus commodity money). In office environments we bandy around million dollar valuations, and at dinner parties we’re likely to discuss the trillion dollar cost of health care. These amounts of money are so large that the $4 we donate to Starbucks every morning for a latte exists on an entirely different playing field. My boss and I were in deep negotiations for a week over the final $10k of my salary; yet she runs a company that bills in hundreds of millions of dollars.

But the buck (pun!) doesn't just stop with money, it extends to other financial matters as well. I was driving in my car the other day, which is my parents’ old car, with a friend who like the me of two years ago is contemplating going to grad school. Eventually things got more exciting [grad school = boring, lets be honest] as we started to talk about interest rates and debt.

“So a variable interest versus a fixed rate is?” She asked. I had to think back to my macroeconomics class and remember that bank rates come from the fact that commercial banks borrow money from the central bank. Finally my friend admitted, “I can’t believe I’m 25 years old and I barely know common financial terms.” This wasn’t a moment for me to feel intellectually superior. If anyone had asked me the same question six months earlier I would have laughed in your face. I’m pretty sure the last time I talked about interest rates was during Grade 10 math when I learned about compounding interest and used this fun little formula: FV=PV(1+t)^n.

Such financial stupidity may be shocking but it shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m pretty sure that most people my age have become, quite frankly, financially illiterate.

Financial illiteracy amongst my peer group, the Y Generation, or whatever some schtickster social theorist has coined to describe the entitled children of baby boomers, is a product of both micro and macro trends. The micro trend is our own upper-middle class upbringing which allowed for a laissez-faire treatment of consumables.   We went to university in the heady days where money just sort of existed. As long as you were only buying small things, leather purses, ray-bans, iPods, everything was all good. We were truly children of the Alfred E. Neumen, What me worry? school of thought.

As my generation matured, left undergrad and started working we all expected this continued easy access to cash. For a long time dollars flowed. You tell a bank that you’re getting your MBA, JD, or going to medical school and suddenly you can walk out of said bank with a new credit card, line of credit and student loan; its like you’re worth $150k right there. This addiction to credit, however, wasn’t just a product of our profligate baby boomer parents. Everyone was addicted to the same thing. As Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail recently wrote: “What the Western world did in the 1990s was essentially try an experiment: We expanded loose money and easy credit more widely than ever before, allowing even poor people to borrow against future earnings, in hopes that this would create a sustainable improvement in living standards.”

However, as the cliche goes, all good things must come to an end and when world economic order almost collapsed two years ago everything my generation knew about finances, which admittedly was very little, became irrelevant. Shit got real, yo.

Suddenly boomer parents started worrying about their own retirement, world credit markets realized 90% of North Americans were all binge-spenders and coupled with all of this economic madness my friends and I realized that we weren’t only interested in buying latte’s and cashmere sweaters on sale at Club Monaco. We wanted houses, diamond engagement rings, memberships to the Toronto Lawn, oh and cars that weren’t hand me downs from our parents and which came with horribly misogynistic nick-names, like the Clit (Taurus) or the Gash (what’s Red and beaten up all over...). Suddenly debt wasn't just spoken about when people talked about Greece, Ireland and Portugal, they became seminal topics to our existence. Since when did I spent an entire car ride back from Muskoka talking about housing prices?

What we’re seeing now, in terms of the tightening credit market is a direct hit and also a direct affront to our own financial literacy. Suddenly we are living in the age of debt and figuring out how to climb ourselves up on the good debt bandwagon and climb down from the bad debt death train. Which is to say that this that debt at 27 or 28 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact the only reason I actually now save those Starbucks receipts is because I owe the Bank of Nova Scotia money. It is only because I am now cognizant of the fact that I owe money do I now save money. Paradox that..

My advice, is don’t hate the debt hangover, embrace it.

How best to look at debt? Remember the episode of Gossip Girl where Serena was like, I just want a summer with nothing to do and Blair was like, uhm you’ve done nothing all year so basically you’re entire life is like summer. Debt is your Blair Waldorf. And just like Blair, debt can sometimes be annoying, conniving and sometimes you want to tell debt to shut the fuck up, but debt is also the friend who puts you in place and tell you to not buy yet another J. Crew button up shirt.

So whether you like it or not, debt is your new best friend and like OMG to that.

Administering some Biz-n-ass - The Business Section for the Rest of Us...

I thought this could be a recurring feature of how I try and use my bizness skills to explain the Business Section for the Rest of Us.

At one point or another Manulife Financial was one of the largest insurance companies in the world; in fact, after RBC, Manulife was the second largest Canadian corporation on most Forbes' rankings. Internationally Manulife was in the Top 100 Firms according to market capitlization. Dominic D'alessandro, Manulife's former CEO, was Bay Street's Midas Boy. Under Dom's leadership Manulife, unlike most Canadian companies who are happy to sit in Toronto and bask in the ownership protections that our government alots them (caugh caugh Rogers), was pro-active in the international scene, buying major players in the insurance world like Boston based John Hancock.

That was then and well... recently Manulife hasn't been doing so hot. On Friday Manulife announced a quarterly losses of $2.4 billion.

In explaining how Manulife could fall so quickly Globe and Mail columnist Derek DeCloet has blamed the very way that the insurance industry makes money as a prime reason for Manulife's current troubles, "The very structure also makes insurance a dangerous game: in how many other businesses do you get a pile of cash up front for a product you don’t have to deliver for years, decades, perhaps not at all?"

Well Mr. DeCloet I can think of another example actually. In fact for those of you who are having trouble understanding why Manulife is in the crapper, why not think of something much more accessible? Why not think of establishment Toronto retailer: William Ashley's Fine China?

Picture it: you've schlepped down to William Ashley's only to get your friend a wedding gift. There you are, sipping Perrier, eating the free candy that you took from the kitchen tools section, and judging your friends' taste in china thinking, "Jesus this pattern looks like dreck..."

Anyway don't just judge next time this happens to you; use this as a valuable business learning skill.

As often happens when you buy a gift at Ashley's, the Bride or Groom receives a note from Ashley's acknowledging the fact that you have bought them a soup tureen. However, that does not mean that the bride and groom (or groom and groom, or bride and bride) will immediately pick up your gift. In fact I would argue that the average couple doesn't pick up that cake stand for at least two years.

In the interim, the good people of William Ashley have taken your money, and have transferred said money from your visa account into their current account; however,they aren't debiting their current liabilities for at least two years. This means they have mad cash coming in, but have little cash going out.

So what happens when your bride friends wants her stuff? At some point the bride and groom have moved from their rental in Annex to a house they bought at Bathurst and St Clair, or Bloor and Dufferin or Riverdale and realize that they now have space to store all of their ugly china. They to then must schlep down to Bloor Street, drink free perrier and put in a final order for their china. Most of the time this is fine, William Ashley has the necessary quantities of china in stock.

But what happens if two years from now there is some sort of increase in the price of china and William Ashley actually doesn't have 12 place settings of that ugly pattern in stock and they have to buy some to satisfy the bride? Suddenly William Ashley has to order goods at the new world price in order to meet customer demands. Suddenly they're fucked.

And that was what Manulife was doing and that's why Manulife lost $2.4 billion dollars in three months.

And that is the Business Section for the Rest of Us...

Sidenote, coincidence or conspiracy: William Ashley's store is located in Toronto's Manulfie Centre.

Chew on that for a second and get back to me.