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St. Clair Avenue no disaster, councillor asserts

St. Clair Ave. between Bathurst and Dufferin in Toronto, as seen Feb. 9, 2012. The debate about above-ground transit and it's affect on the community rages on at city hall.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Based on the debate at city hall this week, one could assume St. Clair Avenue lies in smoking ruins, its businesses shuttered, its residents fleeing, its local councillor hiding horns beneath his deceptively jaunty newsboy cap.

On Wednesday, one right-wing councillor after another stood in the council chambers to speak against placing light rail lines above ground along Eglinton Avenue for the simple fact that it would be a repeat of the "St. Clair disaster" – a phrase quickly mocked on Twitter.

You wouldn't know anything of a fiasco walking the street on a recent weekday morning – except the Antichrist part; he was there.

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"I've actually been called that, you know," said Councillor Joe Mihevc, during a walk through the fallout zone: "The devil."

Mr. Mihevc can laugh today. With Gandhian patience, the theology PhD waited for his moment to reintroduce the plan known as Transit City, a public transportation vision that relies heavily on above-ground light rail. More than a year after Mayor Rob Ford declared the plan dead, Mr. Mihevc seized his first opportunity on Wednesday, convincing left- and right-leaning councillors to abandon the mayor's subways-or-bust transit scheme in a momentous council vote.

"I was stubborn," he admitted. "But I knew light rail worked. It works here, despite rumours to the contrary."

St. Clair has had streetcars since 1913, but in 2005 council approved the construction of a dedicated right-of-way that ran millions over budget and took three years longer than originally planned. The delay, brought on in part by a court injunction initiated by local businesses, sunk many local shops. When the dust settled, the avenue had fewer lanes, turning a crosstown thoroughfare into a snarled mess.

Mr. Ford leveraged the anger on his way to the mayor's seat, and continued in that vein this week.

"The people of Toronto have spoken loud and clear," he said on the council floor. "They do not want another St. Clair disaster, folks."

The rest of his team echoed the sentiment, prompting Twitter to become populated with such nuggets as "I hear Gordon Lightfoot's writing a sequel to the Canadian Railroad Trilogy about the #StClairDisaster" and "Russia blocks UNSC resolution to send aid to the victims of#StClairDisaster."

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On a Thursday morning, the only disaster was the lunch line at popular local restaurants such as The Stockyards. The streetcars teemed. New businesses shone. The odd boarded-up storefronts were waiting for higher-end rents. And people fumed about the council meeting.

"I found the comment out of council quite offensive," said Susan Littleton, a five-year resident of the area hanging out at Baked on Lauder, one of several new bakeries along St. Clair, with her 18-month old, Sidney. "This is a bustling community, not a fiasco. Thanks to the streetcar we shop here, dine here. We ride it at least two times a day, sometimes just for entertainment."

Several condo buildings are either complete or under construction where the road meets Bathurst Street.

"The demographics, they are perfect," said Murray Goldman, the developer of a complex at 530 St. Clair West. "The neighbourhood has settled. Property values are going up. New families are moving in. There was a fiasco. It took too long. It's over."

Mr. Goldman has been building residences in Toronto since 1956. He's blunt about the faults committed during the right-of-way construction, but says it proved much better for the shops along the street. "Good surface transportation keeps people on the street. Just think if we had a subway here, people would be emerging from subterranean caverns only at given points. I really think much of the shops along Eglinton will suffer by not having surface transit."

A few blocks west, in the Corso Italia neighbourhood, shop owners have been vocal about their displeasure, blaming reduced traffic and fewer parking spots for a drop in business.

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"Business since the streetcar stuff has not been so great," said Claudio Alaimo, whose family has run AC Ranch Cafe near Dufferin Street for 42 years. "They said it would make the area nicer. Not in here."

Mr. Mihevc believes the whole strip will come along eventually. Painted as an area villain by political rivals, everywhere he walked on Thursday he was met with handshakes and statements such as, "Don't let those Fords beat you up," and, "Keep it up."

"The only fiasco here is the way some councillors insist on cutting up this neighbourhood," he said. "Show me the disaster."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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