Stepping to Conclusions: The Truth Behind “Stairgate” – Ward 33 E-Blast July 27th

I spent a week up north with my family last week while “Stairgate” held the attention of every media outlet in Toronto, beginning with the Toronto Sun. You might be tired of it, but please indulge me. I need to vent a little.

The infamous Etobicoke Stairgate cover story, demonstrating how newspaper‘s sometimes misinform for maximum effect.

The story of the infamous $65,000 staircase that was instead built for $550 by a local senior citizen, and later removed by City staff because it was unsafe, indicates a troubling return of a certain kind of populist politics. I read some of the commentary of Mr. Astl (the builder), Councillor Di Ciano and Mayor Tory himself. They sounded to me as though they could benefit from some of lessons we’ve learned in Ward 33 through our Participatory Budgeting projects. As you know, most of your successful projects in the last three PB votes have been small-scale park projects, not unlike the famous Tom Riley Park staircase in Etobicoke.

This “Stairgate” controversy is a perfect example of why I often recommend a healthy amount of skepticism when reading tabloid journalism. When the numbers don’t add up, call your Ward 33 team and let us get to the bottom of things.

Here’s the gist of what the papers told you last week:
1. Community gardeners wanted a staircase to their garden in a very specific spot. City Staff priced the project at $65,000 to $150,000 with a 10-month wait time.
2. When the local councillor told the gardeners this, one of them took the matter into his own hands a built the staircase for $550 on city property.
3. City staff got mad at the “non-union built” staircase and removed it.
4. City Staff built their own staircase for $10,000, having been “caught” over-pricing by the news media.

When I returned from my week off on Monday, the Ward 33 team let me know that some of you had called to ask about “Stairgate”. We decided to write a newsletter about it. To catch myself up, I called Richard Ubbens, long-time director of Toronto Parks, to get the straight goods. Turns out there was a whole lot more to “Stairgate” than meets the eye. Those of you who called to ask about it were right to question the facts.

The actual chain of events, in four corresponding points:
1. The local councillor called City staff to ask about the possibility of a garden staircase. Staff who knew the site very well advised that the reason there is no staircase to Tom Riley Park at exactly the spot requested is that there is natural storm runoff erosion there, and very uncertain earth. Safe stairs that would last the required public standard of 30 to 50 years were not recommended by staff, as the erosion issues would result in “unreasonable expense”. Yes, it was City staff themselves who first assessed the cost of a proper job as not being worth the expense.

We would have to dig out the eroded area, re-compact soil, stabilize the ground with poured concrete, and then build the stairs on top, according to City staff. Then it would be necessary to reconstruct the parking lot guardrail, as there is a concrete embedded post right where the staircase would end. Lastly, a small amount of repainting of pavement would be required to remove a parking spot in front of the gateway to the new stairs.

As one Twitter humourist captioned it, “Oh look, stairs!”

The local councillor was told that the rough price tag would be close to the limit of $50K for a City staff executed project, so it would likely be deemed a capital project that would be tendered out to private contractors instead. Staff advised that since the 2017 budget had already been approved, a placeholder with a “very rough upset limit of $65k” could be considered the following year. If a private contractor put in a low bid, the staircase would be delivered for less.

The councillor then asked about Ontario Accessibility requirements. Staff advised that if the councillor wanted a zig-zag wheelchair ramp, he might be talking about stretching across the face of the hill and the cost “might” balloon to $150K. Again, the wheelchair accessibility cost was staff’s “very rough estimate”, but they did not recommend building the ramp in addition to stairs. How many of you recall a certain newspaper finding every opportunity to repeatedly use the phrase “$150K for just eight steps”? In truth, that sum was never suggested for “just eight steps”.

2. Mr. Astl did indeed build a staircase with good intentions. If it was in his own backyard it would be more than adequate. Unfortunately, it did not meet City safety and liability standards for public use, let alone stand the test of time. As Parks Director Ubbens patiently explained it to me, “You might, if you went up north to Algonquin Park, find a staircase like Mr. Astl’s. But in busy urban parks, where the infrastructure sees a lot of use from people of all different ages, sizes and abilities, we have to provide something more solid for thirty years of wear and tear with a minimum of lawsuits”. You may believe that “liability” is a lame excuse, but consider that between the years of 2000 and 2013 the City of Toronto paid out more than $32 million taxpayer dollars in slip and fall claims.

If only civic kindness and good intentions could serve as compensation in a City of Toronto lawsuit, we wouldn’t have to disappoint the wonderful Mr. Astl.

3. City staff took the staircase down for one reason: it was unsafe. It had nothing to do with their union, as some members of the media insinuated. The stair project that staff had estimated so roughly would have been tendered out to a private contractor as advised. Nothing to do with the City’s summer seasonal CUPE 416 parks employees.

4. Ironically, the staircase has ended up being built by union staff, due to all the media fuss and the responses of Mayor Tory and local Councillor Di Ciano. The “Stairgate” project was pronounced urgent, and pushed ahead of all other properly planned work. No time to tender, no time to look for lowest bids. Please know that it will not come in at the new cost of $10k so widely reported in the news. Not included in the $10K are any of the labour costs. Those City workers’ wages are included in the base budget for operating our city’s parks. Any work those labourers have set aside to resolve “Stairgate” will have to be done before the season ends, resulting in yet more staff pay.
The new stairs will be made to last 30 years, and they will be able to withstand any equipment that will be used to do all-weather maintenance on them. The parking lot and existing guardrail will receive the same urgent attention. Oh, and it bears mentioning, a few steps away at the other end of the parking lot, the paved pathway into the park that requires a 60 second walk to get to the community garden will continue to function.

Councillor Di Ciano sits on the infamous stairs in Tom Riley Park and I feel for him and Mr. Astl. But I sit on stairs leading into Henry Farm that have stood for over half a century. They are built on such a solid base that they hold up beautifully and can be repaired and upgraded in stages as time and traffic age them. 

What saddens me most about “Stairgate” is that neither Mayor Tory nor Councillor Di Ciano used the opportunity to tout the next and most accountable steps in our capital project process.

Frequently, projects like the stairs in Tom Riley Park get tendered out and the bids come back well below the original, casual estimates. When that happens, less cash goes out the door, less debt is incurred by the City and our budget is adhered to once again, as it is every year. Pandering to the going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket rhetoric of tabloid columnists was a mistake in my view, and beneath the communications skills of both politicians.

I really thought we had moved on from the populist sensationalism of the previous administration. Looks like we might see a return of it in time for election year. If a media storm erupts and sounds downright crazy over the next year and a half, better contact the office and ask us: “What is really going on?”