Trish Bongard Godfrey

Don't Gamble with Real Estate Values

21 April 2013
Trish Bongard Godfrey

You can’t see the smile on my face, but if you could, it’s because a few days ago I got my bike out for the first time this year and had a lovely, warm evening ride out to the Humber River. What I love about being on my bike is that it makes me feel like a kid again and leaves me free to explore Toronto neighbourhoods at a nice pace. My favourite for-exercise ride is heading out to the River and down to the boardwalk to my favourite outdoor public pool, Gus Ryder at Sunnyside. As a sailor, I have always used and enjoyed the waterfront, and since becoming a cyclist again, I have a new appreciation for the inner-city green spaces and rivers which can only really be accessed on foot or on a bike. It also makes me understand how critically important it is to have numerous, safe, connected bike lanes and paths all over the city for the benefit of commuters and recreational cyclists.

While out with other cycling-enthusiast clients this past week, I was asked what I thought about the MGM casino proposal. I replied that I object because it is so unimaginative, it uses land that should be “for the common good,” and while gambling is not illegal, that doesn’t mean it is smart or healthy. It certainly doesn’t help us become better, happier people or citizens. It is fun to go to a casino, somewhere else; but here, there’ll be no glamorous 007 moments with Daniel Craig buying drinks at the bar and shooting sexy long glances at granny in her Depends at an MGM development in Toronto. Let’s face it, North American casino cities are pretty seedy, and we all know it intuitively.

While Rob Ford struggles under the weight of his commitment to this project, I am concerned about what this proposal and attitude towards civic development really means in terms of real estate values.

With auto and human density increasing in the vertical world of our downtown core, I argue that so many people need more of what I need: sun, open sky, green space, air, water, and an opportunity to get outside and be restored – not despite the fact that we’re in the downtown core, but because of it. There are good reasons that properties bordering on or near New York’s Central Park are so expensive, or waterfront homes are highly prized, but one important reason is the view of, and access to, big open water or green space. And prices don’t just reflect properties that are on these parks and waterfront; properties are also more valuable if they have access to them.

So here’s where I think Mayor Ford Rob should listen up: a condo world in downtown Toronto with less green public space and a big mindless casino is going devalue the downtown homeowner and condo experience, and quite simply devalue our city. It will be bad for real estate values and property taxes. It will.

Chicago’s relatively new downtown Millennium Park next to Grant Park at the waterfront is an example of a great urban renewal to support locals and tourism. It’s the kind of “fix” we need here. Formerly railway lands, parking lots, and parks, the redevelopment is now one of Chicago’s top tourist sites. And it attracts “good tourism” – and by that I mean “cultural tourism”. People who appreciate the open, welcoming public spaces; the Frank Gehry-designed theatre pavilion; the green spaces; the performing arts, sculptures, and gardens; the connection to theatres, galleries, and museums; and the Bixi-type cycling opportunities are simply better tourists and better for the economy. And Millennium Park is a roof-top park covering up ugly parking lots, etc. I’m willing to bet the visitors that Millennium Park attracts are actually interested in the city, so they visit Chicago to also take in the amazing architectural tours by boat, the theatre, the shopping, other iconic Chicago tourist sites, and even Oprah! They also are more likely to rent bikes, pay for multiple nights in hotels, buy services, enjoy the waterfront, eat out in nice restaurants, and pay and stay for a few nights – rather than making a round trip back to Buffalo, as the Toronto-visiting gambler folks well might.

What are the chances that bussed-in people are going to get off the CNE grounds and go to the ROM or AGO? I think it’s slim. They can’t walk to anywhere…I think that’s exactly why the promoters like it: they have these poor gamblers on a downtown island. They are spending all their money in one place buying MGM booze and food.

And let’s talk about all these great, high-paying jobs I heard the Mayor refer to. Hello? As the mother of a 19-year-old son who is thinking about his future, is this really even close to the kind of career path I’d recommend? What, as a black-jack dealer? Or the guy who inspects the car parking lots for forgotten children or dogs?

I’d like our City Council actually to use their collective imagination (a shorter, easier word might be “ideas”) and stop thinking about public lands as profitable “entertainment opportunities”, or “wasted/pending property development opportunities”, and started to think of them as spaces where people can enjoy the wind at their backs and the shade of a tree. Spaces where people can go to sit, walk, read, breathe deeply, and generally shake off the stress of city living. I’m sure that we’ll all be healthier if we make public green space much more a priority, and if real estate values on Central Park are any example, it will boost property values, and thus property taxes, for all Toronto neighbourhoods. If we don’t start to think like this, we risk ghettoizing the downtown neighbourhoods. Toronto will fail to attract new businesses, new opportunities, and better jobs. It’s a bad cycle.

We need our Toronto City Council to get this right, for all our sakes. Long term, a downtown casino will be bad for real estate values, which is why we should all care. It’s a bad gamble.