Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan expanded on the past, the present and the future of the city, touching upon Durham Live, City Centre project, Seaton development, rapid bus transit, affordable housing – and even the much-debated paid waterfront parking – during an exclusive interview with Durham Post.
He is retiring after this term, and believes that he and his team have laid the foundations for ‘Pickering of the Future’.
Following are some of the excerpts from the interview.
DP: You are retiring. What are you most proud of as Mayor of Pickering?
DR: The world’s longest covered pedestrian bridge across the 401, is one of the things that come to mind. It came about as the then president of the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), called and said they would have to leave the city. That was 200 jobs. The reason they were leaving was because they had outgrown the building. They couldn’t upgrade it to the necessary technical needs of their operations.
I got in touch with owners of the Pickering Town Centre. And through negotiations, it was determined that an office building would be erected on Pickering Town Centre lands. That would accommodate the MPAC as the anchor tenant, and then there was room for other tenants. That opened up the opportunity to have the pedestrian bridge that would connect the GO station to the north side.
We were also trying to create a reverse commute out of Toronto to bring jobs and people here. That was very successful. The bridge was erected, and I’m pleased to say that that was done without any municipal funding. Funding was negotiated through the province, the federal government, and Metrolinx. It wasn’t an easy negotiation, believe me. I spent hours on the phone.
The bridge saved jobs and brought new opportunities. In fact, Durham and Centennial College became the second largest tenant in the building. We created a post-secondary campus in the City of Pickering that we hadn’t had before. Now that, unfortunately, moved when covid came along and the classes just didn’t make it viable. Happened though is that space has been taken over by the Canadian Centre for Nuclear Sustainability, which is the organization that is, in part, responsible for the decommissioning of the Pickering Nuclear Station.
The building became the nucleus for innovation and job creation and created the basis for the vision of downtown for the City of Pickering, something that we haven’t enjoyed. We’ve never specifically had a downtown. Unfortunately, again with covid, things have been delayed. We expect that that will be moving forward with the next term of council in the new budget year.
It is an iconic bridge. My grandchildren will say: ‘There’s granddad’s bridge’. It actually catalyzed growth on the other side.
DP: What is happening with the city centre project?
DR: The City Centre is still very much the vision for the City of Pickering. We are in a reassessment stage at this point; review of cost implications as a result of delays and so on. But we’re now in an election year, so I would anticipate that that project will move forward very quickly in the new council.
DP: What is happening with Durham Live?
DR: Durham Live is the where the casino is the anchor tenant. But Durham Live is much more than the casino. It’s an entertainment and the tourism centre that has the potential to employ up to 10,000 people. It’ll include facilities beyond the casino and hotel. It’ll have a major film studio, restaurants, entertainment facilities, we’ve got the Porsche Experience coming. We’ve now added a residential component to it as well. So, it’s a very significant development in Pickering.
DP: Which other major projects have you been working on?
DR: Add Seaton Development. We call it the innovation corridor, which is the employment area associated with the Seaton Development along Highway 407. We’ve attracted major companies like Kubota, which is now fully operational. We have announced FGF, a high-tech food company – there is a major manufacturing facility plus a distribution centre. We have a computer refurbishing company, who’ve got the refurbishment contract for Lenovo.
We have the Frenchman’s Bay Harbour entrance, which was part of the overall initiative to improve tourism and attract more business.
We have the Pickering Soccer Centre, which is a huge improvement in our sporting facilities.
DP: Do you think you have set the foundations for the Pickering of the Future?
DR: Yeah. I think collectively we have. Pickering was a town until 2000. Over the last few years, we’ve grown into a city. We’ve created the mentality of a city. We created the personality and the energy of a city that is growing. We are accepting our responsibility in the GTA. We’re doing it in a reasonable and responsible way. We’re focusing on bringing employment along with residential expansion.
DP: What would Pickering look like in, say, 2030?
DR: I think what you’ll see is a lot of activity in Pickering. Frankly, it will be in a period of disruption – and that comes with growth. We’ll see redevelopment of specific areas in the municipality. We need to ensure that we have transportation for all of this development. That’ll be the Bus Rapid Transit System, a joint Region of Durham and provincial initiative. It creates a bus corridor, which would be a centre lane bus with dedicated lanes right from the Rouge River through to Oshawa. That is going to mean disruption right along the Highway 2 corridor through Pickering, Ajax, Whitby, and Oshawa.
We’re going to see construction cranes across the city as we’re seeing new development in the form of a multi-residential condominium and rental accommodation.
DP: What about affordable housing, especially for retirees and youngsters?
DR: We’re very much aware of that as a municipality. That is why we’re not just focusing on the multi-residential intensification, but we’re also very much supportive of some urban expansion that would allow for ground-level accommodation.
Town houses are smaller than individual homes, and I’m thinking when I say that specifically of our senior population, our aging population. My wife and I are living in the house that we’ve been in for 37 years now. It’s a relatively large home and there are now only the two of us in it. We would very much like to move into another accommodation, but we want ground-level accommodation that is scaled to a senior lifestyle. I’m telling the development industry about the need for that. But it means that we also have to provide the land for it. So that’s part of the overall discussion.
The larger discussion is around affordability. We are actively engaged with not-for-profit organisations for options on homes. The real answers to affordability reside with senior levels of government that have the both the legislative and the financial resources to address the problem more directly. As a municipality, things that we have to deal with include zoning, etc. It really doesn’t allow for a great deal of impact overall on the affordability issue.
There is no way you can tell developers that listen, so much percentage of your housing has to be low cost. We can encourage it. Again, the question is what is low cost? Definition of affordable? So again, it’s not something as a municipality I can do. I can’t sit with developers and ask them to show me the net cost of accommodation or say you’re not allowed more than a X per cent profit margin. That makes it very difficult.
What we can do is make land available and bring to the table those agencies that can become actively involved in that specific development process. And we have done that successfully.
DP: Is Pickering going to end up looking like a high-rise version of Toronto?
DR: We’re going to see much more high rises than we’ve had because we’ve had very little, I mean, up until 10 years ago, we had the four buildings around the City Hall and we had that one south of the 401, just West of Liverpool. That was it.
And as we are taking our portion of the overall growth for the GTA, we’re seeing different mixes of accommodation. Yes, we are going to see more multi-residential relatively high-rise buildings in Pickering.
DP: What is happening with the airport lands?
DR: I believe very strongly that we need the airport as part of the GTA. We need the airport in Pickering specifically because the lands are already set aside for an airport.
It is an economic catalyst, an economic driver. I’ll go so far as to say it’s an economic imperative.
If we want to provide meaningful jobs for all the people moving to the east side of the GTA, to Durham Region, then we need to have that economic driver.
I would like to have an airport here rather than go across the city to pick up my wife every time she travels to see to her mother.
DP: Is Pickering going to be the engine of future growth for the region?
DR: I believe very strongly in it, not just because I’m Pickering-centric, if you will. Realistically, we have things like the airport, that have the potential, we have the land, we are next to the largest metropolitan area in the country, and with it all that it implies. Things happen more or less organically.
Pickering is obviously the next major growth area and it’s in our official plans for the region. It’s recognized as being the largest municipality in the region.
As the region expands, with that comes economic growth.
DP: How do you compare your property tax rates with other municipalities?
DR: I can tell you this is a point of confusion for a lot of people. They hear that there’s a property tax increase of X.
People don’t recognize that we have the lowest mill rate of the five lakeshore municipalities [in property tax terms, mill rate is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment]. And that’s important.
That mill rate is applied to the assessment value of your home, not the market value of your home.
DP: Why are you calling for a review of selection of Whitby for the new Lakeridge hospital?
DR: Yes, we were disappointed that the hospital did not come to Pickering. We believe that we had the best proposal. However, that decision has been made and the hospital, wherever it is, is going to be good overall for the region of Durham.
We are continuing to have discussions with Lakeridge Health about how we might improve overall the health facilities within Pickering proper, and those conversations are ongoing.
DP: Would-be visitors say your waterfront $5 an hour parking is too high. Any move to reconsider?
DR: What occurred in Ajax [first to have paid waterfront parking] is driving more and more people to the Pickering beachfront. We welcome the people; we want the tourism dollars and so on. But at the same time, we have to ensure we can accommodate our residents.
We believe we have done that. It’s free parking for residents. I’ve received more compliments. In fact, overwhelmingly, people are complimentary of the ease of registering online. If you have some difficulty or you don’t have access, trip to City Hall and you can do it there. One lady said she was in and out in 5 minutes.
I think we are striking a balance that accommodates our residents, but at the same time promotes our municipality for what it has to offer.
DP: Would you be joining the private sector in any incapacity after retirement?
DR: No, I will not. Initially I’m just going to take some time off and decompress and spend time with the family. Hopefully do a little travel. And then we will do what we’ve always done, which is engaging the community. When I say we, I’m talking about my family, my wife and I. So, we will probably be involved in volunteer activities here in our community.
DP: How is your health?
DR: I had a lung transplant, but in the context of that, I’m doing very well, thank you.
DP: Last question, would you recommend anybody as your successor?
DR: I wish all of the candidates the best of luck. Thank you. Take care.