Ford administration hoped-for saviour of Garden District?

By Eva Curlanis-Bart –

At long last, the Garden District is a hot topic again. On September 30, 2001, then-mayor Mel Lastman proclaimed the neighbourhood bordered by Carlton, Sherbourne, Queen and Yonge streets to be the Garden District.

The name drew on the tradition that a century and a half ago gave Toronto its first public park, renamed in 1902 Allan Gardens. Flanked by tree-lined streets, Allan Gardens and Moss Park were once the pride and glory of Toronto’s urban progress.

Its later history is less stellar.

This elegant residential district emerged a hundred years later as Sin City—a community of rooming houses, shelters, hostels and hotels, mainly of ill repute. A vast experiment with social housing of the 60’s and 70’s proved to be social engineering at its worst.

A decade ago, we hoped that this attractive area within a stone’s throw from the heart of the financial district, chic hotels, entertainment and sports facilities would regenerate the way Yorkville, Annex, and Cabbagetown did. It had all the ingredients to become a jewel of Downtown—green spaces and mature parks, heritage buildings including McKenzie House and Walnut Hall, Ryerson University, and enough empty lots to fill with innovative architecture, and not just tall buildings that gobbled up our lakeshore.

It had it all, save political clout at all three levels of government. Our representatives demonstrated a particular faith in discredited ideologies, failed policies and political expediency. Run by cynical politicians and a mammoth poverty industry, this depository of human misery was supposed to be the face of compassion. At long last, this political lot is gone, and good riddance!

If progress has been slow in this part of the city, it is not due to the lack of commitment and good will from its residents and homeowners. For the past decade, and despite frequent opposition, indifference and impotence from our elected officials, the Garden District Residents Association has put up a strong fight in defense of sound governance and quality community life.

The Shelter By-law passed in 2002 should have seen a major redistribution of high-risk social services from the east Downtown to all wards. Alas, the city did nothing to implement its own legislation.

Just last month, the GDRA filed a request to the community development and recreation committee headed by councillor Giorgio Mammoliti for a review and audit of the area’s social service facilities and their redistribution in the name of fair share. The recent discovery of corruption and mismanagement at TCHC is only a tip of the iceberg—shelters alone cost the taxpayers more than $250 million annually.

The GDRA attended endless hearings at the committee of adjustment, the Ontario Municipal Board, and licensing tribunals, worked with officers of 51 Division, made deputations, monitored the use of the neighbourhood by the film industry, wrote letters, and gave media interviews to draw attention to the serious issues affecting our community.

Our efforts to improve the look and feeling of safety and security in this neighbourhood have been more successful. A neglected lawn along the Gabrielle Roy Ecole Publique was turned into a long rose garden on the east side of George St. This project—as well as the trees planted along the north parameter of Moss Armoury—have been funded and maintained by the voluntary efforts of our members. The corner of Dundas and George streets is another example of individual determination to turn a garbage-strewn strip into a blooming garden.

A few businesses in the area have followed suit: the Grand Hotel maintains its grounds year round, and the former Sears building is being “greened” at, we are told, a horrific price tag. Perhaps Garden Hilton’s new ownership will make the George St. end of its property worthy of its name, and Moss Park Armoury could comply with our long-standing request of moving its garbage storage away from the tennis court’s side, and taking down the wooden screens.

Moss Park and the John Innes Community Centre remain works in progress, albeit slow. Another long-view project is the welome facelift from Church to Yonge streets due to a major expansion of Ryerson University.

Over the years, the Merchandise Building, the Shuter and Dalhousie condos, and the Pantages started to change the residential mix of the area. Another two high-end condos—if controversial in their size and impact on the adjoining buildings—are coming to George and Shuter (OxygenO2) and Jarvis and Dundas (PACE).

According a Remax listing, the O2 condos are priced at over $1.2 million for a three-bedroom unit. This is big news for this particular corner: services should follow the influx of people with disposable income, provided the street level activity is legal, safe and secure.

The area has enormous potential and not only to those of us who have invested money, time and energy in this neighbourhood. All attractions Toronto can offer are within a short walk—from theatres, concert halls, great dining to sports arenas, museums, galleries, shopping and more. There are empty lots to be developed into great urban sites: a true piazza could be built at Queen, Dalhousie, Shuter and Mutual, along with innovative architectural in-fills, schools, and even playgrounds—for children, not just for local dogs.

There are few neighbourhoods that can boast not one but two mature parks such as Allan Gardens and Moss Park. There is a decent volume of heritage properties that (once released from the TCHC (mis)management) would be grabbed by buyers and brought back to their former glory.

Let’s hope the new council will be guided by intelligent arguments and not by political expediency in its decisions affecting the Garden District and its immediate vicinity. Redistribution of social services is not punishment of the underprivileged—it is sound management and cost effective delivery of services to the needy as well as protection of their host communities.

May the systemic failure of the past administrations be a lesson to the current one, so it will develop and not waste the opportunities the Garden District has to offer.