Michael Cruickshank of York Heritage Properties sums it up on behalf of Downtown residents who endure a shameful dearth of parkland in this major first-world city: We get a wall hanging for 35 acres of parkland. By comparison, maybe the Indians in early New York did pretty well by getting strings of beads for Manhattan Island. We’ve been taken for such dupes.
To many Downtown residents suffering from condo-itis and the deprivation of their shoreline and parks, it’s a bad deal pushed forward by the suburbanites who rule our amalgamated city from positions on council and in city staff.
At stake is the fate of the historic and still-operative Walks and Gardens Trust which was initiated in 1818. To bring that long history to its immediate present: We’ve been sold out. Or, if you prefer, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars may have been snatched that are supposed to be spent Downtown as it existed 150 years ago along a patch roughly described from Bloor Street to the then-lakeshore, from the Don River to Fort York. That’s the area that was to benefit from the sale or lease of the lands in the Walks and Gardens Trust (W>).
There is a compelling reason city council wants it shut down. That’s because councillors are heirs to the original five trustees and are each personally liable for ensuring the trust funds are properly handled. So the city’s legal department has issued an opinion that council have lived up to their duties and the trust should be folded and forgotten.
In exchange for this loss, we are expected to be satisfied with a $250,000 art project for commuters at Union Station.
Yet the trust, still in effect until the province closes it, dedicates money from the sale and rental of city-owned properties within the trust area, now a richly developed part of the city, to be devoted to replacing the loss of waterfront parks by providing for loss of walks and gardens with other open space.
Although the waterfront beach in our early days was, as you’d expect, cluttered with various facilities for unloading lake vessels, warehouses and the like, the walks and gardens park strip along the south side of Front Street at the upper level had been protected for 60 years until it was sold off because it was adjacent to the railways.
Imagine the rental revenues brought in by Union Station that belong in the trust. There are retail stores paying rents, including the ticket-selling booths for the railroads. Much of Union Station from Front Street down to the corridor that separates the main building from the area with tracks is part of the W>. There might be several others according to some in city staff. Imagine all the rents, fees and sales values that have occurred since the 1850s. No wonder the outlanders who run Toronto want the W> closed and to determine where all those perhaps multi millions of dollars should go.
Since the city was swallowed by the suburbs, they also become beneficiaries of W> funds for their parks. Downtown remains impoverished of open space.
Even in those very early days of the W> (when Toronto was designated a temporary capitol to be later abandoned for London, Ont., which was viewed as more defendable from American aggression), it was considered a necessity for a population to have access to “walks and gardens” and natural areas, a view current city rulers seem to lack regarding Downtown residents.
When the railways came in and the walks and gardens land uphill from the tracks became highly valuable, those parklands were development targets. We long ago lost the park that overlooked the lake and thanks to the mainly suburbanite rulers of our city, we’re in imminent danger of losing the chance to remedy that lack.
Unlike other famous cities around the world, including many in poorer countries, and including major cities across Canada, Downtown Toronto has a shocking lack of natural spaces. So an art display paying tribute to the city’s long-ago stripped-away parks, walks and gardens, no matter how worthy and spectacular, can be seen as a cynical response to the needs of real people who live here and the tens of thousands who are arriving soon.
Citizens For Old Town (CFOT) have been stalwarts in researching and supporting the W>. CFOT has paid for two legal opinions, both of which concur that W> is still in effect. Faced with this and the liability issues, city council appointed a Walks-and-Gardens Working Group early this decade chaired by Coun. Pam McConnell with senior members of city staff, including the city legal department and some community representatives, to attempt to determine how the funds were handled since 1916 when W> fell off the radar as World War I and other difficulties preoccupied society.
The working group made a series of recommendations. But these weren’t followed. They were recently disregarded by the new generation of city lawyers who dismissed the working group as a “citizens group,” ignoring that as a council-appointed body it is as official as they are. Naturally that body would involve the city in providing park funds and determining the actual value of the trust, which is no simple task and which could result in unpleasant surprises.
Our current political masters, faced with spending $500 million to refurbish Union Station, plainly don’t want to waste a penny providing niceties for Downtown citizens who should best satisfy their hunger for nature and recreation at a goldfish pond in a casino within jogging distance.
The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) has more recently joined in and reminded council regarding their responsibilities. ACO President Susan Ratcliffe wrote to city council last April about W>:
As an Act of Parliament, this is not as easily disregarded or dispensed with as some seem to think.
While we agree that a great deal of money has been spent on the acquisition and improvement of parks throughout the GTA in compensation for the loss of 35 acres of shoreline park Downtown, it has come at a price: the rapidly growing population in the heart of the City is underserved with open space compared to the suburbs and to cities across Canada.
Public open space attracts development and economic activity that brings in greater revenue to a municipality.
I believe it is a requirement in the winding down of a trust that a full accounting of monies in and out is obligatory, and in this case is unlikely to be practicable, but will certainly be costly.
I urge you to work towards a compromise that would remove your personal liability, while meeting sufficient of the terms of the Trust so that all concerns are reasonably satisfied.
What gripes our rulers especially is that, according to the W>, revenues from rentals from a significant city-owned portion of Union Station must be deposited in a special account for the acquisition and improvement of public open space.
Rookie Councillor Doug Ford of Etobicoke, spokesmodel for his little brother Mayor Rob Ford, was variously reported as discounting W> as boondoggle or even a scam. It’s said he passed around papers at city council detailing how Ford Nation should vote.
Among those who fought an especially long and hard battle on this issue to do justice to her Downtown constituents is Coun. Pam McConnell. The outcome isn’t what she sought. Here’s her description:
When the existence and the history of the Walks and Gardens Trust was first presented to the community, everyone saw this as a source of funds for parkland in the Downtown, as it was initially intended. Most specifically, I identified this Trust as a means to acquire all of the lands that make up the First Parliament Buildings Site. It was certainly the opinion from a number of legal experts that the Trust was still in force, and that there was an obligation to appropriately allocate funds inside the Trust’s framework.
Unfortunately, the legal department at the City had a contrary interpretation and how the money was utilized, and the majority on City Council chose to only listen to that one opinion. It is now up to the Provincial government to decide the fate of the Trust.
Consider this: the matter of our parks shortage and the money Downtown is entitled to really resides in the Tory-like Liberal regime at Queen’s Park.
Despite a new leader, the prospect of Walks and Gardens justice for Downtown residents grows as dim as the chance those provincial masters of the Ontario Municipal Board would give up potential condo lands for parks. A provincial government that’s openly looking to lotteries to remedy embezzlements of taxpayer funds to private ventures can only be dreaded.
Nonetheless, there is a bit of light in the proposal to spice up Front Street East and portions of the First Parliament Buildings site at Front and Parliament in time for the crowds expected in 2015 for the Pan Am Games.
A spectacular, edifying walk along there, reminding all of our history, with some gardens along the way, would be openly enjoyed. It’s not justice, nor the best response, but it’s better than what we’ve got and exponentially better than what they’d like to give us.
However, the Downtown community is encouraged to contact the Ontario Liberals and the Attorney General of Ontario, who wields the actual legal hammer in this matter, plus the opposition provincial parties in hopes they might receive votes from (if not justice for) Downtown.
It’s shameful that unlike nearly all major cities in the world, and all in Canada, Toronto’s Downtown workers and residents have no major park where they can refresh outdoors for a half-hour at lunch and be back to work on time.