Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reinventing Downsview

W henever David Soknacki visits the depot where the Downsview Park Merchant's Market attracts a flood of shoppers on weekends, he goes down to the basement.

W henever David Soknacki visits the depot where the Downsview Park Merchant's Market attracts a flood of shoppers on weekends, he goes down to the basement.

He descends the old steps in a concrete bomb shelter built more than 50 years ago, turns on the light and stares out over an expansive pool of potable water stored in case Toronto comes under attack.
"If you took the stairs all the way down you would get very wet," said Mr. Soknacki, chairman of the board of directors of Parc Downsview Park (known as PDP) and a former city councillor who was David Miller's first budget chief. "I stay at the top and look and marvel that somebody would have done this."
After soaking in the contingency plan for nuclear war, Mr. Soknacki emerges to a battle of his own -- transforming Downsview from a Cold Warera military base into a national park that pays for itself, without making too many enemies.

More than a decade after it was born, the tug-of-war continues over Downsview Park. As area residents fight plans for the massive development that is supposed to help the first self-financing urban national park in Canada pay for the green space, the military that founded the former base remains indecisive about its continuing presence there.

The federal Liberal government announced in 1994 that the military base would become an urban national park. So 572 acres between a blue-collar, middle-class residential neighbourhood to the west and a light industrial park to the east were put in the hands of an organization that became Parc Downsview Park Inc. They were told to take the land, build a park and never ask the government for money.

Since then, PDP has wracked up $20-million in debt and is expected to be $70-million in debt -- the maximum-- by 2014-15.

The plan is to turn 374 acres, roughly the size of High Park, into parkland with sports facilities, co-op organic farming and programs for at-risk youth and school children -- all to be paid for by selling or leasing the remaining 198 acres to develop condos and office spaces. With the Bombardier Inc. plant and runway, the Department of National Defence buildings and a CN rail line running through the park, there is a lot to factor into development plans. The park has made a deal with Bombardier to share parking lot space and Bombardier had agreed to test their planes in a way that won't affect the park.
But it is the park's dependence on selling and leasing land for development that has area residents worried. Stanley Greene, an existing neighbourhood of bungalows, is the first area to to be intensified, and some of the land will be sold for condo and townhouse development. A developer has been chosen and will be announced soon, Mr. Soknacki said.

"One of the fears is that because it's supposed to be self-financing, if they can't generate any money what can they do?" said Vince Lombardi, past president of the Downsview Lands Community Voice Association Inc., who has lived in Stanley Greene for 26 years.

He fears that as more money is needed, more land will be sold, until the amount of green space dwindles.

Mr. Soknacki said that if money was running low and more land had to be sold, both the park's board and the city of Toronto would have to agree to change it. "So it's not to say that it's impossible, but it is to say that there would have to be a very vigorous public debate."

Mr. Lombardi points to the intensification already being proposed because of the new Sheppard West subway station, under construction at the end of the runway on the north side of the park.

After the subway was announced two years ago, PDP borrowed more than $1-million to pay city planners to review and update the 10-year-old plan for Downsview Park. Along with updating the original plans to follow current city policy, the new plan proposes that PDP get the zoning permission to nearly double the number of residential units in the park to 8,000 units.

The new plan is set to go through community council in March, and will then have to be approved by city council as well. Expect to hear from neighbours concerned about the approximately 20,000 new residents those units would bring in.

"It's way too much that's being proposed," Mr. Lombardi said. "This is a joke, the infrastructure just isn't going to be able to handle it."

With a new hospital going in at Keele Street and Wilson Avenue and the second Spadina subway extension going in at Keele and Finch, people living in the area are predicting that the already crammed Keele will be impassable.

Two proposed roads through the park would take the pressure off the surrounding thoroughfares, but one is dependent on two local schools closing and selling the land to the park and the other, planned to run behind the Denison Armoury, is considered a possible security risk by the Department of National Defence.

Residents are also saying that the green space PDP is promising is misleading. The current community association president, Rino Cipolletta, said that development like the entertainment areas and the pathways all count as green space. The association wants more grass and trees.
"It's almost like a false impression of a park," Mr. Cipolletta said.

Mr. Soknacki said that after hearing the call for more green space at public meetings, they created 10 more acres of parkland by changing the planned housing in Stanley Greene from single-family homes to mid-rise condos and townhouses.

But that brought the community association right back to the density issue. They hope they can reduce the 1,300 units planned for Stanley Greene, the farthest neighbourhood from the new subway, to 500 or 600 units.

Mr. Soknacki said that the plans show at least 20 years worth of building and that not all 20,000 new residents would be expected to come in at once.

But debate over Stanley Greene does not end with the city. The townhouses in the neighbourhood are also the planned location for consolidated military housing, but DND still has not decided if it actually wants to provide any military housing in Toronto. That decision dictates the kind of townhouses that can be built, and PDP is hoping DND will make a decision by this summer, to avoid any delays.

Mr. Soknacki said he is not phased by the challenges of the park, because while firm plans are in place, he and everyone involved are open to change as Downsview's potential uses change. The depot Mr. Soknacki enjoys visiting, once a bomb shelter and now a farmer's market, could be something completely different in the future, he says.

"How we repurpose that and how it develops over the next 20 to 30 years," he said. As with the rest of the park, "We have an idea of a direction right now, we don't know the final form."

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