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A new blueprint; an old debate

After 16 years, stakeholders still can’t agree on how best to use the former military site



May 3, 2008

There are many blueprints for Downsview Park, the national urban park promised 16 years ago by the federal government.

But the one that matters most does not exist yet.

Earlier this week, Toronto city council backed plans to draft a new blueprint, with Downsview paying the bill, to bring the former military base to life.

Unchanged, though, is the controversy that has swirled since the federal government handed over the former base in 1994 as a “unique urban recreational green space.”

Some area residents want all green space for the 644-acre site, but Downsview officials say they need 20 per cent for housing and commercial use to fund the park.

“The community has been waiting over a dozen years, and is very concerned and worried about what is going to happen in their backyard,” says Councillor Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre).

At council this week, there was no debate on a housekeeping measure to start work on a new blueprint. But make no mistake: A big fight looms over the balance between green space and development.

“We want to work with stakeholders to develop the magic of the park together,” says Downsview chairman David Soknacki. “Here we have an opportunity to build over 300 acres of parkland in the middle of the city.”

But to pay for the park, Downsview has to generate its own income. Officials expect to raise revenue from the sale or lease up to 212 acres for new homes, high-rises and retail spaces, compared with 365 acres of park.

“It is absolutely essential for Downsview to develop the infrastructure to create the park,” Mr. Soknacki says.

But he stresses the design of the park, which includes the lands of the Department of National Defence and Bombardier, is not set in stone. Even a 2007 Downsview report identifying new residential areas dotted around the park is negotiable.

“They’re in pen and ink; they can be drawn elsewhere, rubbed out and changed,” Mr. Soknacki says. “What’s fixed is the principle [that development pays for park improvement].”

Those are fighting words to residents and local councillors.

“Our stand is that it should be 100-per-cent park,” says Thomas Ricci, president of the Downsview Park Community Lands Association. “If they want to talk about development, let’s talk about anything other than residential, commercial and industrial.”

Mr. Ricci is leery of more talk. “You are asking for consultation, but you are really asking for approval,” he says of the Downsview board. “We are not going to give you approval.”

Some councillors are frustrated over the park’s slow evolution, but credit the former city budget chief for removing political logjams since he was named park chairman by the federal Tories last year.

Under Mr. Soknacki, the agency is no longer at war with the city, and has agreed to pay $800,000 for a new secondary plan to replace an outdated version from 1999.

“This is the document that matters,” says Mr. Soknacki, with the proposed location of green space, employment, recreation and residential housing units the subject of future consultations with the city, the TTC and the public.

The need to update is clear.

Where the TTC now plans to build a stop on Sheppard Avenue West for the Spadina subway extension to York University, the 1999 plan envisioned parkland and the 2007 Downsview proposal cited several thousand housing units.

“It’s a clean slate in the sense that we are willing to look at a wide range of options based on the way the world has changed,” Mr. Soknacki says.

Ms. Augimeri is unmoved.

“It would be a travesty to sell publicly owned parkland,” she says. Citing the 1970s federal gift of waterfront lands that led to high-rise condos, she asks, “Is this another Harbourfront? I don’t trust the process the feds have put in place.”

Downsview by numbers


The size in acres (260.6 hectares) of the Downsview Lands, including 365 acres for parkland and recreation and up to 212 acres for possible sale or lease of land for housing and commercial activity.


The amount that Downsview Park can borrow to finance its activities.


The estimated cost, in 2004, of developing the park.


The number of annual visitors to the part of the site that is already a park, which offers a variety of regular and one-time events.

Jennifer Lewington