Thursday, May 11, 2006

Task Force at a Crossroad, Part I

The Task Force to Bring Back the Don is a strange beast. Ostensibly it is an advisory body to city council. In reality it is more than that – it is an advocate for the Don. That means that it stands up for what it believes is the best interests of the river and the surrounding valley, and on a more general level the entire Don watershed.

Sometimes that means giving advice to council and councillors. If we are lucky they listen to us. We also work with staff and other groups whose interests are more or less in parallel with ours. Usually these relationships are harmonious but occasionally they are in conflict. The Evergreen plan for the Don Valley Brick Works is special because it contains elements of both harmony and conflict.

The story of the Brick Works is a complex one, especially in the short time that the city has managed it. Basically, the current situation came about because of amalgamation. Before 1998, the Brick Works resided in East York. During the pre-amalgamation era, the quarry was restored, the natural areas enhanced and plans were afoot for creating a heritage museum for the buildings.

When amalgamation occurred it was swallowed by the megacity along with the rest of us. When the city got around to allocating resources and funds for historical sites, the Brick Works got the short end of the stick and was left flapping in the wind, no budget and no hope. Since then the buildings have slowly deteriorated. If the situation had continued for much longer, they would eventually have been condemned.

But then a light appeared on the horizon. Evergreen, a national charity, came up with an off-the-wall idea to turn the Brick Works into a combined headquarters and education centre. The city perked up and thought to itself, “Yeah, why not? Evergreen guarantees to restore the buildings with their own funds. Toronto gets a restored heritage site for very little money and Evergreen gets a signature site which will raise their profile, nationwide. A win-win situation!” Everybody's happy – right?

Not so fast. The project doesn't please everyone. How can it? With so many players (TRCA, city, community) and interests (environmental, cultural heritage, geological significance), in order to please everyone the project would be so large, bloated and expensive it would collapse under its own weight. What Evergreen's proposal does it chart its own path – accomplishing their goals is the primary task, if that happens to meet someone else's goal, that's good. If there's a conflict, Evergreen is happy to listen, appear empathic, but they keep on listing all the reasons why these goals can't be met. For them it is a reasonable course of action.

So what is the Task Force's position? Currently we don't have one, because we haven't voted yet. To date we have listened to presentations, attended seminars and community consultation meetings, joined the liaison committee, etc. etc.

Individual members certainly have opinions, some like it, some oppose it, some haven't decided, the usual mix of any group. The reasons for liking the proposal are that it will restore a neglected site in the Don Valley, bring a presence to an area that needs an element of security, and create an environmental education centre that parallels some of our broader goals of community and urban learning. Evergreen has been a long time partner in past projects and we have a certain amount of good will towards them and would like them to succeed.

Those opposed to the project, see it as an overuse of the site. The plan calls for the parking lot to be expanded to 425 spots. Evergreen projections show that the site could attract upwards of 250,000 visitors per year. There are fears that the quarry ponds park behind the Brick Works (which will remain under city management) will be degraded by the new influx of people. Some members are opposed to some of the commercial aspects of the plan, ie. The nursery, restaurant, and conference centre.

So how will the Task Force vote? More on this next week.

No comments: