Toronto city councillors have struck down the last remaining gambit to halt the University of Toronto’s plans to install artificial turf on its storied back campus field, arguing it is too late to revisit the $9.5-million project.
Despite growing opposition, the first shovels will break ground by July 1 as planned, after councillors voted 31 to 12 in favour of allowing a pair of artificial field-hockey surfaces to be built, which will put them on schedule to be ready for use when Toronto hosts the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games.
A large coalition of opponents, including students, professors and alumni, had tried to block the project by asking city council to designate the back campus, a cherished green space at the heart of the university’s downtown campus, a cultural heritage landscape. After six hours of debate, councillors refused the heritage designation, ruling that it is long past the time to change course.
“I’m disappointed,” said Adam Vaughan, the councillor who brought the heritage motion and led opposition to the artificial fields. “There’s [now] virtually no chance we can stop it.”
Even as Mr. Vaughan argued the back campus “is one of the most significant green spaces not just in my ward, but in the province,” many of his colleagues felt it would be irresponsible to interrupt a Pan Am project at the “11th hour and 59th minute,” as councillor Mark Grimes put it. They also seemed wary of the U of T’s threat to sue for upwards of $10-million in damages if the city scuttled the plan, which city solicitor Anna Kinastowski warned would be “messy” and “unpleasant.”
“We’re very pleased,” said Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president of university operations, who said the university community will get three times more use out of artificial turf than the rutted, muddy grass field. “This is really about access. We want as many people as possible to be able to play on this back campus.”
But while U of T and Pan Am officials count the vote a victory, many professors and students are frustrated, saying they were shut out of the decision-making. They claim U of T disclosed few of the project’s details until after the university’s Governing Council approved it in camera.
“The biggest concern that students have with the building of the turf is that the consultation process consistently left out broad-based student input,” said Dylan Chauvin-Smith, an executive with U of T’s Arts and Science Student Union.
Mr. Vaughan said the very fact the project’s fate hinged on “this last-minute sort of high-stakes vote at council” was that “the university has chosen to proceed in a very secretive way.” He added that the heritage designation is a newer city policy that was unavailable in the project’s early stages.
“We’re here doing our duty because the university and Governing Council did not do theirs,” he told council.
“U of T blindsided us continually. They never gave us full disclosure,” Mr. Vaughan later told reporters. “We still haven’t seen construction drawings for this project.”