The University of Toronto is promising to send the city a bill it estimates at more than $12-million if city councillors vote this week to block the school’s installation of artificial turf on its back campus ahead of the 2015 Pan-Am Games.
Mayor Rob Ford was expected to make the vote his key item at this week’s council meeting, and argue against a motion to designate the storied natural grass field as a cultural heritage landscape. If the motion passes, the university’s $9.5-million plan to build a pair of artificial field hockey surfaces will be halted in its tracks.
However on Tuesday, the Mayor made issues of traffic congestion and the Grey Cup his key items instead.
The fields are intended to be used when Toronto hosts the Pan/Parapan American Games, and by the university community for years afterward. But a war of words has escalated ahead of the vote and prominent figures have weighed in on both sides. Author Margaret Atwood has made known her opposition to the artificial turf, while Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut has said it’s the right move for sport in the city. Meanwhile, the plan’s detractors have already begun considering a possible alternative site in Brampton.
Councillor Adam Vaughan steered the heritage motion to the city’s preservation board late last month, which sent it to council.
“Before we do anything that’s irreversible and before we cut into trees’ root systems and put new light standards up and all these sorts of things, we want to make sure that we’re not doing something that’s going to do irreparable harm,” he said.
Both U of T and Pan-Am officials are upset the motion has been introduced so late. The U of T made public mention of “a world-class double artificial turf field on its back campus” as early as 2009, and the project was approved in April, 2011. Construction is planned to start on July 1.
“The University will fight this as hard as we can,” said Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president of university operations., adding a heritage motion could have “significant financial impact to the city, because we will pursue damages to establish any new facility if we had to go some place else.”
Moving the site could cost $12-million to $13-million, he said, and “substantial additional damages are possible, presumably in the millions of dollars,” to unwind existing contracts.
Mr. Vaughan brushed aside Mr. Mabury’s warning, saying, “We have an issue we have to resolve,” and that U of T is acting “like a bunch of jocks, frankly.”
The university argues the synthetic turf will give students on the downtown campus better year-round access compared with the current grass, which is muddy and uneven. Mr. Aubut of the Olympic Committee and Gaétan Tardif, president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, have both written letters urging city councillors to allow the artficial turf, creating a legacy for sport in Toronto.
“The cultural heritage of the back campus has been sport. You go by there today, there are goal posts,” said Bruce Kidd, warden of U of T’s Hart House and a proponent of the artificial fields.
In an e-mail, chief Pan-Am spokesman Teddy Katz called the issue “very serious,” urging council to “make the right decision.”
“Coming at the 11th hour just before we’re to begin construction, this could have significant financial implications for the Games,” Mr. Katz said.
“Yeah, sure, it’s the 11th hour,” counters Suzanne Akbari, a professor of English at U of T, who has helped spearhead community opposition. “The reason why is because all the decisions were done in camera, the contracts were signed, and then the announcements started to be made several months later.”
The plan’s vocal detractors have argued a cherished green space will be ruined, and also raised a host of environmental and accessibility concerns. In a recent letter to U of T president David Naylor, former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson wrote, “I wanted to signal to you my dismay and disapproval of this project even though I understand that the bulldozers are on their way.”
A grassroots group called Keep Back Campus Green is exploring whether the project could be moved to a similar artificial field hockey venue just built at Brampton’s Cassie Campbell Community Centre, and a second surface added there. Mr. Vaughan argues that would be cheaper, and said Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell is “willing to have the conversation.”
A spokesman for Ms. Fennell said TO2015 organizers have made no formal request about Pan-Am venues, and until they do, “Mayor Fennell and the City of Brampton will not discuss hosting any games, at any venue.”
With a report from Elizabeth Church