Alongside the Don Valley trail in downtown Toronto is a sign calling the ravine an “important natural environment” and extolling the “collective responsibility” needed to protect the parkland for future generations. In a few years, trail users at that same spot may be able to look to one side and see a new road atop a 10-metre wall, flanked by a row of parked GO trains.
The idea for a new layover facility in the valley is being pushed by the provincial agency Metrolinx, which argues that using the spot to store and service commuter trains between rush hours balances green protection with more efficient transit. But to opponents, this proposal threatens a delicate ecosystem the city has spent a generation trying to nurture.
The idea is particularly tone-deaf, critics say, because the pandemic has illustrated how much Torontonians need and value being outside. And parkland is at a premium in the city’s downtown, where municipal staff are always on the lookout to acquire more. The City has programmed a series of events for 10 days early in the month designated as Ravines Days.
“I think the concern is above all that Metrolinx is just doing something that’s cheap and easy for itself rather than, you know, for the good of the city,” said Gail Graham, a director on the South Rosedale Residents’ Association.
“And the good of the city is we need, desperately need, as much green space as we can in downtown Toronto.”
The proposal would revive a rusty old rail spur that is heavily overgrown, having largely returned to nature since being abandoned in 2007. Three trains parked in a row stretch approximately one kilometre, which Metrolinx says would reach roughly from the Bayview and Bloor highway ramps to the Belleville trail underpass. Half of this distance would lie on either side of the viaduct. There would be an access road alongside, a few buildings and a small parking lot. All of it would be fenced and lit for security.
At its most basic, the argument over this facility is between those who say the valley already has enough intrusions – including a highway and commuter trains – and that the remaining green space should be preserved, and those who say adding this infrastructure doesn’t represent a fundamental change.
“You step outside of the corridor that we own, there is parkland. But within that rail corridor, it’s our asset,” said Trevor Anderson, Metrolinx’s strategic lead on the project.
“There are significant environmental concerns to be considered and have been considered as part of the [environmental assessment] process, and then the focus is really on balancing the interests and the concerns with what makes sense for us to move forward as we look at expanding transit across the region.
Metrolinx notes that trail users are already accustomed to trains farther south, where the path is a narrow conduit between the Don River and commuter rail lines. Critics counter that the additional trains would be parked where the greenery beside the trail broadens dramatically, and new infrastructure there would remove the sense of being in nature.
Geoff Cape, the CEO of Evergreen, a not-for-profit which operates in the valley, is worried about the proposal. He notes that his organization has spent decades working to restore the lower Don, and that the city is also investing to make the ravines better public space.
“The lower Don is such an important gateway to the entire system, and it’s going to get compromised,” he said, adding that if Metrolinx insists on going ahead with the project it must include benefits to the community.
“We haven’t had great feedback about what those might be. And we’ve been feeding them a lot of strong recommendations, focused on … ecological restoration and public access.”
The train proposal is not subject to approval by Toronto politicians. Metrolinx answers to the provincial government and expects to have the facility operational within five years. Critics are trying to rally opposition, saying their last hope is to generate enough public noise that Queen’s Park backs down.
“What if the ravine was not available to them?” asked Lani Selick, a retiree whose home is on the east side of the Don Valley.
“Why does it have to be an either/or, why is it the ravine or better transit? That’s just, that’s not a realistic analogy. It’s not a fair analogy.”
This is one of a series of local fights that have embroiled Metrolinx since it embarked on a massive plan to increase transit service. The agency is also facing criticism, on other projects, for forcing the relocation of a cherished neighbourhood grocery store and community hub in Thorncliffe Park and for planning to cut scores of trees in the Small’s Creek Ravine, around Danforth and Woodbine.
In the case of the Don layover facility, Metrolinx says it will let the agency store the trains close to downtown Union Station, saving time and helping to maximize service. While the ultimate design remains a work in progress, staff are promising to plant trees that would eventually offer a level of visual screening between the new infrastructure and trail users. The agency’s mock-up shows facilities largely hidden behind a chain-link fence and greenery.
Opponents are not convinced. Tom Grydziuszko, who came to love the valley while working nearby, has created a bleak mock-up of what he fears the site will look like. He notes that a 10-metre retaining wall, at least part of which would be made of dirt, would be as tall as the one at the notorious Attica state prison in New York.
“Try to imagine a train maintenance facility in Central Park, or Hyde Park in London,” he said. “This is the downtown park.”
Mr. Grydziuszko has also launched a website, notrainsinparks.ca, to advocate for the protection of the city’s disappearing green spaces.
Although the Don Valley is used by many walkers, bicyclists and bird-watchers – a number that swelled noticeably during the pandemic – it was for decades a site of industry. Flowing water powered mills and industrial waste accumulated. While in the 19th century people would swim in the Don, by the early 20th it was a spot where people would drive their cars into the shallows for a wash.
It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the idea of the Don as a spot to cherish instead of a dumping ground gained serious traction. Volunteers led cleanup operations. Thousands of trees were planted. Animal populations grew. While the water remained polluted, and nothing could be done about the Don Valley Parkway, much of the remaining area took on a bucolic charm.
That lengthy effort created fierce defenders of the river valley.
“We wouldn’t be building the Don Valley Parkway in the Don Valley today if it wasn’t there,” said Floyd Ruskin, a founding member of the community group Don’t Mess with the Don. “It wouldn’t happen. Our sensibilities to our green space and the importance of this wouldn’t allow it … so why are we forgetting the lessons of the past?”
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