On the surface, the dispute over Osgoode Hall’s gardens seems to pit the past against the present. The provincial transit agency Metrolinx is planning to build a station on the Ontario Line subway; it wants to place an entry building and excavation on the grounds of the historic courthouse. Heritage groups are furious.
It would be easy to read the situation as an inevitable conflict between progress and conservation. But it’s not. In fact, Metrolinx could almost certainly find another way to build the station – and leave the city better off, by moving along an important park project.
If it can be bothered, that is.
The corner of Queen Street and University Avenue will be one stop on the Ontario Line, the $17-billion-plus subway project which, for the most part, enjoys broad support from transit experts.
The issue – and subject of litigation before Ontario Superior Court this week – is whether and how this touches the grounds of Osgoode Hall. That facility dates back to 1832, as home to the Law Society of Upper Canada and now provincial courts. Its grounds are some of the oldest formal green space in Toronto. In a city whose colonial development was largely a free-for-all, this area of lawns and treed garden certainly has significance.
It is also very handy if you’re looking for a large place to dig, lower excavation equipment and build stairs and elevators. Accordingly, Metrolinx has chosen it as the site for a “keyhole,” a large excavation, and also for a permanent station building.
For heritage advocates, this is a big problem. “We want the solution that minimizes the danger to the cultural heritage and natural heritage of this intersection,” says Liz Driver, the director and curator of Campbell House museum across the street and member of a coalition opposing the move.
The coalition suggests moving the excavation and the station’s entrance west off the Osgoode Hall grounds and onto University Avenue itself.
This has another benefit: It would fit with the vision of University Avenue as “University Park,” a grand linear park. This is a brilliant idea, and one that Mayor John Tory has formally endorsed; however, the city has not completed any detailed planning for it.
So why not make the shift? Can the hole move? Can it be smaller? Can the entrance move? Metrolinx says no. However, the agency won’t really explain any of its reasoning. When I submitted a list of technical questions this week, an anonymous Metrolinx representative failed to answer any of them in detail.
Is it too late? Who knows? It’s not clear how much design work has been done by Metrolinx or its consultants. (Metrolinx wouldn’t tell me.) All of this is sadly unsurprising. In recent years the agency has become spectacularly, stubbornly opaque in its dealings with the public and the media.
However, a city report from engineering firm Parsons studied the Osgoode problem and determined that the University Park solution could likely work; it would move at least the entrance building off Osgoode’s grounds.
The obstacles? One, Toronto doesn’t have a firm plan for the University Park project. The answer here is obvious: Make one. Let the province build the station entrance at whatever precise location makes sense, and design the park around it.
Two: It would, Parsons said, be technically complex to dig next to the existing Yonge-University Line subway tunnel.
But there are precedents for building subway stations in close proximity, says Shoshanna Saxe, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering who has worked on Toronto Transit Commission subway projects. “Technically, you can build almost anything,” Dr. Saxe adds. “It’s a value judgment: Is the Law Society site something that we, as a society, deem of value? How do we value it against other things?
Metrolinx is trying to make that decision itself and basically in secret. That is fundamentally wrong.
Moving the Ontario Line forward will be a very big job. It will disrupt the fabric of the city for a decade. But big public works should, as Ms. Driver suggests, leave the city better off in every respect.
When all the digging is done, University Avenue should be a greener, quieter and more beautiful place. And it should have a new subway entrance in it.