Skip to main content

Secondary-school teacher Michael Calabrese used to sit in his backyard in Downsview Park when he first bought his home seven years ago, and gaze out across a sprawling open field. "There was hardly a noise," says the 40-year-old father of a one-year-old. "It was an oasis of calm in a bustling city."

That peace ended in 2010, when construction on Downsview Park reached the edge of his neighbourhood. But despite all the noise and dust, for the past two years, Mr. Calabrese, a long-time member of the Downsview Lands Community Voice Association (DLCVA), felt he had a degree of control over what was happening outside his dust-smudged windows. No longer.

This week, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose announced that Canada Lands Co., the Crown property management arm, would be taking over the stewardship of Downsview Park from Parc Downsview Park, Inc. As a result, the fate of Canada's largest urban national park – and Mr. Calabrese's neighbourhood – is now unclear.

Mr. Calabrese and other area residents worry about what the change will mean for them. He fears that, rather than adhering to the original plans for the land, the federal government will "just care about getting the most bang for their buck," and sell off the land to developers.

The DLCVA had a good relationship with Parc Downsview Park, Inc., the government-affiliated body charged for the past five years with building – and finding non-taxpayer-related ways to pay for – the park and adjoining 85 hectares slated for residential and commercial development. "We've worked closely and mostly amicably with the PDP to make sure densification didn't get out of control," says Mr. Calabrese. Under the PDP, 10,000 new housing units were approved for the site.

Now, some community members – who were not consulted about the management change – are worried their fears of over-building will fall on deaf ears. So far, Ms. Ambrose's office has said only that they expect an operational review of the land to be completed in the new year.

Residents such as Mr. Calabrese are concerned that Ottawa-based Canada Lands – whose mandate is to wring the best economic return from the sale of government property – will bump up the residential build-out to 20,000, even 30,000 housing units over the next 10 to 20 years.

"Traffic congestion is already a nightmare in this city," he seethes, "not to mention the added pressure on sewage disposal, and all other infrastructure. Let's just say it would have been nice to have been consulted."

In a press release last week, Canada Lands said it took over management of Downsview Park after it was determined that "opportunities were identified for improved management through clearer accountability and consolidated governance and reporting. This will streamline operations and reduce administrative overhead, thereby providing savings for Canadian taxpayers."

The minister's office declined this week to elaborate further.

Long-time Downsview resident Albert Krivickas, vice-president of the DLCVA, worries Canada Lands won't have the community's best interests at heart. "PDP was based in Downsview, and they heard us and listened to us," says Mr. Krivickas. "Does the federal government have a selling agenda to change the national park and surrounding lands to more development? We don't know. But too much planning has gone into this park for it to be all thrown away. What is going to happen to these plans now? Nobody is providing us with any answers."

Under Parc Downsview Park, Inc., plans were under way to construct a hockey arena with four rinks, as well as an aerospace/educational hub, a project intended to complement the existing Bombardier plant at the centre of the park that employs several thousand people.

Over the course of the past year, Ms. Ambrose's office has disbanded PDP's board. Its chair of the past five years, David Soknacki – a respected former councillor and city budget chief – is now looking for a new port of call. Like others, he has no clue why the original plan was jettisoned (the federal agency also took over management of the Old Port of Montreal, which is embroiled in a financial scandal). "Oh, I'm the wrong person to ask," he says.

"Our goal was to create a park without reaching into the public's pockets. So we created a plan that not only met the needs of financial sustainability, but also achieved just enough density to achieve the park and also create neighbourhoods that people were not only proud to live in, but live beside," says Mr. Soknacki. "By the end of our mandate, we had endorsements from the ratepayers' association and we feel we have exceeded the expectations. I understand that times change – it's not for us to speculate on what the minister is thinking. Presumably she has a plan going forward."

Prior to PDP stepping in to take control in 2006, Downsview Park had largely been stalled, filling in mostly as the magnanimous host site for big-number events such as the Papal Mass in 2002 and the Rolling Stones SARS extravaganza the following year.

Downsview Park's current incarnation boasts a lake, hills, 60,000 trees, walking/running paths, and environmentally sensitive parking in an area bounded by Keele Street, Sheppard Avenue West, Allen Road and Wilson Avenue.

In 2015, the Spadina subway extension will be completed into Downsview, up to York University, and farther north into York region. Mr. Calabrese says three levels of government are footing the bill for the subway, and have told residents that 30 to 50 per cent of the "new residents" who live within 500 metres of a subway are going to take the subway, hence easing the gnarly congestion. Mr. Calabrese does not buy that. "What is the other 50 per cent or 70 per cent going to do? They're going to drive. It's as simple as that."

The DLCVA also fears inviting thousands of new residents into Downsview will increase crime and the already heavy burden on the area's water and sewage infrastructure.

MPP Monte Kwinter shares those worries. He's watching the recent development at Downsview Park with a sense of déjà vu. As a former chairman of the Toronto Harbour Commission in the early 1980s, he witnessed what happened to 36 hectares of waterfront that the federal government handed over as a centennial gift to the city of Toronto.

"The government said it would take control of the lands and make it into a natural park, give it funding for five years, and then it had to be on its own. To sustain programs, they started leasing the land, and now you have a wall of condos shutting off the waterfront to the people of Toronto. A similar pattern is developing at Downsview. Slowly there's been encroachment on the park," says Mr. Kwinter.

"I can't predict what's going to happen, but I can tell you the lesson I learned from the waterfront before."