GDRA Position Paper on Moss Park

GDRA Position on Moss Park

Position Paper on the Proposed Location of the New Community Centre in Moss Park

Position Paper on the Proposed Location of the New Community Centre in Moss Park

Background and Clarification

In the recent consultation meeting held at the John Innes Centre on September 14, 2016, a number of members of the Garden District Residents Association raised objections to the revised design for the community centre and the park.  It is very important up front to clarify the nature of this objection.  In particular, we should make clear that:

  • The GDRA is NOT objecting to the building of the new facility.  In fact, we are deeply grateful that Moss Park was chosen as the site for this important addition to the fabric of our city.
  • The GDRA has NO objections to the proposed design for the building itself and/or the programs intended for the facility.
  • It is not our intent to delay the approval process or the construction of the new facility

The primary focus of the GDRA’s concern is the decision taken after much of the consultation had already been completed to re-locate the site of the building from the east to the west end of the park.  While we appreciate the expediency of having the John Innes Centre open during the construction of the new facility, we strongly believe that the compromises to the long-term success of the park outweigh the short-term benefit of leaving the existing building in place during construction.

We are also concerned about the general shift away from the current focus of Moss Park as an athletic and active recreational facility towards a more passive, traditional park.

When the various stakeholders involved in this project hear the GDRA complaining about a lack of consultation, it is with reference to these specific issues only.

Context of Our Concerns: A Drift in Intended Purpose

It is perhaps best to explain the context for the general and growing sense of unease in the neighbourhood about the direction of the Moss Park project by starting with our original understanding of the intended goals of the project.  This is relevant because for a great many residents it was the best news about the future of our neighbourhood we had heard in years.

As originally imagined, the story was of an ideal combination of a new and exciting athletic facility concept in need of a home and a sad, decrepit facility that desperately needed to be replaced.  It seemed like a perfect match.  The background of the new facility was especially interesting.  Leveraging a substantial and very generous donation from an anonymous private individual, a new athletic facility was to be built with a particular though not exclusive focus on the needs of the LGBT community for safe, world-class facilities.  As the recipient of the donation, the 519 was to be involved in the development process as well.

In this story, the role of the sad, decrepit facility is played to perfection by the John Innes Community Centre at the east end of Moss Park and the adjacent Moss Park Arena.  Unlikely in the near future to be addressed purely within the City’s capital budget, the facility was in desperate need of a creative, out-of-the-box solution. 

The notion of an athletic facility being placed in Moss Park was very fitting since Moss Park, unlike other parks in the area has always been first and foremost an activity-oriented space.  This was very deliberate: Moss Park was designed specifically as a recreation space for the large number of new low-cost housing developments built in the immediate area during the 1960’s and 70’s.  As a result, Moss Park has a full-size softball diamond and outfield, a full-size, multi-sport playing field, and two tennis courts.

There was some confusion initially as to whether the proposed project would touch Moss Park itself.  There was already an initiative underway by the City parks department to examine designs for how the park itself could be approved, and it wasn’t clear how the two initiatives might complement or overlap.

If we move forward in time to the renderings presented on September 14, a great deal has changed:

  • The athletic facility has become a community centre with some athletic facilities with no mention of the previous LGBT focus
  • The design now extends to include the whole park, and the space set aside for active recreation has been considerably reduced in favour of a more passive, traditional park setting
  • The overall project has evolved from a focused effort that would have solved the lingering problem of the John Innes Centre to a re-development on a massive scale
  • Rather than the replacing of the John Innes centre, the most recent design sites the new facility in a manner that destroys the existing outdoor athletic facilities only to restore some of them once the new building is opened, the old facility is torn down, and the site is remediated: realistically a period of 4-5 years.

Disconnect in the Consultation Process

We believe a disconnect occurred because there was no advance warning that a significant change in the design was to be discussed at the design meeting in July.  Residents had been satisfied with the consultation up to that point, assumed any changes to be presented would be minor, and in the middle of summer a number of the residents were away.  Hence there was a relatively low turnout from the immediate neighbourhood at that meeting.

We are prepared to assume that the design team did not see the re-location of the facility as a “big deal” warranting a great deal of pre-meeting publicity.  Unfortunately, for the neighbourhood, it is actually a very big deal.

 

Specific Concerns

1.        IMPACT ON MOSS PARK

Misrepresentation of the Use of Moss Park Today

Our concerns about the impact on Moss Park start with the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the use of the park today: you cannot fully assess the impact of the plan to re-locate the centre into the area of the park containing the current athletic facilities without a clear understanding of how the park is currently used.

In furthering the case for moving the facility to the west end of the park, the argument has been made that while the John Innes Centre is home to a number of important programs the park itself is hardly utilized.  Statistics regarding bookings for programs in the park are cited as proof of low utilization.  These statements are deeply misleading:

1.      As the design team for the new park themselves pointed out, the use of parks is typically not programmed.  Unless someone has been counting each tennis player on the courts, each dog walker, each game of pick-up soccer, and each person sitting under a mature tree as shade on a hot day, then there are no statistics on which to base the assertion that the park is barely used.

2.      As the immediate neighbours of the park, we can assure you that this park is in fact heavily used and is a very active outdoor recreation space:

a.      There is rarely a time during waking hours when both tennis courts are not in use. 

b.      The softball diamond is in constant use from midday to late into the evening.

c.       Moss Park is one of the few off-leash dog parks – a feature that attracts a huge amount of usage 

d.      In addition, each day, many hundreds of people walk through the park or stop to enjoy one of the rare open green spaces downtown. 

3.      Moss Park, equally as the John Innes Centre, is a critical asset to the health of our residential neighbourhood.  Apart from the number of petition signatures we have gathered, we have no other statistic to gauge the impact of the park on the health of our neighbourhood.  That makes the concern no less valid. The park adds value by its very presence.

The Long-Term Loss of Outdoor Athletic Facilities

In the revised design, the overall footprint reserved for athletics such as soccer, softball, and cricket are dramatically reduced in favour of more traditional park space.  It is our position that the outdoor athletic facilities are, of all the current features of the current park, the most difficult to replace.  The character of Moss Park as an active space for outdoor athletic activities should not be lost as part of this project.

The Length of Time the Park will be Unavailable

In particular, the decision to move the centre to the west side of the site will also affect the length of time that the park is unavailable.  Under the original plan, we had assumed that the rest of the park, apart from the portion immediately adjacent to the existing centre, would be largely untouched during the construction of the new facility or at least the construction of any modifications to the existing park would coincide with the construction of the new facility.

With the move to the west side and the continuation of the John Innes facility, there will be two large buildings impinging on the footprint and therefore the usability of the park.  While new facilities such as basketball courts could have been built simultaneously with the new centre, with the new design, these facilities will have to wait until the old centre is knocked down and the site is remediated.

We believe the least impactful approach to preserving as much of the usability of the park as possible is to concentrate the construction at the east end of the site while moving forward with the renovation of the park space as soon as practicable. 

 

2.     SITE POSITION CONCERNS

Over and above our concerns about the impact of the site location change, we have some very serious concerns about the impact of siting the new building at the west end of the park.

Site Position Concern #1:  The New Laneway

A feature of the design since the re-location of the facility is a relatively narrow strip of land between the west wall of the building and the start of the Moss Park Armoury property.  As we understand the design, this land might be used in part as a vehicular laneway.  Whether trafficked or not, this narrow strip of land, largely unobserved from the rest of the park will become a haven for criminal activity.  For a preview of this effect, we invite stakeholders to visit the laneways in the immediate vicinity of George St. north of Dundas.

And, no, lighting will not solve this problem.

We strongly urge the design team to consult with Toronto Police Service 51 Division to discuss aspects of the design for the west end of the park that will facilitate criminal activity.

Site Position Concern #2:  Impact on Shuter Street

Shuter Street forms the southern boundary of the residential portion of the GDRA footprint.  It is in many ways a neglected street despite the row of 19th century townhomes that line its north side and provide much of the character to the neighbourhood. 

The streetscape is already degraded by the “back” of the Moss Park Armoury presenting a chain-link fence, a parking lot, a new HVAC plant, and a couple of commercial dumpsters.  To learn that this feature will be joined by the “back” of the new Moss Park community centre is of deep concern to the residents along Shuter Street.

Despite the intent to enclose the service entrance, there will be truck traffic and backups along the single lane of Shuter as cars access the parking, leading to the unmistakeable sense that Shuter Street is serving as the back alley for the facility.  Of course, the architectural gem that is to be the “front” of the building on Queen Street will be no-where in sight, replaced by a blank wall enclosing a service entrance.  This is simply unacceptable.

Site Position Concern #3:  Orientation Relative to Allan Gardens

We have embraced the vision that the councillor’s office has articulated for some years now of a revitalized Garden District anchored by our two “gardens”, Allan Gardens and Moss Park, to the north and south.  Part of that vision included the use of Pembroke Street as a primary axis connecting the two parks. 

We believe a critical component of the success of that vision is the sense of arrival and welcome at either end of the avenue.  The revised design clearly orients the entrance of the new facility towards Queen Street.  We strongly urge that Shuter Street be as if not more visually welcoming to visitors to the park as the Queen Street side (and not be seen as the back alley).

Site Position Concern #4:  Scale and Shadow

The height of the new facility is roughly equivalent to a 9 or 10-storey building.  At this height, it is going to cast a significant shadow.  Why would you position the building in such a way that this shadow will fall across the park itself and the residential neighbourhood on the north side of Shuter?  Positioned as original intended, the shadow would have fallen on the east side of Sherbourne Street.  We honestly don’t think the Dollarama would object.

Scale is creeping in on the Garden District from all sides.  There are a number of very tall condo developments that are planned, are under construction, or have recently been completed.  To minimize the impact of their scale, we have been successful in working with the councillor’s office to attempt the following three mitigations to proposed building designs:

1.      Concentrate the tall buildings on the fringes of the neighbourhood

2.      Height should step down into the neighbourhood.  For example, of the two towers being built at 220 Dundas East, the eastern of the two is considerably shorter.

3.      Avoid casting shadows on parks and school playgrounds

By re-locating a 9- to 10-storey building to the west side of the park, we are breaking all three of these guidelines, while the original design conforms to all three.  By moving next to the existing Armoury, the building steps UP into the neighbourhood, moves closer to the centre of the neighbourhood, and, as already noted, casts a significant shadow on a public park.

In its original location, the building perfectly reflected the step-down approach from the large apartment buildings on the east side of Sherbourne.

Site Position Concern #5:  The Looming Disaster on Sherbourne Street

Of all of the concerns about the re-location of the site away from the east side where the John Innes Centre is currently located, the most significant for many of the residents in the immediate area is the removal of the physical barrier between the east end of the park and Sherbourne Street.

With the Armoury at one end and the existing facility at the other, the buildings currently form a cradle of sorts that allows the park to be more of a safe zone.  Losing this effect will directly impact the safety and viability of the park.

It is a hard reality in the vicinity of Moss Park that there is a significant criminal element that preys on many of the most disadvantaged persons in our area.  There is significant criminal activity across the area, but this is particularly true of the east and west sides of Sherbourne between Queen and Shuter.  This area is literally a “no-go” zone for many people who have heightened concerns about their personal safety.

To open the park on the east side is to invite that criminal element to move deeper into the park.  While we accept that everyone has a right to be in the park, no-one has the right to regularly engage in criminal activity in the park, and it is critical that every reasonable effort be made to discourage it.

For a preview of how this would materialize, we invite the stakeholders to visit the southeast corner of the park, past where the arena ends and there is no physical barrier between Sherbourne and the rest of the park.  It is this area that is the worst in terms of criminal activity (including two murders), in part because there is no physical barrier.

We are also concerned about the visual presentation of the east side of the park with just the basketball and tennis courts in the area.  Given that these will be enclosed in some sort of fencing, most likely chain-link, the new park is going to look like a jail from the Sherbourne side.

Site Position Concern #6:  The Unnecessary Loss of Mature Trees

The revised plan calls for the removal of approximately 50% of the existing mature trees in the park.  In our view, that represents an act of vandalism.  It is also a remarkably tone-deaf suggestion given the current furor in other parts of the city about the loss of mature trees to development.

We understand that there will be a substantial net addition of trees once the project is finished, but surely the team can recognize the difference in impact of a sapling versus a mature tree.  The new trees all look mature on the renderings, but the reality is that it will take years for the trees to reach this size.

This issue would be relevant whether the site had been relocated or not, but leaving the new building on the site of the old one at least maintains the trees around the existing park.

 

4.     Concerns About Safety

In addition to our concerns about the loss of outdoor athletic facilities, the proposed design for the park portion of the development has raised a number concerns about safety:

  • Security related to the changes in elevation and the increase in the number of visual barriers [It should be noted that some years ago the City was forced to remove a significant number of shrubs and bushes throughout the park to create clearer lines of site to discourage criminal activity.]
  • The proposed bridge is of particular concern.  You are essentially creating a kiosk for drug dealing.

 

How to Provide Temporary Programming

We fully recognize that for the project to proceed, there is going to be some loss of indoor and outdoor recreation and program space for the duration of the project.  Our position is that temporary indoor programming space is far more available in the immediate area than outdoor space.  For example:

  • The new MLSE indoor sports facility is under construction at Jarvis and Dundas
  • Significant amounts of indoor programming space have been built into the design of the new Seaton House facility on George Street
  • The Regent Park swimming and recreation facilities are already opened

While none of these are perfect substitutes for the excellent new facilities that will result from Moss Park development, we would argue that they are more than adequate temporary replacements for the existing John Innes facility.

Summary of the GDRA Position

Our most urgent concern is the re-location of the building.  We understand that the proposal to move the building to the west end of the park might have seemed at the time as an elegant and consequence-free way of addressing continuity of service at John Innes.  Far from elegant or consequence-free, we believe that the decision to relocate the building threatens the long-term success of the entire endeavour. 

It is the position of the GDRA that the residents of the immediate area around the park are uniquely qualified to comment on the external impact of the facility, its location, and the design of the remaining park.  Literally every single person who either lives on the north side of Shuter or works on the south side of Queen that we have approached to discuss the re-location thinks it is a bad idea from a neighbourhood perspective.  A petition confirming this point of view will be sent to the councillor’s office this week.

At its core, the decision of whether the facility should be sited on the east or west side of the park is going to turn on the relative contribution of the John Innes Centre and Moss Park to the community.  The GDRA feels that while both are important assets, it will be easier to replicate the services provided by the John Innes Centre elsewhere on a temporary basis than it will be to replicate the value, however un-programmed, of the park.

WHAT WE ARE ASKING

Please …

1.      Move the facility back to the east side of the park, by all means leaving the building design intact, perhaps as a mirror image of the renderings from the most recent meeting.

2.      Invest the time and energy necessary to find alternative venues for at least some of the key programs currently hosted by the John Innes Centre during construction of the new facility.

3.      Recognize that not all stakeholders should have equal say on all aspects of the development.  When it comes to the design of the building and the programs to be housed in the building, specialists in design and community programming are clearly best positioned to comment and recommend.  When it comes to the park as a whole, please recognize that the design will have a huge impact on the fabric of the local neighbourhood and that the voices of those who live and work nearby should be heard the loudest.

4.      Talk to us.  Meet with us.  We will approach any conversation with open minds and a genuine interest in moving this project forward.

5.      Please let us know in advance if any more major changes to the design are contemplated.