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Scarborough Civic Rink with snacks and skate loans
Knock out a wall, add some windows, snacks, and loaner skates.
The existing but empty market building could be used for skate lending.
Each could be done for between $5000 and $30,000. But sadly, city hall wouldn't consider our report. The councillors message was effectively "go away." So for now we'll have to stop trying to help make rinks better. But we'll still document what rink users say, and what we see on rink visits.
For the past thirteen years, our small charitable public space group, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), has run a website called cityrinks.ca. It deals with Toronto’s unusually large number of compressor-cooled outdoor ice rinks (53), most of them municipally owned. More recently, our website has also documented a variable number of natural ice rinks, both community-built and on frozen water. We don’t write about indoor arenas. By now, this website is a richly-detailed archive of ice-making and skating and winter sociability in Toronto. We offer this report to share what we feel are the current challenges to the outdoor rinks, and what solutions are available. We'll start with the summary list, and then back it up with the detailed stories.
Challenge: low attendance at many rinks
Fixes: make rinks more comfortable, have family-friendly social spaces, add snack bars, skate lending, better publicity, outreach e.g. to schools, places of worship, agencies with newcomer groups etc.
Challenge: rinks that have few public hours or are not well known in their neighbourhoods
Fixes: increase drop-in hours for rinks that are low, set up skate lending, put in direct phone lines for better communication.
Challenge: environmental, i.e. too much energy use relative to number of skaters
Fix: modify outdoor rink season to fit the sun (return all but Nathan Phillips and Greenwood rinks to mid-November/first-Sunday-in-March)
Fixes: use staff better, set up skate lending and food for income generation
Challenge: insufficient and uninteresting workload for staff
Fixes: restructure the job descriptions to be broader and more challenging, require better performance (e.g. get ice in on time at beginning of season, run more varied programming), allow staff to collaborate, acknowledge and reward successes
Challenge: central one-size-fits-all management
Fixes: experiment with modified local outdoor rinks boards of management, 50/50 decisions between staff and rink friends e.g. for timing of season, hours of operation, permits, programs. Evaluate according to user numbers
The City of Toronto outdoor rink website says that 36 of the outdoor rinks will open on Nov.28. 14 others will open on Dec.5.
Both city hall (Nathan Phillips) and Harbourfront had plenty of ice already by Nov.23. That's because they started doing their night-time floods on Friday or Saturday, seven days before opening day. None of the other 35 city rinks started their ice-making before Nov.24 -- four days before the rinks were supposed to open.
In Etobicoke, there were some 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. ice-making shifts. So they already had some ice thickness on Wednesday morning. Some downtown rinks (for example, Ramsden) were just starting to put water down on Wednesday evening -- three days before opening day! -- and it looked like the staff all went home at 11pm. So on Saturday, many rinks may not be open, or if they are open, they'll have very rough ice. The blame will probably be shifted onto the weather, or even onto global warming -- not on substandard technique, which is the real problem.
Warm weather in late November has not been unusual historically -- see our almost-70-year temperature chart. Even so, for many years, the City of Toronto's municipal outdoor ice rinks successfully opened mid-November, after four days of night floods (no longer the practice). They always closed on the closest Sunday to March 1, when outdoor ice is no longer practical because the sun gets too high.
LeFrak Ice Rink in Prospect Park NYC has been open since October 31.
But whatever collective knowledge there was about ice-making in the 1990's seems to have faded out. Thursday November 26 was cloudy but the high was 15 celsius. It would have been good to have a bit more ice, and it would have been good, also, if that ice had been laid down and frozen in thin sheets instead of two or three massive floodings on Wednesday (that's what happened at many of the downtown rinks). "Many thin layers" is the standard. Pointing the hose straight down so that the water breaks up the new ice is not the standard. But that's also what happens a lot.
In the evening of Nov.26 it was still 15 degrees, but at Dufferin Rink the rink staff came around 8 pm and gave the rink a heavy flooding. So at 9 pm it was still mostly water. Meanwhile the forecast calls for lots of rain overnight and tomorrow in the daytime.
Is it possible that, after all these years of skaters trying to promote better ice-making, many of the next round of staff still somehow don't get how ice is made on compressor-cooled cement?
"Extended season" offered by Parks director Richard Ubbens actually opens the "early" rinks 9 days later later than scheduled in other years e.g. in 2011, and keeps them open in unskateable slush. Original rink season before amalgamation: mid-November until the last Sunday in February. That's the right timing and length.
Awful decision. What part of "March sun" can city councillors not understand? The unamalgamated city had mid-November to first Sunday in March. That makes sense. The rinks this past March had a mere smattering of skaters (almost nobody wants to do winter stuff in March) and the ice was bad a lot of the time. A $250,000 waste of funds if you add up the tax money and the donut money. We have been trying to get that message to the councillors, city staff have numbers to prove it, and this media circus of staying open to the end of March break just keeps rolling along.
We need a good municipal comic who can show how ridiculous this stuff is and make everybody laugh. Where is that person?
In the middle of February, Mayor John Tory found out about a plan to spend $10,000 to add a dozen complicated electrical outlets for more public wi-fi in the Council Chamber. The Mayor was quoted in the media: "I would just say, no thank you, and that would be $10,000 on the way to finding efficiencies, which I said I was going to do over the course of the next year."
Here's an even more impressive efficiency: close all the outdoor rinks except for City Hall and Greenwood, on Sunday March 15. That will save $67,500 from the operating budget, on the other 15 city-funded rinks scheduled to stay open to the end of March break. (We're not counting the extra 12 rinks funded by Tim Horton's and MLSE).
Too bad about the $135,000 already spent to keep all those city-funded rinks open between March 1 and March 14, with mushy ice that was mostly unskateable, and very few skaters even wanting to try it. It's been painful to walk by a rink that has two skaters, with pylons set out and the sound of compressor motors whining at high speed from inside the rink plant, fighting the high March sun.
The City says it costs $4500 to keep one rink open for a week. That's $643 a day, for rinks that would make good ice at 12 degrees on a weak-sun November day, but get mushy and develop dangerous holes on a sunny day at -1 in March. The city has two popular rinks that have sun protection and can keep good ice in: City Hall, with all-afternoon shade from the 43-story Sheraton Hotel to the south, and Greenwood, whose hockey rink got a $3 million roof a few years ago. Mayor Tory, please ask your staff to put those two good rinks to use during March break and save the $67,500 by shutting down the remaining 15 city-funded rinks on Sunday evening, March 15. Maybe even close the 12 rinks that are still open because of your corporate donours. Their ice is just as bad. You could refund Tim Horton's and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's final $54,000 of their donation -- to show them that the City doesn't spend money foolishly, at least not for longer than two weeks.
On Sunday February 22, 35 compressor-cooled rinks were scheduled to close for the season. In the coldest winter in decades, these rinks were supposed to close the earliest they have in years.
Mayor John Tory appealed to the private sector for donations to allow more of these rinks to stay open. Why? This rich city doesn't need a corporate handout. It needs common sense.
Here's the problem, easily solved. Too much of the city's allocated $6 million for the rink season was allocated to keep the other 17 rinks open until the end of March break -- March 22. They were set to stay open so late because city councillors are scared of the inevitable headlines if the rink schedules follow the rules of the sun instead of the school calendar. One year a Toronto paper ran a headline: "Pink Finks Sink Rinks." A left-leaning council had approved scheduling the end of the rink season at the beginning of March. Then came a few very cold days, with decent ice. The media were full of sympathy for the poor kids who wouldn't get to skate during March break. Two days later the sun came out and the rinks turned to mush. That was not newsworthy.
For many years, CityRinks has done studies and sent them around, showing that the original rink season, in place from the 1950s until amalgamation, makes the most sense. Rinks always opened mid-November and closed the first Sunday in March. That schedule was based on the smart understanding of the original rink builders. But it doesn't play well in a context of wishful thinking about the poor sad kids who want to skate during March break.
The interesting thing is, in those few years when March break came very early and the weather was unusually cold, the kids didn't come out during March break anyway. By March, most people, adults and kids, seem to have lost their taste for winter. Even with good ice, the rinks often have barely a handful of skaters. And with mushy ice, the rinks shut down for all but a few hours in the evenings, while the compressors struggle around the clock and fuel costs go way up.
Fixing the problem doesn't need another star-turn bailout. The best thing is to let all the compressor-cooled rinks open in mid-November, when skaters are excited about winter and the sun has very little strength. Then close all but a few of the most shade-protected rinks on the first Sunday in March, and get ready for spring. But this sensible schedule can only return if city councillors and the media can learn the elementary physics of the effect of sun on ice, so they can tell the truth to Torontonians.
But good sense will not return this year. On Friday Feb.20, the mayor announced that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) and Green for Life will each donate $100,000 to raise the total of later-closing rinks to 29. A Feb.21 2015 Globe article points out that MLSE got a $10 million loan from the city to expand its BMO soccer field, and Green for Life is one of the city's private garbage contractors.
The article also says that city staff have logged much lower usage late in the season, no matter what the weather. The mayor says he understands this. So who is pushing for even more rinks to stay open into the high-sun mushy season?
The almost snowless January, combined with steady cold made natural ice rinks a dream this year, all over the city. That includes Grenadier Pond in High Park, which had over a kilometre of 12-inch-thick, smooth, snow-less ice for most of the month. Nevertheless, the usual yellow “No Skating, No Access” signs ringed the pond, and on a few occasions a by-law officer tried (unsuccessfully, from the shore) to whistle skaters off. The City Parks By-law has a subsection on skating, which includes: 608-21 B: No person shall access or skate on a natural ice surface in a park where it is posted to prohibit it.
The same by-law also prohibits anyone being in a park between midnight and 5.30 a.m., tree climbing, snowball fights, weeding park gardens without a permit, or playing informal group sports without a permit. (Really?)
From Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee: "...for decades, even generations now, people have been coming to Grenadier Pond to skate, municipal codes be damned." Actually, until the mid-1990s people didn't have to damn the municipal code. Skating was not only allowed on Grenadier Pond, the city encouraged it and made it nicer. In the years when the ice was thick the city staff made a daily campfire and put straw bales around it so people could warm themselves. There were no rink guards -- who needs them on a pond? And the cost of having those two friendly campfire staff must have been less than the cost nowadays of putting up all those yellow signs and sending out by-law officers. The bylaw banning skating on the pond was not actually made until 2002, and part of the reason given then was saving the money it took to staff the campfire and clear a path on the ice. Before that, on those flukey winters when the ice froze before the snow came, the pond used to look like a Breughel painting, alive with skaters.
Last month, there were nine media items about skating on Grenadier Pond, including editorials in the Star and the Post. They all pointed out the same thing: skaters can be reminded that they skate at their own risk and they should be careful. The city can drill for ice thickness measurements and post that information without comment. Meantime, happy pond skaters practiced civil disobedience in January, before the snow.
Some of Toronto's 52 compressor-cooled outdoor rinks are bare-bones sports-facilities, but some are also important wintertime social spaces for their neighbourhoods.
Last month, as in many Decembers before, the rink information schedule on the city’s website indicated that most of the city’s 52 compressor-cooled rinks would keep their buildings locked on all three statutory holidays – Christmas Day, Boxing Day (yes, really) and New Year’s Day -- three of the holidays when neighbours like to greet one another, and perhaps catch up a little, at the rink. The ice surfaces would be unlocked for skating, but if people wanted to change their skates or have have a chat on a bench in a warm spot, or take their kids to the washroom, they would be out of luck.
Our cityrinks.ca website crew have been visiting these 50+ rinks for more than 10 years, and reporting on how they’re doing. We’ve been arguing with city management for almost as long about keeping the rinks open on those major holidays. And as the city website shows, now they do – but only the ice surface.
However, that’s not the whole story. This year we found that the change rooms and washrooms were open at all the rinks we visited in Etobicoke, on both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, even though the city’s web schedule and 311 said they were closed. The busier of the Etobicoke rinks even had rink staff on site. On Boxing Day, a few of the downtown rink buildings we visited were open too, including the newly rebuilt Hodgson Rink and Greenwood Rink, both heavily used. But on New Year’s Day, those rinks were locked. Outside, parents were tying up kids’ skates with frozen fingers (it was a bitter wind). Skates, shoes, shin pads, helmets, snow pants were spread out all over the ground. And if somebody needed to go to the washroom…..
The reason for closing seems to be that staff are paid time-and-a-half on stat holidays. Closing the buildings saves that bonus money.
So here’s the math: Hodgson Rink has just been rebuilt for $2 million. Greenwood Rink was rebuilt last year for $3.4 million. The extra holiday bonus saved by not having a staff person to keep the rink buildings open on New Year’s Day is $77.00 for nine hours, per rink.
Canadians are famously polite, so they don’t tend to complain about much, other than the weather. But who doesn’t like transparency? Surely city management could put up posters at the locked rink buildings, clarifying the reason for saving the $77.00. If it’s to pay off the construction costs, it would be helpful to give a time frame – how long would it take before the $3.4 million Greenwood Rink cost would be paid off and holiday skaters could use the warm benches, have a chat with their neighbours, and go to the washroom again? Or if the closings are related to the city’s Parks and Recreation operating budget – maybe $400+ million a year isn’t quite enough – would it work if staff stood in front of the locked rink buildings with a bell, a Santa hat and a donation box? When $77.00 had been collected (surely not hard with all those people who want to skate with their families and friends on the main holidays), they could unlock the door. Problem solved.
Postscript: In Ward 18, all three rinks (Dufferin, Wallace, and Campbell), were open on all three holidays. On two of the holidays, so were Ramsden Rink (in Rosedale), and all the Etobicoke rinks. Transparency needed, again. Why the unequal treatment?
Soon after David Miller was first elected as mayor in 2003, he took a trip to Baltimore. He came back with stars in his eyes, a convert to their 311 information system. 311 was the central number you could call in Baltimore to report a pothole or a slummy house or a broken park bench. 311 was backed by a system called “citistat” described as “an ‘executive information system’ like those used by corporations such as Frito-Lay or Mrs. Field’s Cookies.” The idea was to get as much data as possible and enter it into a system where it could be continuously analyzed by management. The system’s boosters described it like this: “Tracking citizens ‘ complaints, requests, tips, and comments can provide a wealth of information about service levels, employee interaction, and neighbourhood conditions and trends. Baltimore’s 311 telephone line provides a comprehensive system for gathering this kind of ‘soft’ data.” And the gathering of data would somehow lead to tremendous savings – officials in Baltimore say they have realized over $40 million in financial savings since they put in this system.
Wow! Mayor Miller came back and made sure that Toronto got one of those 311 systems as well. And since then, every few years there have been reports to the council committees about how well city staff feel the system is working and how much money they assume it's saving.
But we have to give it a big bad raspberry for ice rink information. Before 311, rink users could look in the phone book and call their local rink to ask about ice conditions. Then they could decide if they ought to get their skates and come down, or not bother until the ice was better. But in 2006 the order came to make individual rink telephone numbers unavailable to the public. Skaters were instructed to call one convenient number for rink information: 311.
CityRinks.ca has been tracking 311 for about five years. The 311 outdoor rink information is wrong more than 50% of the time calculated over a whole season; during storms that goes up to 90% wrong. No wonder. Toronto has more municipal outdoor compressor-cooled ice rinks than any city in the world – over 50. Every time the weather changes (sometimes three times a day), ice conditions may change. That’s way too many updates to be entered into a central reporting system.
At the Ward 18 rinks, phone numbers continue to be unofficially available. For Dufferin Rink: 416 392-0913. For Wallace Rink: 416 392-0911. For Campbell Rink: 416 392-6921 (but often out of order). A phone call is a simple, straightforward solution for a problem made complicated (and expensive) through 311. Sooner or later, other rinks will need to return to using the phone again too.
Some rinks had their compressors turned on last Saturday (Nov.15). Then on Sunday night it snowed. Periods of snow mixed with rain continued all through the day on Monday, finally stopping in the evening. Presumably the compressors were turned on because that was a decision made some time ago -- to cool down the cement slab for those rinks that were set to open early. It would have been a good idea, if the weather had been as warm as in other years -- but in fact there had been four days of near-freezing temperatures before Saturday. The slabs would have cooled down on their own.
Still, there would have been no harm to running the compressors if not for the snow. But as it was, because the compressors were on before ice-making had begun, the snow became glued to the bare cement slab. It made a big mess. It seems that there is not enough flexibility in the city's rink management to react to weather at those rinks that had been turned on. Would it have been possible to turn off the compressors when the weather forecast warned of snow? Maybe not....
On Monday evening the temperatures were just above freezing. Dufferin Rink had lumpy snow stuck all over it, but we decided to do a 6x20 foot test patch with the hot water hose to see if the snow would come off easily. It did. That left a lot of water which ought to be removed so that the slab would dry and ice-making could start properly (thin layers of ice laminated one over the other). Could a zamboni have helped to remove the water?
Who knows? There were no ice-making staff who came to the park on Monday evening. Nor is there communication between people who use the rink or run the programs, and ice maintenance staff. The ice makers are in a silo hermetically sealed from all rink users including the program staff.
The next morning, as forecast by Environment Canada, temperatures plummeted to minus 9, winds gusted to 70 K an hour, and the ice-making staff, scheduled weeks before, began hosing the rink. They no longer found it easy to get the snow off the slab. The water they sprayed on froze everything into an even bigger mess.
Some day, maybe in five years, maybe in ten, some of the outdoor rinks may be run by locally-based crews instead of the current one-size-fits-all central management. In this blog, we'll continue to try to record what works and what doesn't. It will be our manual for that hoped-for day when experience and ingenuity will run the show.
I don't think the Wallace compressor is on and the snow/rain that fell is frozen solid to the rink pads.
The snow and ice stayed on Wallace (even though there is no chance the compressors were on) because the temp went to minus 9 and didn't go up much in the daytime, and I'm guessing that no snow was removed beforehand when it was still warmer (on Monday).
Rinks where compressors were off and also snow was removed (on Monday, before the temperature went down):