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The remaking of Toronto parks.
A summer serial, continuing through the fall and winter, February 2, 2012, Chapter Twenty-six
By Jutta Mason
Recap: According to a Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR) staff report obtained through Freedom of Information, for a park to run the way Dufferin Grove Park does leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” From May to November of 2011, PFR management put a lot of effort into making an “anomalies” inventory of Dufferin Grove Park and trying to make the anomalies fit in better. Despite this effort, many of the anomalies have not yet disappeared.
In the final third of this serialized Summer/Fall/Winter story, I’ll describe a different inventory project, carried out in a broader spirit. I want to use the womanly metaphor of what’s in the pantry. In a pantry, every item matters, and could conceivably be of use. A person tidying the pantry has to look carefully, sorting through supplies to find items hidden at the back of the shelves which could be recycled or repurposed. When money is limited, the person with an eye to the pantry can turn to making the best, thriftiest, most ingenious use of what’s already on the shelves. The point here is not homogeneity, but ingenuity – and diverse uses of existing resources.
Toronto’s parks, with their field houses, outdoor rinks, playgrounds, sports fields, natural ravines, and (at least potential) gathering places, are like well-filled pantries with a lot of items hidden at the back. Making good use of what’s in each of these pantries needs a lot of different people to attend to each individual location, and it can’t be done through central control. This chapter continues from Chapter 25 on the subject of using what we have now to turn more outdoor rinks into winter neighbourhood community centres. I want to contrast Campbell Rink in Ward 18 with Queensway Rink in Ward 5 (Etobicoke).
Queensway Rink, and the eight other compressor-cooled rinks without hockey boards in Etobicoke, are classified as “minor” rinks by Etobicoke parks management. All of their old rink change rooms have been kept locked for at least ten years. The rinks have no program staff, and so they show up on the city budget as very economical. When I recently went by Queensway Rink I saw a saw a brand new field house. But it was locked too. I wrote to the ward councillor, Peter Milczyn: why is the change room locked?
He invited me to come to his office and have a talk about it. He also invited capital projects coordinator Doug Giles and recreation supervisor Dave Hains. I brought Mayssan Shuja Uddin, who coordinates the three Ward 18 rinks.
Councillor Milczyn told us that the neighbourhood was established as a subdivision for returning soldiers just after World War Two, in 1947. Its streets curve around Queensway Park and one street goes right through. The park is surrounded by lots of cozy-looking small houses. Nobody at the meeting knew exactly when the rink was built. But the councillor said that around 1994 it was decided that the rink was run down and would soon need to be rebuilt, and it was put on the official “State-of-Good-Repair” list. There was a city-owned house across the street that was used as a senior’s centre. Since it wasn’t getting much attendance, the city sold the building for about $100,000 and put the money into the rink rebuilding fund.
Then came the forced amalgamation of the four cities. Councillor Milczyn said the sale money must have disappeared into the new City’s general funds. It was “really just a drop in the bucket” anyway, he said, for the funds needed to rebuild the rink. The rink project gradually moved up the capital projects to-do list, and in the summer of 2006, two architectural firms were hired to work on the design: Oleson Worland and Taylor Smyth. (These two firms had previously, in 2004, collaborated on a “Wabash ‘Green’ Feasibility study” for a state-of-the-art, 47,000-square-feet, $22 million community centre for Sorauren Park.) The Queensway project was to include a new field house with a community room and a rink change room, as well as a rebuilt rink pad and a generously-sized, nicely landscaped parking area. The existing rink and the modest existing field house would go. The new rink would be square, instead of rectangular. The square shape was to encourage pleasure-skating and discourage shinny hockey, which was seen as noisy and as tending to take over an outdoor rink, if given a chance.
The field house plan turned out to be too costly, so in 2007 the architects modified their plans to make a slightly smaller building, combining the skate changing room with the community meeting room. It was decided to do the project in stages, beginning not with the rink, but with the field house. $1.2 million was allocated, of which $250,000 was from the developer of an over-size condominium at Queensway and Islington. The rest was borrowed funds, to be gradually repaid though taxes and permit revenues.
There was a cost overrun, and the final cost of the field house was $1.54 million. There it stands, with tasteful soft-gray stone on the curving walls outside, lots of glass, and an impressive front entrance. But you can’t get in: there’s a sign that says “Building locked due to vandalism.” The washrooms were open for two weeks this winter, and during that time the washroom lights and doors were vandalized twice. So the washrooms were locked for the rest of the season.
That’s not the only reason the doors are locked, though. When I first wrote to the councillor’s office to ask about the field house, his assistant wrote back: “Councillor Milczyn has advised that it is intended to be closed/locked unless it has actually been permitted out to the community.”
The issue is cost recovery (a favourite term of the current city management).
How many permits would the City need to sell to pay off the $1.54 million cost of the field house? At $90 per permit (for such a small space), that would require 17,000 permits. If there were (realistically) three permits a week, it would take about 110 years to pay off the field house cost. At six permits a week, total field house cost recovery could be achieved in only 55 years. If permits went back-to-back on weekends as well, the field house cost might be recovered in 30 years.
Of course, that’s only the initial capital cost, and only of the field house, not of the new rink surface and the lights and the zamboni and the compressors. The considerable fuel costs to run the cooling plant, and the maintenance cost to keep such an intensively-used building clean and attractive to potential permit customers, are not included either.
So the goal of “cost recovery” for a fancy new rink is a pipe dream. It’s lucky that there are taxes to help pay for the Queensway Rink, so that permits only have to pay for a part of the cost.
But wait a minute....if taxes end up paying for most of the new rink, and yet the building is only used for private, paid permits, what are the taxpayers getting for their money, in return?
Not much, at the Queensway Rink field house. We learned from project coordinator Doug Giles that the building was completed in the fall of 2010. The councillor told us that up to this day, no use has been made of it. There was no money left over for furniture, for one thing, so the “skate changing/meeting room” area is mostly empty, with only two wall-mounted benches. Perhaps because there are so few benches, the field house was never entered into the permit system. After more than a year of locked doors, skaters have no access to change their skates, and it’s not possible to get a permit either.
Etobicoke has nine so-called “minor” rinks, with cooling plants and daily visits by ice-resurfacer machines. Each of the rinks has a small-to-medium size field house with some kind of a neighbourhood clubhouse room inside it, and each of those clubhouses is kept locked. All of the field houses have washrooms, and those washrooms are also generally kept locked, year-round. In central Toronto, it’s assumed that people having picnics, people strolling under the trees, people with young children, older people – all need washroom access. But Councillor Milczyn told me that it’s not the practice in Etobicoke to provide washroom access for people who visit parks. “If they need to use a washroom, they can go home,” his assistant said.
The councillor suggested that the new Queensway field house might eventually be used for seniors’ bridge club permits, or for private birthday party permits. In the summer, the recreation supervisor said, one of the summer camp programs from a nearby community centre might be moved to the field house. (Sadly, the city-run summer camps have declined steadily in their enrolment, and so the revenue coming from this source may be scant.)
We asked: what if a rink attendant were placed at the field house for four hours on Saturday afternoons and again on Sunday afternoons? Rink staff generally get minimum wage, so that would mean about $100 for the weekend, times twelve weeks is $1200 for the season. Then, if the recreation supervisor could scrounge a few old benches from some unused locker room, and borrow some rubber mats so the skaters could walk inside, perhaps the field house would begin its usefulness to those taxpayers who like to warm up, or chat, or go to the bathroom before they’re ready to go home....?
No dice. About ten years ago (by the recreation supervisor’s estimate) the decision was made not to place any staff at the half of Etobicoke’s rinks that are without hockey boards. That decision stands. The money’s not there, Councillor Milczyn said. But where, I asked, on the coldest winter days, would skaters change, if not in the room marked “skate change room” on the building plans? The councillor suggested the washroom, if it were opened to the public during skating hours.
That would match the situation of skaters at the new outdoor rink on the lakeshore, Sherbourne Commons. The glassed-in change room is off limits to skaters (only staff can sit in there). On cold days, skaters can change into their skates while sitting on the state-of-the-art toilets, or crouching in the corner near the sinks. At least it’s warm.
Meantime, in 2016, the next phase of the Queensway Rink “State-of-Good-Repair” project will begin. It will need new plans from architects and project coordinators, though. Councillor Milczyn startled the planner at our meeting by explaining that the square rink wouldn’t work after all. He wants the rink to have a bubble on it. The Park Lawn hockey club installed a bubble over the Park Lawn outdoor rink down the road, over twenty years ago. That bubble now needs to be replaced, but the condominium neighbours of the rink says the banging of the pucks ruins their peace and quiet. The councillor wants the Queensway Rink plans redrawn, so that the hockey club’s bubble rink can be moved over there. Back to the drawing board.
As for the old Queensway ice rink plant that was deemed to be at the end of its useful life in 1994 – it’s still there and still running in 2012. The old locked field house is still there too. It’s a rectangular box with no windows, but it looks pretty solid. It’s probably not much over 60 years old. (Buildings over 50 years old seem to automatically get on the city’s “overdue for replacement” list.)
What would have happened if, instead of borrowing money to build the $1.54 million new field house, the City had put some funds into the old field house? It would need a few eye-level windows, a new coat of paint, a couple of tables and benches, and a little kitchen/skate-lending room, plus some lights to illuminate the rink on the dark winter days (there’s only one small morality light). And what if the tax funds that the city uses every year now to pay the interest on its Queensway loan had been used instead to pay a few friendly, imaginative recreation staff? The question is not hypothetical. That’s more or less exactly what happened at Campbell Rink.
The story of Campbell Rink: It’s in a park surrounded by houses only slightly bigger than those around Queensway Park, most of them built just before or just after World War One. Campbell Park was established on three adjoining parcels of former industrial land at the urging of the Perth-Royce Community Council (Mrs.Beryl Campbell was the president), in 1946. One of the three properties had a coal yard and a cartage business there at one time. The second piece of land was owned by Eastern Power devices but used only for storage, and the third was a former depot for the Willard Storage Battery Co. (There were many industries in this working-class area because it was criss-crossed by rail lines).
As soon as the city bought the land, Campbell Park was set up for summer field sports and winter outdoor skating, on a natural-ice rink. The first compressor-cooled rink and field house were probably built sometime in the 1960’s. The rink pad was replaced in 2001, but the field house, a homely rectangular block-and-bricks building, remained unchanged except for the addition of one large front window in the change room, facing the street, and one smaller window in the office, facing the park.
From the early 1990s to around 2005, Campbell Rink had not only neighbourhood skaters but a good deal of drug-related commerce as well. The change room was sometimes locked for weeks at a time, to discourage the drug dealing and the fighting. But eventually someone would get hold of keys from some source, and then there would be an illegal winter clubhouse scene until neighbours noticed and called the police. Eventually an older city part-time staff was assigned there, to keep better order. He put in a little TV set and a pop cooler, and on rainy or snowy days, some of the flying squad zamboni drivers used to join him and a few skaters in his cozy office (sometimes for much of their shift).
Meantime, Dufferin Rink was struggling with the crowds nearby. The combination of good ice, reliable rink schedules, winter soup and cookies, skate loans (and welcoming staff) was attracting too many skaters, and sometimes it seemed that not one more person could fit in. In 2006, the rink staff asked their supervisor Tino DeCastro if he might let them try to reorganize the two other nearby rinks, Wallace and Campbell. The idea was that if those two rinks were friendlier places, people would spread out into all three rinks and Dufferin Rink wouldn’t be so crowded.
Tino said yes, and the staff got started. The reclaiming of Campbell Rink has been very different from Wallace Rink (chronicled in Chapter 25). Campbell Rink is tucked inside what was until recently a largely Portuguese neighborhood, far from any major streets with transit, and it’s a single pad. It was all shinny hockey all the time. Kids learned by hanging around the edges of adult shinny games – there was no time set aside exclusively for little kids. The sink-or-swim method resulted in excellent shinny skills, partly because so many of the players were each other’s cousins. They would look out for each other and help younger kids in a tough-love sort of way. Pleasure-skaters who wanted room to glide stood no chance, though, and as new people moved into the neighbourhood, they began to complain about the monoculture of fast, do-or-die shinny hockey.
The recreation staff started their changes off slowly. The TV was removed from the office, and small snacks and cookies were made available at the counter. In 2007, the staff organized the youth into an all-day shinny tournament with real referees, and it was a hit. Staff introduced a two-hour pleasure-skating time, with a campfire at the side of the rink, and they made donuts in a deep-fry pan right on the fire. The pleasure-skating time slot got only grudging acceptance until Michael Monastyrskyj, one of the older staff who lived around the corner form the rink, persuaded his colleagues to put on a DJ skate night. There was good music, free hot chocolate, and a campfire with meat roasted on a spit in the Portuguese style. That was a hit – more points for the staff.
The next year staff cannibalized the Dufferin and Wallace skate-lending collection to get enough loaner skates, gloves, helmets, and hockey sticks for Campbell Rink. Some of the staff visited the surrounding schools and invited teachers to bring their classes – with free skate-lending and free hot chocolate. That took off, slowly at first. Campbell Rink had a bad reputation, and the city’s ice maintenance carried on being very intermittent. The city councillor was lobbied year after year by rink users (and by me) to help Campbell and Wallace Rinks get more ice maintenance. The ice maintenance gradually got better. Staff brought over a big pot and a hot plate to make hot chocolate, and a little fridge for cold drinks. They laid in a supply of pucks and hockey tape to sell at cost (or occasionally give away). They found a few tables and old stools, and with the money donated for food, they bought some chess and checker sets. A children’s corner was set up near the front window, with storybooks and paper and crayons. Young families started using the rink to spend both outdoor and indoor time with their kids – and that raised the general language level (everybody knows you don’t swear around little kids).
As the rink began to diversify and flourish, the staff added some more food for hungry skaters – cookies and hot dogs and soup. Somebody donated a microwave. But even the minimal food preparation made dirty dishes, and the staff began to feel uneasy about their many trips to the bathroom to fill up pots of water that would then be heated for dishwater on the hot plate. The office had not been set up as a food counter – what could be done to follow good health rules?
Then in the spring of 2011, the new Ward 18 City Councillor, Ana Bailao, gave Campbell Park a huge boost. She found some funds in the city budget to put in proper plumbing and wiring for the clubhouse office/kitchen/skate lending room. Rink friend David Rothberg donated funds to equip the kitchen and also to buy more skates.
On opening day this season (December 3), Campbell Rink was full of shinny hockey players out on the ice. Inside, lead rink staff Marina DeLuca-Howard cooked macaroni and cheese in the new kitchen with plenty of help from the younger Campbell rink rats, who turned out to be avid cooks. Neighbours sat at the clubhouse tables and chatted over fair-trade coffee, and newcomers borrowed sticks and skates for their first-ever shinny hockey game. By early January, Marina and her colleagues and the rink kids began offering a Saturday Night Supper, and on the final Saturday of the month, the whole clubhouse was filled with tables and people enjoying their food. The kids served at the counter, and Councillor Bailao dropped in too. I had asked Michael Monastyrskyj to give an update on the looming municipal lockout/strike situation, but he had to tell it to people individually – there was so much friendly hubbub in the room that he couldn’t make himself heard.
I asked Councillor Bailao how much the wiring and plumbing had cost. She said she didn’t know the exact number – “a few thousand dollars.” Program staff for the whole rink season cost about $16,000 altogether. The familiar ad might say – “having a neighbourhood rink clubhouse that’s warm and welcoming and OPEN, unlike the beautiful, deserted Queensway field house – priceless.” But it’s not priceless. It’s cheaper than building new state-of-the art recreation buildings and then having them sparsely used by private permits, or locked, as in our Etobicoke examples. Saving money that way is a waste of public funds: “penny wise but pound foolish.”
My next chapter will include news about the municipal lockout. Paper copies may only be available at the rink’s information picket lines and the outdoor newsletter boxes, if the rinks are locked. At the time of writing, three days before the city-set deadline, Parks and Recreation management says they are not at liberty to reveal their contingency plans if the lockout goes ahead, since that would imply they are not negotiating in good faith. Can management do better at planning a lockout than planning good use for the Queensway Field House? We’ll soon see. In the next few chapters I also hope to describe (and contrast) a few more outdoor rinks, both underused and well-used, in the Etobicoke administrative district of the Park department. Next up are Sunnydale Rink, in Rexdale (Councillor Doug Ford’s ward), and Rennie Rink, just west of High Park.
Winter Story (2012) is published by the 'Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer