Yet another battle is brewing on the eastern waterfront, as the latest proposal for Toronto's moribund port lands casts a shadow over its most prized ecological asset, the Leslie Street Spit.
Parks Canada has confirmed that it is eyeing the area at the base of the Spit, now part of the renowned Tommy Thompson Park, as a prime site for a major exhibition "discovery centre" to showcase national parks and historic sites across the country. The project is the legacy of former Liberal Riverdale MP Dennis Mills's Save Our Waterfront report, released before he was defeated in last year's federal election.
But long-time Leslie Street Spit enthusiasts fear the proposed facility will be a ham-fisted intrusion into the wild nature of the park. They worry it could cut the Spit off at the neck, disrupting a vital wildlife corridor connecting the man-made finger of land with the port lands and Don Valley beyond.
John Carley, co-chair of the Friends of the Spit, points to another Parks Canada Discovery Centre opened on Hamilton Harbour last fall that is larger than a local hockey arena and surrounded by a large parking lot for more than 100 cars.
"Whatever the size of the building, it's going to have an enormous impact," says Carley of the proposed project, noting that the facility would require access roads, parking, water and other services not now present at the Spit.
"Over 25 years we have fought to show that a park doesn't have to look like a manicured lawn. It can be wild-looking," he says. "There has to be a recognition that the Spit and its base lands are a different kind of park, but as valid as a High Park, a Beaches park or a Queen's Park."
The site where construction could begin within a couple of years is now an area of moist meadows mixed with clumps of lithe, swaying cottonwoods and low shrubby willow thickets where yellow warblers, song sparrows and killdeer nest and tiny blue spring azure butterflies flutter amid June's profusely blooming dogwoods.
Abundant meadow voles, cottontails and, later in the season, grasshoppers, attract hovering kestrels, red-tailed hawks, night-stalking coyotes and foxes, while rare black garter snakes slither near the partially buried rubble that serves as ideal hibernacula for their winter slumbers.
Spit supporters point to an earlier proposal by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) for a modest two-classroom interpretive centre in the same location as the more eco-friendly plan. The TRCA, however, has jumped at the opportunity to instead incorporate its exhibits in the proposed new centre. "Our budget's very tight,' says Nancy Gaffney, the Authority's waterfront specialist and a member of the proposed discovery centre's design team. "It's better for us to link up with Parks Canada.'
And while Parks Canada says it's looking at other possible sites for the discovery centre in the stretch of waterfront between Cherry Beach and the Spit, the Spit base lands are the only site where it has drilled soil samples to check for contaminants and the bearing capacity for building.
Carley believes the Spit base has become the prime candidate mainly because Tommy Thompson Park already attracts more than 100,000 people a year, and Parks Canada "wants to go where the action is.'
Ross Thomson, project manager for Parks Canada's $1-million feasibility study for the centre, agrees that the area's strategic location at the entrance to the heavily travelled Spit makes it ideal. "Access is a really key consideration because you want the facility to be located where the most people can readily get to it," he says, adding that in addition to promoting Canada's national parks, "the discovery centre would also function as a gateway to Lake Ontario Park."
(This new park, which will take in the lakeshore from Cherry Beach to the Spit, is being created as part of the port lands development undertaken by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp.)
"Parks Canada is really excited about the opportunity of coming to Toronto and reaching an urban audience," says Thomson, pointing out that the study - part of a $10-million package for habitat improvements and park design for the area announced by the feds at the end of April - will be completed by this autumn.
While the facility could be as large or larger than the Hamilton Discovery Centre, says Thomson, "we're very keen on planning this development in an environmentally sensitive way." Parks Canada will consult with the TRCA, the city of Toronto and the other port lands redevelopment partners, he says. The department will look at various options, such as locating the centre's parking lot farther away on less environmentally sensitive land and having a shuttle bus bring people from there to the building.
"I think we can offer visitors some pretty exciting opportunities to learn about migrating birds and wetland habitat restoration work. So you want to be in fairly close proximity to that,' he says.
But Friends of the Spit counter that Tommy Thompson park would be better served by establishing the centre at the site of the recently turned-down Portlands Energy Centre on Unwin or on other old industrial land around the Shipping Channel west of the Spit base lands. "The discovery centre would ruin the base lands,' says Carley. "You lose what the Spit is the more you develop it. It's a habitat unlike any other we have downtown."