On a brisk winter afternoon, the Don Valley Brick Works, that tangle of concrete and metal buildings at the foot of the tragic 1950s Bayview Extension, feels comfortably isolated.
This 117-year-old Dickensian vestige of Toronto's industrial past baked its last brick more than two decades ago.
Now, after years of failed attempts by the city to find a suitable steward, the eco-friendly charitable org Evergreen has stepped up with an ambitious $50 million proposal to turn this 19-hectare chemical-laden landscape into a tourist attraction, complete with farmers market and restaurant run by high-profile chef Jamie Kennedy.
Build it and they will come in droves if they can find a way of getting to the expressway-locked site, that is. And if the whole enterprise doesn't completely mess with a delicate geological leftover.
True, the proposal is inspirational. Evergreen aims to turn this gateway to the Don trail system into a showpiece for sustainability, with a nursery for organic, pesticide-free native plants, indoor gardens, composting toilets, green roofs, bio-walls and photovoltaic panels to power part of the operation. The Brick Works' six 15-by-20-foot drums are slated for rainwater collection that Evergreen hopes to use for watering the indoor gardens.
As for the 16 turn-of-the-20th-century buildings on the site, the plan is to keep the best 60 per cent of them. Keeping more wouldn't leave much room for the planned children's activities and tours.
"The intent is to make this [project], if not the greenest in Toronto, then one of the greenest," says Evergreen founder Geoff Cape.
Understanding that a high-profile chef conjures images of the boutique- ridden Distillery District, Cape is quick to say the Brick Works will feature "programming streams" and a "community focus" the Distillery lacks. "You can go there and get a cool coffee in a cool coffee shop, but what else?"
Cape assures that, although there will be a high-end dining option, Kennedy is also planning a "$5 food experience."
Adds area Councillor Jane Pitfield, "It's going to attract hundreds of thousands of people who under normal circumstances would have no reason to visit the Don Valley Brick Works."
That, however, may be the biggest problem. There's currently no bus service in the area. The only way to get to the Brick Works is by car, and there are no more than maybe 350 parking spaces unless the site's layout is altered or a multi-storey lot is added.
According to Pitfield, a dedicated busway along the railway tracks and down the Bayview Extension is being studied. But that proposal still needs to pass an environmental assessment and win council's approval no easy task given the TTC's historical reluctance to run transit where people aren't.
In the past, talk of putting buses in the valley has invariably involved discussions about extending Leslie Street or chopping down huge swaths of trees, both no-gos for area residents.
Indeed, a recent proposal to run a bus down Don Mills and through Crother's Woods to a proposed bus loop at the foot of the Bloor Viaduct in the valley has been shelved because of community opposition.
"We'll find out who's going there and how they're getting there," says TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc. But "it's a pretty desolate spot. That's going to pose a bit of a challenge."
Residents attending public consultations have also expressed concern about an increase in pedestrian traffic at the Brick Works harming trails and wetlands currently being used by dog walkers and birdwatchers.
Tim Trow, a former member of the city's advisory committee on the project, isn't happy about the development regardless of Evergreen's good intentions. He figures the place only needs a little TLC and money for upkeep, not to be converted into what he calls "a carnival."
"What will happen when a quarter of a million people are thumping around in there?" Trow wants to know. He worries that large numbers of people will repel animals from one of Toronto's few refuges.
Cape counters that the wildlife argument is often used by locals who think of the Brick Works as their own enlarged backyard.
"It's not a spawning ground for fish; it's not a nesting habitat for numbers of songbirds. It's a unique little oasis, but it's far from being an ecologically sensitive site," he says.
Sensitive or not, the space is still very important, and any change should be closely watched. According to geologist Ed Freeman, the Weston Quarry Garden behind the Brick Works, a 14-hectare mix of meadows, ponds and cliffs, is a geological remnant of the ice ages unique to North America and a window to a time when our climate was more like Pennsylvania's and 200-kilogram monster beavers roamed the area.
Trow is perplexed by all the talk of development. "Nobody says, "We have to pave over High Park.' Accept that you have a very nice park here and that people are already using it."
But Pitfield counters that "for heritage sites to survive, you also need to have some usefulness from them."
It's difficult to pin down what elements will become reality as the project nears its 2008 completion date, but there are no plans to pave over anything but the existing industrial footprint.
As it stands, Evergreen has $16 million and the feds have pledged another $10 million. After that, operating costs have to be addressed. Those costs vary from phase to phase of construction, but the site will rely heavily on rental income from 50,000 square feet of office space.
Cape remains confident, however, that his plans will materialize. He even jokes about the reservations expressed by some city officials. "Aren't they supposed to be screwing us behind our back?"