No walk in the park

What's tony wychwood got against artists?

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the rubble-strewn turf adds a vagabond charm to the abandoned TTC barns at St. Clair and Christie, with their vaulted ceilings, skylights and Victorian red-brick exteriors. Truly a backdrop for romantic inspiration. How sad, then, that some folks in the ‘hood are so sure they don’t want the nearly century-old streetcar maintenance buildings and the rest of the 1.6 hectare site to become a gathering place for artists and their inventions.

You thought the political infighting that’s held up the redevelopment of Toronto’s waterfront was bad? Consider the accusations and innuendo flying around the future of this recognized heritage site between Christie and Wychwood.

Some NIMBY locals have got press attention by charging that councillor Joe Mihevc broke his 2000 campaign promise for 100 per cent park by cozying up to Artscape and opening the door to a live-in artist colony and other non-profit community programs. Some of the proposed projects include a pizza oven, Food Share greenhouse, performance stage and amphitheatre.

The councillor bristles at the charge that he misled anyone, while supporters of an “art park” say it’s a few disapproving ladies-who-lunch in tony Wychwood Park (itself a former artist colony) who are causing the fuss.

Both sides now have Web sites spewing park-related propaganda: opposes an art project, while supports Artscape’s involvement.

And I shouldn’t overlook former Toronto councillor Howard Levine, whose house directly adjoins the southeast corner of the car barns. Levine, who’s lived there for a quarter-century, never wanted the site turned exclusively into a park, let alone an art park — too much potential for graffiti and other late-night hijinks. Instead, he wanted mostly housing and a small park.

To appease Levine, the city agreed to sell off three lots for housing on the southeast end of the site, one of which would be developed directly adjacent to Levine’s house, creating a buffer between him and the offensive green space. But I digress.

The whole tempest boils down to this: Do folks want something more than grass seed, trees, park benches and the preservation of more than one of the five streetcar barns?

Amy McConnell, a filmmaker who recently bought a house on Wychwood across from the barns, believes there was never a question of turning the spot over to artists. “In the run-up to the 2000 election there was a huge campaign in this neighbourhood,” she says. “There were signs on all the houses — “100 per cent park’ — there were street parties and fairs organized in support of it. And we all thought we had won it. So this really came out of left field for us.”

McConnell co-chairs Neighbours for 100 Per Cent Green Park, which she says has the support of 135 community members and whose position on stopping the art park has been endorsed by the Wychwood Park Ratepayers Association, which speaks for the upscale gated community down the road.

Basically, McConnell argues that the residential community around the barns would be overwhelmed by artists and non-profit community operations. “I don’t think that it’s something I would object to if it were on a main street, because then it wouldn’t matter so much about the traffic and the noise,” she says.

McConnell maintains that Mihevc’s campaign literature in 2000 never mentioned an artist colony or preserving all the barns. The councillor clearly backed “the case for 100 per cent park,” which city planners saw as including only the original 1913 streetcar barn and the three houses at the southeast end. That’s the proposal city council adopted prior to the 2000 election.

But last April that all changed. Faced with the fact that it would take the city parks department at least another three years to come up with funding, Mihevc introduced Artscape at a public meeting and asked if there was support for their conducting a feasibility study on how the community itself could go ahead and develop the park.

McConnell and others have framed it as a betrayal. But the councillor made it clear that the park was going nowhere fast without some outside intervention.

“Artscape got involved because I asked them to get involved,” says Mihevc, “because they are a city-related agency that is able to bring money and resources from the outside that the city is not able to put into it.”

Artscape executive director Tim Jones says no final decision has been made. In a couple of months they will present a range of options for the site, which the community can debate before any final proposal goes to council.

Supporters of a cultural park on the site say Mihevc’s opponents are a small minority in the community.

“They certainly don’t represent many people outside Wychwood Park and two of the streets that are adjacent to it,” says Paolina Fasula, head of the Tattlewood Heritage Association.

“What’s really interesting is that instead of being torn apart, people have come together. Artists are getting together with heritage people. People are saying, “We have this opportunity, these are some great ideas. How can we shape it and make it really reflect our community?'”

Residents have raised $30,000 on their own for the park. But we won’t know where the community’s head is truly at until eight weeks from now, when Artscape finally presents its study. Residents can embrace an art park with any number of elements or send Artscape packing and wait for the city to lay some sod.


— Total from sale of three lots: $750,000

— Cost of remediation of toxins on west end of site: $120,000

— Cost of asbestos removal: $60,000 to $80,000

— Cost of demolishing the barns: $160,000 to $330,000

— Cost of renovating the barns: $1 million to $2 million each

— Cost of landscaping: $1.9 million (no money available from parks department until 2005)

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