If Etobicoke councillor Mark Grimes were a skateboarder, he'd score a 10 for the twisted flips he's been doing to avoid questions about plans for a skateboard park in Colonel Sam Smith Park, a much-loved 194-acre swath of naturalized green space on the western waterfront at the foot of Kipling. The rookie councillor has been skating over and around the concerns of miffed locals for weeks now. On this file, Grimes isn't returning calls from the media either. Several requests for an interview went unanswered or Grimes failed to call at the agreed upon time.
With the councillor AWOL, Concerned Citizens About the Future of the Etobicoke Waterfront, a group formed to oppose the skateboarding project, asked the province to step in and order an environmental assessment last week.
They say the eco assessment done by the city, which consisted of two visits to the park, was flawed because it didn't look at the park as a whole but tallied only the wildlife on the patch to be set aside for the concrete bowls.
The group says the project was rubber-stamped by city bureaucrats without meaningful public consultation or evaluation of other sites that have been offered. "It's not the open process the city would like to claim it's been," says CCFEW's Katherine Sims.
So why Sam Smith? A March 6, 2006 staff report lists space, transit, the Waterfront Trail, parking and existing washrooms as pluses.
But Sam Smith is no conventional park. Formerly the site of a psychiatric hospital, it now helps area residents escape the madness of daily city life, but by nature it's secluded.
There's no playground to speak of. You won't even find a set of swings. A trail, wetlands and meadow are its main features. On a quiet Sunday, you're unlikely to find a single car in the parking lot. The only sounds are the wind and a few chirping birds.
"It's not wildly overrun by people by any stretch of the imagination," says parks staffer Bill Ferriman.
It's this serenity that makes Sam Smith a favourite spot of birders, dog walkers and joggers. "This park is known to birders all over the place. They come here during migration time," says Sims.
The report does cite disturbances to "passive park uses" from skateboarders, but goes on to say that some well-placed shrubs and paths would mitigate "potential impacts."
Loud music, it says, could be controlled by "facility operations" or "park management," assuming park officials will be present to make sure nobody is playing their music loud enough to disturb the birds. Somehow that seems unlikely. And what boarder wants some city official telling them to turn down the music?
Given all these issues, why not find a location where wildlife is allowed safe refuge, delicate flora are left unharmed and boarders get a world-class skate facility? CCFEW doesn't know. In its application to the province, the group claims that there's been "no adequate evaluation of alternatives to the current proposal."
One better location passed on was Don Russell Park, a couple of Kipling bus stops north of Sam Smith. Brian Rutherford, manager of parks and rec planning, explains that Don Russell had too many cons. "There was a degree of uncertainty based on what was happening with the [yet to be built] four-pad arena. We looked at access, space, compatibility with other uses and presence of support facilities like washrooms.'
That arena plan relies on a deal with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). When Sheila Penny, the executive superintendent of facility services with the TDSB, is asked whether the addition of a skate park to the project would be well received, she stays away, "I'm not going to get into that debate," noting that was city business and the decision of the community.
But Don Russell has the space, and skateboarding is way more compatible with a giant ice skating facility than with a wilderness habitat.
Ultimately, in the city's mind, the skateboard park is a done deal even if council didn't get a chance to vote on the proposal. "My understanding is that we went through site selection, and no council approval is necessary," says Rutherford. Construction, he says, should begin in late summer.
There's one more little wrinkle, though: Grimes' buddy, former Parkdale councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, was a lobbyist for Grenadier Group, the company that won a city vending contract for snacks in the park.
"Grimes and I are close,' admits Korwin-Kuczynski. But he denies direct involvement in the Sam Smith vending contract: "I didn't really have a role in securing it," he says.
But presumably, the company wouldn't mind having some boarders in the park ready to quell their killer hunger by popping the top on some Pringles or snapping into a Slim Jim.
Sam Caragianakos, co-owner of the Grenadier Group, which also holds exclusive rights to High Park and Sunnyside Pavilion, says Korwin-Kuczynski worked on contract for Grenadier on special events last year. The company, he says, already has plans for a couple of events with Grimes at Sam Smith this year. "We're doing the Mardi Gras and we're helping out with the Brass In The Grass event," he says, adding that the addition of a skateboard park wouldn't be a bad thing.
Caragianakos, however, couldn't shower enough praise on Grimes. "I've seen in one term what other councillors haven't been able to do in many terms down there." Anyone who enjoys a peaceful walk in Sam Smith might say the same thing - mind you, with a different spin.