The future use of the Silver Birch Boathouse is uncertain, after the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) department determined the facility was underutilized and underfunded. Letters have been sent to owners of watercraft at the boathouse, informing them that boats must be removed by the end of October this year.
The intent, according to Ryan Glenn, Manager of Business Services for Parks, is to open up the space to those not lucky enough to have a spot in the boathouse currently. The decision was made by Parks staff and Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, as the cost of staffing and maintaining the boathouse is higher than the amount generated by permit fees at the facility.
“Having essentially a private boat storage facility on the eastern beaches (for the exclusive use of the 140 permit holders) does not fit with PFR’s mandate,” he wrote in an email.
McMahon said the city shouldn’t be operating a storage facility, and believes the space can be better used.
“Are we in the business of running a garage? Are we in the business of using public space exclusively for a select group? Or do we want to open it up and better utilize it and animate the space for the whole community and for the whole city?,” she asked.
The letter mentions a future Request For Proposals (RFP) for “a public boat rental facility and a café.” However, Glenn said the cafe aspect is not necessarily guaranteed.
“The primary use will be a boat rental facility with the potential to add an ancillary use, possibly a cafe,” he wrote.
McMahon said she has been asked many time while “door-knocking” about why there are no boat, bicycle or umbrella rental operations or places to buy food along the boardwalk.
“I’m a big believer in animating public space, and having public space accessible to all,” she said.
Allie Harris is part of the Beaches Recreation Centre Advisory Council. Beaches Rec is responsible for staffing the boathouse during its operating season. Harris said the council saw the need for change, and was looking at ways to encourage more turnover, particularly since 66 of the boats stored in the boathouse were not used a single time last year. Of the other 69 watercraft, only 14 were used more than five times.
What they didn’t expect was a letter about a future RFP for public rental and a cafe, leaving the future of Beaches Rec’s involvement up in the air.
Annikki Desmarais, chair of the advisory council, said looking at the usage of facilities is part of the council’s role.
“One of the things that advisory councils do is look for ways that we can improve on what we’ve got,” she said. Her concern is that the process has been set in motion, with a letter mentioning an RFP and specific uses for the facility, without any meaningful consultation with the community.
“Would it be nice to have a cafe down there? Maybe,” said Desmarais. “What we do see as a benefit is the rec centre using it for programming.”
Harris mentions lack of parking (there are no public lots nearby, and very limited street parking), the off-leash dog area that begins beside the boathouse, and the possibility of diverting potential customers away from Queen Street as serious issues for both a cafe and a public boat rental facility.
“If the entire community rises up and says, ‘we want a Dunkin’ Donuts and a boat rental at the boathouse’, I’m willing to be overruled here, but I’m just not seeing the community engagement,” she said.
McMahon said that while the letter specifically mentions public boat rental and a cafe, those uses aren’t necessarily set in stone. She also said that while the city has no interest in running the facility, it is possible that it could be contracted to a non-profit, a residents group or a private operator.
“Nothing’s a done deal, it’s early days yet,” she said.
She is planning to hold a meeting for the public and for boat owners by the end of March, although there were no dates set by press time.