A city council vote to enter into negotiations with the Toronto District School Board on a possible 999-year lease of parkland was set to go ahead on May 5 despite opposition from some residents.
Beachers concerned about the deal gathered at the school on April 28 for a hastily-organized public meeting.
Local TDSB trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher, Ryan Glenn, business services manager with the city’s parks department, and Edward Birnbaum, executive assistant to councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon were on hand to answer questions about the potential deal.
The city wants to lease Pantry Park to the Toronto District School Board for the use of Kew Beach Public School. The school’s current yard is too small to accommodate a growing number of students at recess, where overlapping games have resulted in collisions between students.
Kew Beach principal Sarah Nauman explained the school’s need for space, pointing out that in her six years there, the school population has grown by about 25 per cent, with more expected in the coming years. At one point before she started at Kew Beach, enrolment was down to just 250.
“At 250 students, our yard would be perfect. What we’re finding now is that we don’t have enough space for the students to play in the way that kids should be able to play,” she said.
“We’ve grown every single year. We have 120 junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten alone,” added Nauman.
In exchange for the lease, the TDSB would give up its right to build a school at the northeast corner of Woodbine Park.
The board also has the right to transfer that property to another board looking to build – including the French board, which is actively looking for space to build a new high school, said Glenn.
Glenn explained that the TDSB approached the city about executing its option on the Woodbine Park land in 2013. The city and the TDSB originally considered a straight land swap when talks first began, but the city doesn’t like to lose parkland.
He said the proposed lease lets the city have the final say on both pieces of land, while solving Kew Beach’s space problem.
“It maintains the city’s interest in both pieces of properties as an owner, and it would continue to have Pantry Park as parkland, as well as Woodbine Park,” Glenn said.
He covered some of the main points of the potential deal, including continued access for homeowners with gates leading into the park, a ban on building any buildings, fences, or other structures, and the fact the land immediately reverts to the city if the school no longer needs daytime access.
He also reinforced that the vote on May 5 is to enter into negotiations, not a vote on a final deal.
“We don’t start actually negotiating a lease agreement until council would approve those major terms and conditions,” he said.
“Otherwise it’s just a waste of staff’s time.”
Cary-Meagher began by apologizing for not consulting residents earlier in the process.
“I’ve been a politician for 40 years and I just thought we were okay. Well, apparently we’re not.”
She said the potential lease is not something new in Toronto, aside from the length of the deal.
“Let’s remember that it is not a school ground, it is a park and a school ground, and there are many, many, many other situations just like this all over the city.”
Some in the crowd asked for a delayed vote for more public consultation, including the GBNA’s Uwe Semrau.
“It seems reasonable that residents would like to have some assurances that past practices are not being continued,” he said, referring to the secretive process a few years ago that led to the long-term lease agreement for waterfront parks in the Beach.
Lawyer Martin Gladstone asked for the terms of the lease deal to be made public, but Glenn said that wasn’t an option, despite the fact both parties are public entities.
“City policy is that we do not give out leases while they’re being negotiated. That’s standard policy, we don’t make them public until such time as they’re executed,” said Glenn.
Several in the crowd spoke in favour of the deal. One man urged authorities to sign the deal before the province steps in and forces the TDSB to sell its option to another board.
“This is actually really good, because if the school board actually owned Pantry Park then everything everyone in this room is worried about would be correct,” he said.
“They’re giving up a lot. The school board is actually losing in this deal.”
One parent remarked that as a fan of the television show Parks and Rec, he had been looking forward to attending a public meeting, though he appeared to be disappointed at the anger in the room.
“It’s not as funny as I thought it would be,” he said.