Have you ever heard of a 999-year lease of a public park to a school in the City of Toronto before? Apparently nobody has.
That is one reason many residents wrote to Mayor Tory and city councillors before the May 5 council meeting asking that the motion to lease Pantry Park to the Toronto District School Board for 999 years be deferred.
While the matter had been in negotiation between the TDSB and the city since at least June 2014, residents found about it second-hand in April, 2015 from the adjoining Kew Beach Public School that borders Pantry Park. The deal – as it came to light – was actually part of a swap of land. The TDSB was trading its option in Woodbine Park to purchase and build a school on 4.3 acres of land, in exchange for a 999-year lease of 3.6 acres of Pantry Park for the daytime use of Kew Beach Public School.
Mystery followed mystery: why did the ward councillors in 1999 recommend a renewed option for the TDSB on Woodbine Park with no time restrictions and with nothing in return for the city after the original five-year option terminated? Was this a real exchange as set out in the Official Plan? The city already owns both properties, Woodbine Park and Pantry Park. Removing an option on one property for a 999-year lease on another hardly seems an “exchange” of properties. And where is the actual option-amending agreement? Residents have requested copies since April 28, but to date it has not been produced. Concerned residents have searched the minutes of the TDSB to find out when and how the lease was approved, but all indications are the entire matter was done in camera (behind closed doors).
At a hastily convened public meeting on April 28 at Kew Beach PS, residents were told that the swap was a win-win. The meeting was sponsored by the school – not the school trustee (who attended), nor the city councillor, who was not there. We learned that Kew Beach is over capacity – kids are having accidents. It needs Pantry Park for more playground. With the exchange, Woodbine Park would remain green space for the community. What could go wrong?
Some of the residents asked four core questions: Why a 999-year lease? Why will there be no public process for the community to weigh in? Why will the lease be negotiated behind closed doors? And why does the motion authorize the city solicitor to both negotiate and execute the lease without public review or input? In other words, why can’t the community see the lease before it is signed? After all, it is not a private negotiation, it is a negotiation between two public bodies. Why the secrecy?
The Greater Beach Neighbourhood Association – which represents seven neighbourhood associations – wrote the mayor and councillors asking for the item to be deferred, noting there has been inadequate time for community consultation.
Many residents that border, use, or live close to Pantry Park asked for deferment as well. They have raised additional issues since April 28. What about fencing, public access during non-school hours, jogging, dog restrictions, sports events, house values, signs, use? How will their concerns be addressed if there is no public process and no transparency?
Councillor McMahon did not defer the motion as requested. It was passed on May 5 with minor amendments.
A further issue needs attention. Once the lease is signed, the reality is the TDSB may have surplus land to sell off – particularly the land that borders the north side of the school yard on Queen Street East, which is prime development land.
According to the Toronto Star, the TDSB has already struck behind-the-scenes deals with developers for cash. Councillor Joe Cressy called the actions of the TDSB in his ward deeply shameful and councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said it left a horrible taste in her mouth in a recent article. Another prominent Toronto developer recently paid the TDSB $1 million over a school shadow issue. Many have called it hush money for the TDSB.
The TDSB is making its own quiet deals for much needed cash. What prevents the TDSB from declaring the valuable prime land on Queen Street East as surplus and selling it to the highest bidder? As with the Glen Davis Ravine and Beach park lands, we may once again see open space move from the public interest to the private interest behind the scenes.
That is why, among other reasons, an open, transparent community process is needed. It would help rebuild public confidence after the Boardwalk Café lease. Why not full transparency? What could go wrong?