Letters to the Editor: Friends of Small’s Creek respond to Metrolinx’s open letter

Photo above shows the north side of the railroad tracks in Small’s Creek Ravine that was cleared by Metrolinx work crews earlier this month. Inset photo shows the view looking east from the Bastedo Avenue stairs. Photos by Jim Clark.

Re: ‘City calls on Metrolinx to consider other plans for Small’s Creek,’ and the open letter to the community by Phil Verster, President and CEO of Metrolinx, Beach Metro Community News, Feb. 8.

Dear Phil Verster,

We have written several letters to you over the last year, each one asking you to consider all options pertaining to the construction to take place in Small’s Creek and Williamson Ravine.

These ravines on either side of the tracks between Coxwell and Woodbine Avenues, are classified as environmentally significant wetlands. They are treasured natural spaces for people and home to a wide range of birds, wildlife and plants. Small’s Creek is one of the last exposed daylit creeks in the City, and in this area, it is the only remnant of the original creek that flows to what was Ashbridges Bay.

When your office reached out Feb. 3 for a meeting the next morning, we welcomed the opportunity to raise our concerns; not with the fourth track itself which we support, but with the level of destruction this singularly focused design plan would cause, and without a committed restoration plan in place.

It is now apparent that these ravine-wetlands were never given any special consideration along the corridor in early planning, despite the environmentally significant designation and the crucial role the wetland ecosystem serves for the climate and wildlife.

The timing of your invite was less than a day after our City Councillor Brad Bradford (Beaches-East York), along with Mayor John Tory, tabled a motion at City Council which was passed unanimously requesting:

“Metrolinx to investigate and provide alternative proposals to the City that reduce the impact to the ravine ecosystem due to Small’s Creek project, including the approach for how the pedestrian connection from Merrill Bridge Road Park to Williamson Park Ravine will be included in the scope of the project, as referenced in the report (Jan. 12, 2022) from the Executive Director, Transit Expansion Office.”

Among other important points, the motion goes on to request that Metrolinx “include consultation with community and stakeholders, including the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and receives Toronto and Region Conservation Authority approval in advance of requesting further project approvals or beginning any significant early work construction that impacts mature trees and the wooded ravine slope. (The italics is mine to stress an important point.)

Mistrust of Metrolinx is a common sentiment shared by many community groups, so in retrospect, it should not have surprised us that at the exact time of our meeting with you, crews moved in to begin clearing the trees in Small’s Creek, including many of the red oaks on city land.

That afternoon, you went on to publish an Open Letter to the Small’s Creek community with a range of claims about the good Metrolinx has done and will continue to do for the ravine and community and celebrated listening to us. The letter was dated the day before we met.

It is from your Open Letter that I would like to expand on several of the points you publicly stated as I do not believe they tell the whole story. You wrote (in bold):

“We saved 60 trees by changing the construction laydown area and access path to the corridor.”

It is true that a reduction in the number of trees to be cut down in Williamson Ravine was announced. On our walking tour of the ravine last August, Metrolinx explained that there may be a reduction in the area that will be affected once the construction plan is finalized.

While we do celebrate the protection of these trees, we would like to clarify that they are located in Williamson Ravine, south of the tracks. There have been NO trees spared in Small’s Creek, which is located to the north of the tracks. This includes many red oaks and several other native non-invasive species, which make up 80 per cent of the trees on city property that are being destroyed.

“Our robust restoration plan will plant 2,000 trees with many planted throughout the ravine.”

If a current restoration plan actually exists, it has not been shared with the community and has not been approved by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

The “2000 trees” is a number that has been much lauded but you go on to say “many of which will be planted in the ravine”. That number has never been formally confirmed. Furthermore, there are no indications as to the size of these saplings, species, or where the majority of these trees will end up, since they apparently will not be in the ravine.

Ultimately, it is not really about the number of trees. The existing tree canopy on the Small’s Creek embankment has been eradicated. Even if all 2,000 trees were somehow planted in the ravine, it would take decades for them to provide the shade that the largest oaks provided for the wetland. The removal of these significant mature oaks puts the wetland in peril of drying out, as it becomes fully exposed to sun.

Also, the interrelationships between these massive oaks, their leaves, roots, and the wetland soil, are critical and cannot be reinstated for many decades.

“The GO Expansion program underwent an independent voluntary review by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) on construction mitigation and restoration methods.”

Like Metrolinx, TRCA is an arm’s length agency of the provincial government. In this respect, they work as public representatives with expertise on policies and standards regarding natural heritage and water management in the limits of the floodplain. However, you separated the ecological restoration scope from that of construction, and have so far only asked TRCA’s planning staff to review information pertaining to construction which, to our understanding, is not their area of expertise.

“Our Small’s Creek restoration plan includes a restored pedestrian connection along the ravine.”

The walking path, an existing path of travel that likely predates settlement, is entirely overlooked in the early Metrolinx drawings that were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, and continues to be. The current design of the new culvert severs the walking trail, which is one of the reasons why a restoration plan should have been developed in unison with the construction plan.

Without an accessible restoration plan available, the community can only hope that the walking trail will be designed to reinstate the pedestrian loop around the ravine when it is restored.

With the replacement of the collapsed culvert under the tracks, there was a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity to reconnect the two ravines, with a pedestrian and wildlife tunnel, in keeping with the goals of the Toronto Ravine Strategy.

There are currently no options to cross the tracks between Coxwell and Woodbine avenues, and there will likely never be large equipment in the ravines again. We recognize the pedestrian tunnel was not part of your initial mandate, but it is precisely the sort of community benefit that should have been studied when this project was initiated.

It was an opportunity for Metrolinx to be a collaborative partner with the City and community, to achieve mutual benefits, had other critical design criteria been considered beyond simply adding the fourth rail line.

“Met regularly with the community to engage and inform.”

Inform yes, but Metrolinx never engaged in any meaningful way with the local community. Being forced to use multiple Freedom of Information requests to get information on the project speaks to how Metrolinx engages and informs the public.

The Friends of Small’s Creek, which includes engineers, architects, ecologists, hydrologists, landscape architects, a forestry expert and lawyers, proposed concept alternatives ranging from completely different engineering methods to relatively minor adjustments such as road access points.

With the construction materials already ordered for your plan, you asked the company that had been awarded the contract if they would consider deviating from the contract. Clearly, there was never any genuine consideration of alternatives.

On a similar note, there is a systemic problem in the way Metrolinx operates that omits significant incursions on green space that are not detailed in the project assessment phase. By the time the plans and impacts are actually published, it is deemed too late to adjust the plan, much like the construction plan for Small’s Creek.

Metrolinx indicated tree inventories and replacement plans would be available during the consultation period, but it is now clear that this was never going to be the case.

Transit expansion is necessary. Tough choices need to be made, and not everyone will be happy.

While we appreciate the enormity of the task, there are simple ways to include transparent, open consultation with communities to achieve a better outcome for all (and that includes Metrolinx). Monthly webinars to the community to announce decisions that were already made internally does not amount to consultation.

For large, complex infrastructure projects, it is common for a clear community consultation plan and implementation strategy to be created and shared with the community, early on in the project. We have not seen this. Instead engagement has been reactive, defensive and ad hoc at best.

While much of your plan now seems irreversible by design, we still envision opportunities to make improvements to the wellbeing of these ravines.

You can still make a difference without any negative impact to the fourth rail or the needs of commuters including:

• Proactively and expertly remediating and restoring this forest wetland and the ecological integrity that shades and nourishes this precious valued natural asset, such that it will thrive despite the destruction of the forested embankment.

• Ensuring the walking trail in Small’s Creek remains a complete loop, and reviewing the viability of a boardwalk for the lower path to allow for year-round access, which would reduce foot traffic on the sensitive wetlands we hope will still exist.

• Adding a second (lower) retaining wall with a more natural appearance with limestone / armourstone, commonly used along Toronto’s ravine trails. While this will disguise some of the unsightly concrete barrier Metrolinx is planning to put in the ravine to support the rail line, the main function of the second wall would be to create raised soil beds with improved conditions for trees and taller shrubs that will meet the clearances required for the fourth railway line. This plant material requires deeper soil to grow to their mature sizes. Raising the planting area will also increase the sun exposure to these plants, helping them to grow taller and thrive, in turn providing necessary shade to the wetland.

• We are truly saddened by the loss of the Mother Oaks, some of which were around 100 years old. The wood from a couple of these trees could be used to make benches and stool stumps as resting spots to be placed along the future path. Felled Oaks could be positioned to rest over the creek to both shade and nourish their home environment. Precedents for this can be seen in Glen Stewart Ravine and are guided by Urban Forestry. It is disrespectful to these trees to treat them as garbage, after providing immeasurable ecological and social benefits for over a century.

Mr. Verster, in each of our letters to you this past year, we end on the same point. We remind you that as a community we are in support of the fourth rail and the eventual electrification of the corridor but we encourage you to push your capable teams to consider the long term health of these ravines.

Metrolinx has benefited from the environmental damage done when Small’s Creek was bisected from the railway construction, and you now have the opportunity to help make this right. This is a legacy moment. Generations of people will be affected by your current decisions.

The Friends of Small’s Creek implore you to truly consider all options to achieve your goal by expanding the criteria of the task to consider the environment, the protection of the wetlands and the importance these ravines have to the surrounding communities.

We look forward to working with you in a more proactive manner, along with the City and the TRCA who have a wealth of knowledge and passion for these green spaces as well.

Mitch Robertson and many other members of Friends of Small’s Creek

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