999-year lease needs transparency

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?


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2 comments

Excellent column Martin.

The School Board (TDSB) is threatening to flip the school site at Woodbine Park to another school board, and to pocket the money for a lease option on the land which would have expired around 2002 had the City Council not extended it. So much for fairness and paying back the City’s goodwill.

BUT as the land cannot be used for anything but a school, how real is this fear of a a new school at Woodbine? There are highschools elsewhere in the ward with excess capacity for a french school, or other schools in other parts of the city that are being closed.

Any money for land or construction by a school board need to be approved by the Ministry of Education – it is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

And if a new new school needs to be built at Woodbine Park in 50 years because of all the condos we are going to get rammed down our throats, then TDSB is being short sighted in letting the option go now.

Because of the lack of facilities at Woodbine Park, actually a school there is not so bad considering how massive the park is, and that this land facing the houses is unlikely to be used much.

What is galling is that this item was at a committee on April 8th (I stumbled across it 2 days too late) but McMahon said nothing about this happening when negotiations started in 2014.

There is a misconception that some residents are upset about Pantry Park being used by school kids to play at lunch and recess. That’s not true, and not at all what this story is about. What has affected the community is the lack of transparency and accountability, absence of public consultation and now missing key documents that should be readily available. This so-called land ‘swap’ is City of Toronto business and as such has an expectancy of due process, however that is entirely missing. Why? If it’s such a win-win for all, as the Councillor and School Trustee are saying why is it being carried out behind closed doors? It makes no sense. When politicians do great service for the community they shout about it. In this case the Ward 32 Councillor didn’t say a word until concerned people banged on her door. If everything is open and transparent why the varying accounts of simple facts? Councillor McMahon’s office told me and others that it sent out notices about the Pantry Park lease to affected properties in April, then admitted it made an error in sending the notices and would correct it, and then said that notices weren’t required. What is it? I hope Martin’s letter about substantive points helps to shed light on what the Pantry Park story is all about. It is not a story about where kids should play, it is a story about how a concerned public relies on transparency when the City conducts business on changes of and use.

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