Council Lost A Good One – Ward 33 E-Blast July 13th

I know I promised a rundown of PB33 project installations to date, but I am going to postpone that for a week. Katherine Martin, our ace constituency manager and Participatory Budget coordinator has just returned from a well-deserved vacation. I’m going to give her an extra week to prepare. This week I want to talk about a very sad loss at Council.

Up here in Ward 33, you may think that the late Pam McConnell, councillor for neighbourhoods like St. James Town, Cabbage Town, Regent Park, St. Lawrence Precinct and the Waterfront, had little influence on your own neighbourhood. You may even want to state categorically that downtown councillors, in general, have little to do with your life. By way of commemorating the work of Pam McConnell over 22 years on Toronto City Council and 12 years on the Toronto Board of Education, let’s look at how downtown city building benefits us uptown.

Back in 2003, the final details on the Regent park social housing revitalization project were still being worked out. Councillor McConnell had some reason or other to be discussing it on the floor of council on what seemed like a monthly basis. At times she drove us crazy with it. Across the river from her ward, brand new councillor Paula Fletcher was tasked with finalizing details for the very first Toronto social housing rebuild and revitalization in Rivertowne. It had been kicked off the previous term by her predecessor on Council, Jack Layton.

The work those councillors and their community partners did in the downtown set the rules for the rebuilds that are going on here in Ward 33 at the Villaways at Leslie St and Nymark Ave and in Allenbury Gardens behind Fairview Mall. Further west in the downtown core, former Councillor Adam Vaughan was working on the Alexandra Park revitalization with private partner Tridel, at the same time we were working on the Villaways. Moving ahead more quickly in Alexandra Park and with more density is in large part why we were able to spend more time redrawing and reducing the density originally proposed in the Villaways.

Social housing demolition and rebuilding is painful, disruptive stuff for the residents of those places. Regent Park is a project so large that Councillor McConnell and her team had to monitor many “first attempts” at various parts of the process. As the housing strategy moves to do more rent-geared-to-income tenant relocation in order to repair and rebuild, we will revisit what worked and what didn’t in the massive experiment called Regent Park.

If you have never gone for a family swim at Regent Park Aquatic Centre or visited the Wellesley Community Centre and Library, you should. These are facilities that have broken new ground in development of community assets. While our new pool in Parkway Forest is an outdoor facility to provide replacement of the three lost private outdoor pools, our fantastic family change rooms were inspired by Regent Park Aquatic Centre. It is a joy to take kids or grandkids to either facility. Pam was adamant that her Aquatic Centre serve families well and that it be designed to accommodate religious considerations. Her community really wanted these accommodations and that was all she needed to know.

The Wellesley Centre was finally tackled after years of zero community infrastructure for the low income residents of St. James Town. The Wellesley now houses the busiest library and community centre in the city, partly because Pam made sure the community had a big hand in designing it. When it was time to do the same up here in Parkway Forest, the first thing staff said to me was, “Have you ever seen the Wellesley Centre?”

I did go see it, and it definitely influenced our final design. But the real learning from the Wellesley Centre was that you have to get the residents that will use it to help design it. It is a number of years now since Diamond & Schmitt architect Martin Davidson joined us to gather design input from Parkway Forest residents for a new community centre. That input is the reason your new community centre works so well. It is as if it has always been there.

Councillors McConnell, Cressy & Wong Tam endure some media scrutiny, downtown style.

Meaningful community consultation has gone on for well over a century in the downtown core with downtown councillors. On evenings when we meet to discuss a development application, the Councillor for Trinity Spadina may be holding a meeting where five different applications must be explained. It is incredibly frustrating for them that after all of their community consultations, suburban councillors and the media tear into the final product, just because the address is familiar to us all.

I try to have a look at the item first, and then ask questions. Sometimes, because they see so many different intensification applications, downtown ward councillors and their planners employ little known rules in planning to stand up to an inappropriate development proposal. These are tools we need up along the Sheppard Ave. corridor. Really looking into a development matter to learn about it is different from meddling.

Councillor McConnell did not suffer meddlers on Council after she had thoroughly done her work with her residents. I used to describe her by telling a little oneliner:

“I held back an item in Pam’s ward once… just once.”