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Don Mills residents signed a deal for a new community centre more than a decade ago. Now the city and the developer are telling them to settle for less -- or nothing at all
Oct. 29, 2021
Francine Kopun

A generation of Don Mills residents has died and been laid to rest waiting for a community centre to replace the enclosed mall where they used to walk together, play chess and win free coffee by answering skill-testing questions at the Second Cup kiosk.

People like Ernie and Werner and Elizabeth -- members of the Greatest Generation, who bought their homes when Don Mills was new, an experiment in community planning on what was then 2,000 acres of farmland.

The generations that have moved in over the years to replace them are still waiting for the community centre, an idea that has been batted about since Cadillac Fairview (CF) began planning, near the turn of the century, to tear down the enclosed Don Mills Centre and replace it with an open-air shopping district.

CF built that facility, launching the open-air Shops of Don Mills with fanfare in 2009. CF also built the condo towers that residents had opposed at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). But CF did not build a community centre Don Mills residents were promised in exchange for dropping their opposition to those towers at the OMB in 2010.

It was to have been completed by October 2020.

“One son has been born and is almost ready to leave the house for university and nothing has happened,” says Stephen Ksiazek, president of Don Mills Residents Inc (DMRI).

He’s amassed a collection of 9,000 pages of documents on the issue.

“My daughters have long since left the community. There’s been a whole generation of kids that didn’t have any community space.”

DMRI recently lost a legal battle to enforce the agreement struck in 2010 that would have seen a full-service community centre, with a competition-size swimming pool, fitness area, meeting rooms, gym and indoor walking track, built near the Shops of Don Mills, in the heart of its neighbourhood.

DMRI is appealing the decision.

The issue has been going on for so long it’s become a bit like the looping streets of Don Mills itself: circular and annotated with dead ends.

Now things have come to a head, with local councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong telling residents they must decide by Nov. 9 whether to accept a much smaller version of what they had successfully bargained for or risk losing even that, and some residents saying that when you put it that way, it feels a bit like blackmail to them.

Ksiazek says he is also concerned that the legal decision, if left to stand, could impact any community group in Ontario that reaches a settlement with the city and a developer. What is the point of entering into an agreement if it can’t be enforced?

“The fear is that it’s, you know, a piece of paper, with nothing more than that,” says Conner Harris, the lawyer representing DMRI.

Ron Kanter, who has practised municipal, planning and development law for 30 years, disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s a huge precedent,” says Kanter, a former Toronto alderman and member of Metro Toronto Council.

“It’s pretty consistent with how planning disputes are dealt with. You respect the words of the agreement, but you also look at public interest to see if it’s in the public interest. And the court said here that public interest has evolved or changed. And I think it makes sense in the circumstances.”

The saga can be summed up quickly: the residents of Don Mills agreed in 2010 to drop their OMB opposition to Cadillac Fairview building residential towers in the heart of their neighbourhood in exchange for a community centre. They signed a legal agreement with the city of Toronto and Cadillac Fairview.

The deal was struck to avoid a lengthy hearing at the OMB, and the community centre was to be built “in a timely fashion,” paid for with $17 million from Cadillac Fairview.

Much has since change. In the interim, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT won final approval, making the intersection of Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue East a focus for intensification. In 2018, the adjacent Celestica site was approved for a mixed-use development, including nearly 5.6 acres of parkland, raising the opportunity for a community centre there.

From the city’s point of view, moving the community centre to the Celestica site, about a kilometre south of where it was supposed to be, would more easily serve more neighbourhoods, including Flemingdon Park, which has been designated a Neighbourhood Improvement Area.

The DMRI says it bargained for a community centre in its neighbourhood, not one located nearly a kilometre away, way down a busy road that is inhospitable to pedestrians and cyclists, a road made for driving. It will be too challenging for many of the older residents and for residents with infirmities, Ksiazek points out.

DMRI members say they’ve lived up to their side of the bargain by putting up with the increased density in their neighbourhood. Now it’s up to the city and CF to uphold their side of the agreement.

It galls them that Minnan-Wong campaigned on a platform in 2018 that included support for a community centre in Don Mills and not at the Celestica site, and then changed his mind after being elected.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of political support for that. In fact, I’d get a lot of criticism,” Minnan-Wong says.

He now calls the facts “unassailable,” saying Celestica is a better location and the facility will get more use there while meeting future community growth.

A more recent development has increased the stakes. Cadillac Fairview and Lanterra Developments Inc., are offering to build a smaller community centre in 19,000 square feet of proposed retail space at the base of a residential tower going up on the site of an old Canada Post building, next to the Shops of Don Mills.

In an email to the Star, a CF representative said that construction is expected to begin in 2023 and be completed by 2026.

The community centre proposed for the foot of the building at the Canada Post site is much smaller than the one residents of Don Mills agreed to in 2010 -- less than half the size. It doesn’t have a pool. But it would include many of the amenities residents have longed for, including an indoor track and meeting spaces.

The choice being put to residents by the city and their councillor is this: accept the 19,000-square-foot facility being offered right now and drop your legal opposition to moving the larger community centre to Celestica, or lose the proposed 19,000-square-foot facility also.

The reason for the squeeze? The city is arguing it wants to avoid the possibility of permitting the 19,000-square-foot facility and then, if DMRI wins its legal appeal, having to allow the original community centre, negotiated in 2010, to be built 300 metres away.

Some Don Mills residents are burning with indignation over the way they’ve been treated, including those who bought condos in residential towers that had fewer amenities because a big new community centre was supposed to be built right there, and it was going to include a pool.

“A developer can build a condo tower in three years. Why can’t the city get a community centre in a generation?” says Ksiazek.

DMRI vice-president of development, Brian Story, 75, says Don Mills residents aren’t NIMBYs. They worked with the city and the developer and thought they had a deal.

“I feel so strongly about it because the city has dealt with us as though we don’t matter,” says Story.

At least three people who were members of the DMRI board when the deal was struck have died waiting for the community centre to be built, Story points out.

The former president of the DMRI, Terry West, is now 89, and still actively supporting the community centre in his neighbourhood.

“The city signed an agreement with us and CF in 2010. They worked with us in 2018 to implement that agreement,” says Story. “Then they suddenly changed direction without meeting with us. To me, it was like a slap in the face. It was like, your opinion doesn’t matter; the agreement doesn’t matter, bugger off.”

On the other side are Don Mills residents who are saying “enough already,” this will have to do, let’s agree to the 19,000-square-foot consolation prize and move on.

Don Mills resident and realtor Robert Crocione, 61, says people aren’t, for example, considering the traffic nightmare that would be created if the larger community centre is built at the Shops of Don Mills site, which is already congested on a sunny weekend day.

He supports the idea of the smaller community centre and a larger one at the Celestica site.

“I think it’s the best of both worlds.”