Secret memo urged minister to steer Downsview Park plan to avoid a sell-off
Deputy’s memo reveals unease about giving Canada Lands Co. — mandated to profit from land sales — control of the sprawling park project in November 2012.
Weeks after Ottawa abruptly handed Downsview Park over to a Crown land company, there was uneasiness within the government about whether the green space might be sold off, a secret memo obtained by the Star reveals.
Former public works minister Rona Ambrose’s decision in November 2012 to give Canada Lands Co. control of the 231-hectare property at Keele St. and Sheppard Ave. W. was controversial, coming just as many believed the long-awaited park project was finally seeing progress.
Some critics questioned what a company with expertise in selling Crown land had in store for the surplus military base, which Ottawa had trumpeted as “Canada’s first national urban park” in 1999.
Internal communications obtained by the Star reveal that Public Works Deputy Minister Michelle d’Auray expressed similar concerns about the future of the park, which will be the subject of a public consultation next week.
In a December 2012 memorandum to the minister marked “secret,” d’Auray remarked on the “fundamental difference” between the mandate of Canada Lands and that of the Crown entities that had previously controlled the Downsview property and the Old Port of Montreal — which was also handed over in November 2012.
Canada Lands Co. “is commercially oriented toward the disposal of certain properties for profit” as well as holding and managing other properties,” d’Auray wrote.
In contrast, the Parc Downsview Park organization was dedicated to managing “the Downsview lands a a national urban park for all Canadians,” d’Auray observed.
“In the absence of direction from you, (Canada Lands Co.) may be inclined to propose disposal of some or all of the property at the two urban parks, consistent with its mandate, or propose a commercially oriented use of the property,” she said.
D’Auray recommended the minister “address this potential area of conflict” through a “letter of expectations” to Canada Lands Co.
Public Works Minister Diane Finley declined a request for an interview on Tuesday.
In response to questions about what direction she has given Canada Lands Co., Finley’s spokesman, Alyson Queen, told the Star in an email: “As we’ve indicated many times, there is no intention to sell the parkland at Downsview Park. This has not changed.”
Robert Howald, senior vice-president of real estate for Canada Lands Co., said the company received a letter of expectations from the minister in January 2013.
Howald declined to share the letter with the Star, but said the minister provided “sufficient direction for us to have understood” government priorities.
“There was the direction to ensure that any plans that we had for Downsview or the Old Port of Montreal were spelled out in our corporate plan drafts, so that the minister would be aware of what it is we were looking to do, and would certainly have the opportunity to comment further,” he said.
The “strategic priorities” for Downsview listed in the recent corporate plan are to “implement a comprehensive development plan for its development sites and begin the creation of a new and innovative community.” (The company’s plans are approved annually by the federal treasury department.)
Howald said the company has “no plans” to seek changes to the current secondary plan, which identifies five sites for development as well as a large public space and would be “extremely difficult” to alter.
However, former Downsview Park chairman David Soknacki said that while the secondary plan places tight control on development in the southernmost neighbourhood, that is less the case “on the other areas of the park that still need to be filled in.”
Soknacki, who is now running for mayor, said d’Auray’s memo confirms that the concerns he had when the park changed hands “had at least a kernel of validity.”
“I am relieved that the safeguards that we put in place in the planning process are there. I don’t know if they will be challenged from the different mandate from Canada Lands,” he said. “That is the key issue. Everything else falls from that difference.”
The documents obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request show the consulting group Sussex Circle delivered a “scoping study” of the parent company Canada Lands Co. Ltd. and its three subsidiaries — Canada Lands Co., Parc Downsview Park and the Old Port of Montreal — to public works in January 2012.
The report, also marked “secret,” included a proposal to give the City of Toronto control of Downsview.
A spokesman for public works said city officials were not consulted about this option.
Although the report recommended consolidating Parc Downsview Park and the Old Port of Montreal with Canada Lands Co., it advised that government “proceed carefully” because of “local stakeholder interest.”
The next public meeting on the future of Downsview will be held at the Warehouse Event Venue on April 23 at 6:30 p.m.