Why is the Federal Government in the Business of Selling Downsview?

Ottawa needs to step up on Downsview Park: Hume

Downsview Park, as it appeared when the federal government first announced its creation.

Mike Slaughter

Downsview Park, as it appeared when the federal government first announced its creation.

There was excitement in the city when the federal government announced it would transform CFB Downsview into Canada’s “first national urban park.”

That was in 1999. Since then, the 232-hectare (572-acre) site has become a desert of political mismanagement, bureaucratic confusion, civic hostility and rampant NIMBYism.

But with a public “consultation” meeting looming on April 23, the troubled project will do yet another turn in the spotlight.

This time around, Torontonians will be anxious to see what plans Canada Lands Company has for Downsview. The federal agency, whose mandate is to sell surplus government-owned land or operate it for profit, took control of the site in late 2012 after it was wrested from another Crown corporation created to oversee its revitalization. Parc Downsview Park (PDP), as it was called, spent a decade spinning its wheels. In the last few years, however, it was beginning to put things together.

That’s when Ottawa pulled the plug.


The move, which came out of nowhere, shocked many. It happened at precisely the wrong time, sent exactly the wrong message and made a mockery of a process that, though it had worked poorly, was the best available.

Keeping in mind that Downsview has the potential to change Toronto, not just the neighbourhood, it is disturbing to see how completely the federal government has failed. Either Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has no interest in Canada’s biggest city, or it just doesn’t know any better. Neither option is flattering to Harper or Toronto.

But then, perhaps because PDP was proposed by Harper’s Liberal predecessor, Jean Chrétien, it had to be destroyed.

In any case, it seems the scheme is a casualty of the suspiciousness, hyper-partisanship and bloody-mindedness that characterizes the current federal regime. Downsview could have been an exemplar, a waterfront or Regent Park, a city-building, wealth-creating exercise planned intelligently and boldly from the ground up by a partnership of private and public players.

Served by two subway stops and bisected by GO rail tracks, the site has room for parkland as well as residential, institutional, corporate and retail development. Unlike its post-war surroundings, the new Downsview was meant to be dense, urban and diverse to take advantage of the area’s advantages, transit and spatial.

Even a quick drive up Keele St. is enough to see how much progress has been made. A park has appeared, young and still not fully formed, but a definitely a park. Houses planned for one corner of the site have yet to be built, but thanks to Herculean efforts of PDP’s last chair, former councillor and current mayoralty candidate David Soknacki, a plan exists. Indeed, if Downsview Park has a hero, it is Soknacki, who planted trees, dug ponds and moved earth, if not heaven, to make it happen.

Regardless, the Tories have decided Rouge Park will be Canada’s “first national urban park within a municipality.” That means Canada Lands’ task will be to sell off as much of Downsview as possible for as much as possible. City-building be damned. Ottawa will never admit this, of course, but if it weren’t so, why would it have killed PDP?

And so the time and effort spent extending subways, drawing up plans, opening green space and setting the stage for smart growth could well end up an afterthought. The federal government may want to do the right thing; then again, it may not.

The fact the public works minister felt it necessary to write a letter ordering the CLC to hold off on the “For Sale” signs doesn’t inspire confidence. Once again, the federal government has taken Downsview for a walk in the park.