Will Allan Gardens be boarded up for three years?

Will Allan Gardens be boarded up for three years?
By Melissa Wilson
OpenFile Toronto
January 18, 2012

Since moving to my west Cabbagetown–area apartment four years ago, I’ve likely passed through Allan Gardens more than a thousand times. Though it has a gritty reputation, I’ve always found it charming, enjoying the scenes of children playing among the daffodils, students tossing Frisbees and the regulars gabbing day-in and day-out on the benches. It’s an area of town that’s sometimes forgotten in favour of Trinity Bellwoods and High Park, but for many, it’s home.

But when I returned from my winter holiday to find a large chunk of the south-east corner of the park had been overtaken by a construction project, encased in eight-foot-high hoarding, I was shocked. And surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it, considering it seems like every other week I get a notice in my mail box about intrusive film shoots.

For a fleeting moment I hoped it was the construction of something like a skating rink (a girl can dream!), or a fountain like the one that used to be the centerpiece of the park, but it is in fact something decidedly less fun: A watermain repair.

The construction at Allan Gardens is actually one part of a larger watermain repair project that will occupy seven sites spanning from Spadina Avenue to River Street. Each site can expect 12-21 months of construction, except for Allan Gardens, which will be boarded-up for the entire three-and-a-half-year run of the project.

“This isn’t just a regular water main repair job,” says Michael D’Andrea, director of water infrastructure management at the City of Toronto. “This is critical infrastructure, under the park, that is responsible for moving large volumes of water across the city, and as far north as York Region.”

“It’s a major backbone of our water transmission,” D’Andrea says.

Toronto averages about 1,400 watermain breaks a year, most of these occurring in the winter months when the dirt and soil freeze, putting additional pressure on the pipes. Most of these breaks occur with smaller pipes—distribution mains—on residential streets (with a diameter of about 150 mm), and can result in the flooding of nearby houses.

A break in a watermain like the one underneath Allan Gardens, though—a transmission main—would disrupt service to a huge portion of the city says D’Andrea. “This would be catastrophic.”

The existing water infrastructure residing underneath the Gardens is a 900 mm diameter cast iron watermain, build back in 1913, according to Tony Pagnanelli, director of design and construction, major works facilities for the City of Toronto. The main is well past its service life, having seen some breakage already, and because of that, the decision was made to not only replace it entirely, as opposed to repairing it, but also to increase the diameter to 1650 mm, to better serve the surrounding regions.

According to Pagnanelli, York Region is sharing in the cost of the project, covering about three quarters of the $80 million contract.

Unfortunately, though, the leg-up from York Region won’t go very far to help Toronto solve its water infrastructure woes. The forecasted expense in regards to water infrastructure repairs for just 2012 is $110 million, and D’Andrea says there’s a budget forecast of $700 million over the next four years, to get the entire Spadina-River project completed.

But then there’s also the backlog. Toronto’s pipes are breaking down faster than the City can repair them, and D’Andrea says it’s been estimated that it will cost the City $1.7 billion to bring the backlog current, which he hopes to have accomplished by 2021. “At that point, we’ll be keeping pace with the renewal as it becomes necessary,” he says.

Pagnanelli and D’Andrea both say the City is doing its best to minimize disruption to the neighbourhood (Allan Gardens is bordered on all sides by residential homes), including making the decision to tunnel 25 metres underground to complete the work, as opposed to doing an open cut above ground, which is noisier and can restrict local traffic.

Still, necessary as the project might be, many aren’t thrilled with the disruption of public park space for such a large, long-term project, least of all Ward 27 City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, whose jurisdiction encompasses Allan Gardens. “The permission to occupy Allan Gardens was granted by the previous councillor’s office back in April 2010,” she says. Wong-Tam didn’t find out about the project until early October 2011, nearly a year after she took office and only three months before construction was due to start on January 3.

“As soon as I found out, I wrote an email in objection. You can’t occupy a heritage park for three years. That’s not an option.”

When Wong-Tam learned it would cost approximately a million dollars to move the project to a different location (money Ward 27 does not have to spare), she shifted her focus to mitigating the disruption. So far, she’s arranged for the construction company to decrease the greenspace footprint by about 20 percent (1076 square feet), and has received guarantees that murals can be painted on the hoarding to beautify the space, and that additional lighting will be installed around the site for resident safety. She’s also pushed forward with other plans to revitalize the park, including the construction of a new $750,000 playground (currently the playground in Allan Gardens consists of two swings and a couple of horseys).

“When you come to Toronto, you can visit the CN Tower and the AGO, but your visit would be incomplete without a visit to the botanical gardens at Allan Gardens,” says Wong-Tam. “That’s my ultimate goal for this neighbourhood, to make it a premiere destination for the city.”

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