The month of August has left two young women sexually assaulted in McGill Parkette. Residents should know that the Toronto Police and Parks Ambassador staff are patrolling McGill Parkette several times a day, making frequent arrests, issuing tickets and responding quickly to calls for service. Community Crisis Response and Streets to Homes staff are engaging with homeless youth in and around the parkette to alert them to the danger, and to steer them towards services and helping programs.
You have my commitment that the City will continue to place this parkette in high priority, and work to prevent future violence. Over the years, my office has received numerous complaints about McGill Parkette. This small, secluded green space, tucked behind 415 Yonge, on McGill Street, has been the site of numerous homeless encampments, at-risk behaviour including physical violence.
The parkette is dark, the sightlines are poor, and it is closed off from three sides, leaving only one way in and out. All of these factors can make it an attractive space for perpetrators of crime and anti-social behaviour. This summer, as homelessness, and mental health and addiction issues have reached a boiling point in the city, this small downtown parkette bound by a youth shelter and the back of a 19-storey office building known as 415 Yonge Street has not been spared.
I believe that some of these horrific incidents in McGill Parkette were preventable. Three years ago, I worked with the Downtown Yonge BIA to commission a McGill parkette redesign proposal. Award winning landscape architect, Janet Rosenberg was engaged, and her team was explicitly instructed to completely redesign the parkette using principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). In addition to Janet’s expertise, Toronto Police Services, the Downtown Yonge BIA, and the local residents all provided input on opportunities for safety improvement. The resulting preliminary proposal addressed key concerns, including sight lines, lighting, seating form, accessibility, circulation and natural animation. The intention was to create a public space that the community could feel to interact with and use safely. I was and remain committed to funding the renovations through city resources.
In 2016, all involved stakeholder parties were committed to a process to refine the design proposal and proceed with a safety-focused renovation. All except one. Despite the City paying for the complete renovations for the parkette, the owner of the adjacent office building at 415 Yonge Street was opposed to the park re-design and without their formal written permission, no park renovations could proceed. This is because, although the City operates and manages the parkette, the land upon where the green space sits is owned by Artis REIT/Marwest Group, a real estate trust company that also owns the office building at 415 Yonge Street. This land lease agreement between the City and the owner of 415 Yonge Street extends until 2036.
Despite multiple requests from myself and broad support from the community to renovate the park, Artis REIT/Marwest Group refused to give the City permission to renovate the park. The talks eventually broke down and without the expressed consent of Artis REIT/Marwest Group, no major renovations took place at the McGill Parkette.
In 2017, Artis REIT/Marwest Group asked the City to permit them to build a 51-storey condominium tower above and behind their original 19-storey office building. They further proposed to extend their building base, demolish the parkette to build a new loading bay and elevate the parkette into the air above the podium with the condominium tower cantilevered back overhead. Eventually the tower was reduced from 51 to 42-storeys. At the June 2019 meeting of City Council, we supported City Planning report to refuse their application and to defend our position at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) if necessary.
Many decades ago, when 415 Yonge was first built, the parkette behind it was created to provide an amenity to the local community, in exchange for constructing a 19-storey building on their doorstep. This is known as a parkland dedication, a practice that produces new green space as a community benefit, when increased density comes to a neighbourhood. In this case, the lease requires the City to perform simple maintenance on the park, until expiration in 2036. Any major re-construction requires permission from the owners, who are headquartered in Winnipeg.
This August I have been meeting weekly with all neighbourhood stakeholders to plan and implement new safety strategies for this parkette. The City, Toronto Police, and our community partners are mobilized to capacity, but again one key piece is still missing. The parkette must be redesigned for any of these efforts to create lasting change. The local property managers for Artis REIT have been in attendance at every meeting, and my office has reached out to their Winnipeg headquarters several times. There is no reason they cannot now work with the City to improve this privately owned public space.
McGill Parkette will be a public park for at least another 16 years. The owners must recognize the gravity of what can occur when a park is left unsafe and without major improvements, for years on end. Currently, Parks, Forestry and Recreation, Toronto Police Services, Community Crisis Response, Streets to Homes, Covenant House, the Downtown Yonge BIA, and the McGill-Granby Village Residents Association are ready to improve safety, but we need everyone at the table, to move forward. Instead of stonewalling the City and prioritizing corporate greed over the safety of the community, including that of their own commercial tenants, Artis REIT and Marwest Group could step up and be a community partner for positive change.
Over the next four weeks, McGill Parkette will temporarily close for maintenance, and Parks staff will do all they can and are permitted - basic maintenance and landscaping - to make modest improvements. The plantings will be cut back and refreshed, the loose pavers will be fixed, they will try to re-establish the turf. While the park is closed, Toronto Police Services and City outreach teams will continue to monitor the neighbourhood.
Any community members who may have seen anything related to the recent assaults or other criminal activities are encouraged to report anonymously to Crimestoppers at 416-222-TIPS.