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Debating the Future of the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground

As the High Park community plans to rebuild their burned playground, councillor Sarah Doucette confronts the challenges of keeping a city within a park.

The atmosphere at the Swansea Community Centre on Monday night was tense as residents and parents, some with kids out a little too late on a schoolnight, started filing in a little after 8 o’clock. Clearly, last week’s news had cast a long shadow over some of the less charitable expressions in the room; still smarting from what must have jumped from headlines like a fist to the face, these were the most defeated looking people in attendance. In less than a week, they had gone from hearing about a group of local developers who wanted to beautify the Jamie Bell playground at no expense to the city, to hearing that the City had bureaucratically stonewalled the whole thing.

Supposedly. As the City’s face that night, along with representation from Parks, Forestry and Recreation, Doucette had her work cut out for her.

“Don’t believe everything you hear in the media,” she said, laughing. Her eyes darted to the Citytv crew at the back of the room, adding, “No offense.”

Stonewalling? Very much to the contrary, Doucette told us before that town hall. “The City did not turn down the offer,” Doucette said. “We’re working with them still. My understanding was that Adam [Bienenstock, of Natural Playgrounds] would be in contact with our parks department on Monday morning.”

Bienenstock’s proposals went above and beyond simply rebuilding the castle. True to Jamie Bell’s original idea of using all-natural construction, Bienenstock’s post-fire hopes are nothing if not comprehensive: they include a water park, musical instruments, a hill slide, expert stonework, community consultation, and drainage, to name just a few of the proposed features. “He’s done some wonderful drawings on the designs,” Doucette continued, “and we thought all those were brilliant ideas. We haven’t turned any of them down. We would love to work with them on this.”

It all came to a head last Friday, when concerned High Park residents found a sombre Facebook note from Bienenstock, on behalf of Natural Playgrounds, announcing that he had hit an impasse with the City that would not be broken before summer.”It breaks my heart to tell you this,” the note began, “but the City has informed us that they are unable at this time to accept our offer to help rebuild the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground.” The note ran through a few of the City’s concerns: timeline, process, and speed, and specifically how the latter could “set a precedent that avoids due process.” Bienenstock described Natural Playgrounds’ litany of proposals as a “time limited offer” that would come at “no cost to the city.” In other words, what’s the big deal, City of Toronto? Put that way, it would be very difficult for the City to avoid looking like a Scrooge, no matter what their reasons.

As it turns out, their reasons for not tearing into the project at breakneck speed have less to do with red tape and more to do with safety. “What people have to understand,” Doucette told Torontoist, “is that High Park is City property, so any generous offer to help has to come through the City.” To date—along with the $26,000 reported by Doucette and area MPP Cheri DiNovo for the High Park Zoo—those offers have included $10,000 from TD Canada Trust, a cool $50,000 from Canadian Tire, and even private gestures from individuals offering to truck away debris at no charge. But these acts of generosity haven’t involved the removal or the disturbing of soil at the playground site; the presence of, say, underground wires doesn’t usually stop a major Canadian bank from making a community donation. The point, Doucette told us, is that when you want to rebuild a playground—no matter who’s footing the bill—it’s going to take some time before the shovels come out.

“[Adam] wanted to dig into the hillside and make mounds and things,” Doucette said, “and we can’t do that because it’s a ravine. City staff have already started the process to identify where and if we have any underground utility wires. And before you can put drainage in, you have to go through Toronto Water. City staff are moving as quickly as they can right now.” As a first stage, she told Monday’s town hall, the City is going in to remove the damaged parts of the playground. Once completed, staff and contractors alike will be in a better position to assess the extent of the rebuild.

“‘We want the castle back,’” Doucette said. “That’s what we’ve heard, and that’s what the City is moving forward with.” But before anything can be done, like moving the slide so parents and caregivers can better observe kids as they play, and making the playground more accessible for children with disabilities—two of the City’s priorities—a design needs to be in place. The situation of the playground in a ravine, like Doucette said, is a key concern. Parks staff indicated that the water table in that area alone is barely six to 12 inches below the topsoil. “It’d be silly to build something that can’t move with the frost.”

Later in the meeting, sentiment from local residents seemed mixed. There was textbook mistrust of municipal bureaucracy; there was an unmistakable pall of won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-children. And for about 10 or 15 minutes, there was a young boy in the third row with his hand up. While other residents spoke, some expressing their frustration over what they see as municipal foot-dragging, he sat there with one arm raised, the other bracing it. One woman noted that perhaps the City should be listening to private contractors with environmental experience rather than City officials with the same, rolling her eyes whenever a counter-argument was raised. Another, perhaps more on point, said, “If somebody’s going to make a donation now so they can be on the news and not be there six months later, I don’t think we need their money.”

Finally, Doucette called on the very patient kid with the quivering arm. “We want our castle to be better than ever,” he said. “We don’t mind if you have to bend some rules.”

Unfortunately, as High Park residents are learning, it’s going to take a lot more to fix their playground than good intentions.


  • Nick

    The City didn’t do a very good job of noting the water table height before it built the original playground. It’s a quagmire at certain times of year! Some serious mulch or drainage would also be welcome in the rebuild.

  • Anonymous

    did anyone else have a really hard time making sense of this article?

    • Anonymous

      Nope. It is very well written: clear, concise and to the point.

      • Concerned Torontonian

        It seem like the councillor is making excuses and this article is her way to lie to the public without having the other side included, very well done Ms. Doucette bend the truth, I wouldnt expect anything more from a politician that comes out and lies to the public. The landscape ontario group was going to address the drainage issues and they know more than anyone else that you need to get utilitiy locstes before it is legal to dig, this group of professionals never said they wouldnt do the work right.

        • Anonymous

          When you do work on public land, it’s not enough to do the work right. You have to *show* you are going to do the work right, and then have it checked afterwards. That all takes time.

        • Anonymous

          “Concerned Torontonian” if you are going to accuse someone of lieing, you should provide evidence. Please tell us exactly what in the article is a lie.

        • Vampchick21

          Really? I didn’t know Doucette wrote for The Torontoist under a pen name!

          • Concerned Torontonian

            You are right you should provide evidence instead of making blanket statements, but where is the evidence from the councillor’s office? What evidence has the councillor shown that these companies would be unsafe,

            The city has not shown any evidence that this rebuild would be unsafe or that these companies were going to begin digging without the proper documentation… but I guess because if you dont have councillor infront of your name you needs evidence but whatever the councillor says does not.

            Before this article the city was hiding behind process…. now that the community and media has gotten involved its not process anymore it is “safety” I guess no flags should go up when our city suddenly changes their story.

          • Vampchick21

            Were we reading the same article?

          • Concerned Torontonian

            Maybe I am wrong and I should have more faith in my city, and maybe my city will show me that I am wrong, I am really hoping that is what happens.

          • Park User

            Concerned Torontonian, do you honestly believe any company that wants to help should be able to build in our parks with 2 days notice to the city? I honestly am astounded that anyone would think this is okay. I know people love to blame the city, but we can’t just break laws and screw plans because you want to.

          • Anonymous

            1) Where does it say in article that the City says its unsafe?
            2) The city doesn’t have to show any evidence it’s unsafe. The builder has to show its safe.

        • Anonymous

          If I was going to attempt to bend the truth, I wouldn’t have included the kid story.

          Oh, as much as landscape Ontario has a good name, its not their home and political butt on the line if this is done wrong.

          • Concerned Torontonian

            That is fair, and I do not want to sacrifice safety and doing things right for speed, I just feel that the City could have tried to work with these companies to achieve something really great for us. And we all would win.

            Thanks for you input everyone, lets hope that the City is able to come up with something great for us!

          • Anonymous

            There’s no indication “the City” is not working with these companies, under prior legal constraints.

            Why do you state they haven’t tried — what exactly is that based on?

  • zoya

    It will be good if they renovate the burn park to make it use for the town folks.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds to me there’s a good opportunity to introduce the kid to some City history, such as what happens when the City bends the rules – like the MFP scandal for example.