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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.

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