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cityscape

What the Don Valley Brick Works Might Have Been

It made bricks for 100 years. Once it shut down, decades passed before the site was redeveloped.

An overview of the Brick Works master plan, as proposed in 1990 by Hough Stansbury Woodland Limited. (Links to more images are below.)

The Don Valley Brick Works operated for over 100 years, but, after exhausting all of its shale and clay deposits, it closed in 1984. For years afterward, the Brick Works site remained vacant, as various interests vied for control of its future. Today, it’s known as the Evergreen Brick Works, a facility widely renowned for its innovative efforts at teaching sustainability, ecology, and agriculture.

But before Evergreen stepped up to the task of redeveloping the site, several other ideas were presented to the City.

The first of these master plans, created by Hough Stansbury Woodland Limited, came out in 1990. But even at this early stage, there had already been considerable wrangling over the Brick Works. In 1984, Torvalley Developments Ltd. bought the land for $4.25 million, with the intention of building a condo development on it—which some observers considered a potentially disastrous idea, because the Brick Works are on a floodplain. A citizens group called Friends of the Valley raised opposition to the idea of building residences on the site, and eventually the City expropriated the land.

“There had been in the past a number of battles over people trying to build in the valley, and this was the end of that long Toronto battle,” Jeffrey Smyth, a member of Friends of the Valley, told us. “We worked on this for 20 years. The political parties in Ontario, all of them actually, came around and said, ‘This has got to be stopped.’ And they put up a $50 million fund to buy the remaining properties in the ravine system. The Brick Works was the first one that was expropriated.”

The 1990 master plan is an exhaustive report. It weighs in at 151 ring-bound pages, with dozens of fold-out maps and diagrams. Even though it was never implemented, not all of its ideas have fallen by the wayside. Many of its themes survived the passage of time and became essential elements of the Brick Works as we know it today.

From Section 4.4, “An Overall Theme”:

“The overall vision for the Brickworks Park lies in its role as a natural focus for interpretation and education of the biophysical, cultural, and industrial history of the Don Valley, its future restoration to a state of health, and its ongoing influence on the affairs of the city as a whole.”

Garth Armour, supervisor of natural environment and community programs for the City, remembers when the 1990 master plan was developed. “It was kind of about bringing the history of the site to the public, and turning the site into an accessible place for the public to enter into,” he said.

The north slope of the valley, near the Brick Works, is considered one of the most important geological deposits in North America. It has several layers covering thousands of years of Earth’s geological record. University of Toronto professor A.P. Coleman famously performed extensive research there in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He discovered, among other things, that wooly mammoths once roamed the Don Valley. There are fossil specimens in the slope that have not been found anywhere else in the world.

From Section 3.2.1, “Geology”:

“Despite a century of investigations, new and exciting discoveries are still being made at the Brickworks site. The site is, therefore, geologically unique and is visited by numerous teaching groups and visitors from around the world. An important design issue requiring solution will be the inherent instability of the slope and its potential for erosion, particularly from human use.”

Geology, restoration, and preserving industrial history were the three driving themes behind the 1990 Brick Works plan. But the plan describes a Brick Works somewhat different from the Evergreen facility of today. For instance, the 1990 plan proposes a plant nursery, wildlife gardens, a chimney garden, a butterfly garden, a fossil garden, and a quarry garden with a symbolic kiln. None of these things exists as originally envisioned.

The 1990 plan also suggested preserving some brick-making machinery for occasional public demonstrations. The parking lot would have had pergolas, and there would have been a serpentine brick wall along Bayview Avenue. There would also have been a pottery studio, which would have taught visitors about the uses of clay.

The plan also emphasized ways of educating the public. Hough Stansbury Woodland hoped to include a number of “interpretive elements” in the revamped Brick Works, all of which would have helped communicate the historical and ecological significance of the site to visitors. The Brick Works of today has interpretive areas, although in a different layout.

The 1990 plan was a compendious one, but, like so many other things in Toronto, it failed because of a lack of funding.

“There was not enough City money,” said Adele Freeman, director of watershed management at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. “Metropolitan Toronto came to TRCA and asked us if there was any way of getting some provincial money.”

The TRCA helped the City connect with the province, and eventually there was about $5.5 million committed to the project, but it wasn’t enough. Even though the 1990 Master Plan never got off the ground, it was a jumping-off point for future attempts at redeveloping the Brick Works.

There were a couple other quirky ideas for the site, but neither of them ended up carrying much weight. An aerial gondola (think Sky Ride) from the Brick Works to Bloor Street was suggested, at one point, by Institute Without Borders. It was largely a conceptual plan, and it quickly fizzled out. (The Brick Works has terrible public-transit access even today, though, so maybe the gondola should have been more closely considered.)

In 1986, Metro Parks Commissioner Bob Bundy floated a $21 million plan to turn the Brick Works into a botanical garden. This idea was quickly dismissed, because it was seen as an attempt to turn the site into a tourist attraction—something that many didn’t consider to be in the public interest.

The next incarnation of the master plan came in 1993. Drafted by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, it was called the Don Valley Brickworks Regeneration Project. It followed on the same themes as the 1990 plan, but made some adjustments based on public input. The document is a much lighter read at 17 pages, plus appendices and maps. The Regeneration Project abandoned three aspects of the original plan: the greenhouse complex, a pedestrian bridge to Todmorden Mills, and a visitors facility. As usual, City Hall mulled it over for a long time.

“The result of that plan was an enormous number of meetings looking at the things that had to be done,” recalled MPP Michael Prue, who was, at the time, the mayor East York. “We commissioned a kid to paint a mural and it was up there for a long time, but it’s been taken down now. It was about the evolution of the Brick Works through its entire history, and the interglacial depository of bones that aren’t anywhere else in the world.”

“We tried to save much of the brick-making machinery and to shore up the buildings. It was expensive. In the end, some of them could not be saved, some of them were too far gone,” said Prue.

A finalized version of the regeneration plan was released in 1995. It built on the 1990 plan’s themes: regeneration, geological heritage, and cultural heritage. The restoration of the site proceeded. In 2006, Evergreen, an organization that promotes community-oriented environmentalism, came forward with its plan for the Brick Works.

“Evergreen came along and was given federal money to expand the program,” said Prue. “Some of the buildings were already being restored and some of the grounds were in excellent shape before Evergreen arrived.”

The 2006 Evergreen Master Plan contains everything from the history of the site to a financial breakdown of the plan. Colourful renderings show the organization’s vision for the Brick Works. It’s more or less what we have today.

Here are more images from the 1990 master plan:

Overhead view.

Side view, looking east.

Side view, looking north.

Ground-level plan.

Overall site plan.

Additional information from the Aug 23, 1986 edition of the Toronto Star

CORRECTION: March 5, 4:30PM We previous referred to MPP Michael Prue as John Prue. The correction has been made above.

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