Get Offa My Lawn
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Get Offa My Lawn

A funny thing happens on the western waterfront at the end of each summer. The Ex opens its doors to Children Of All Ages®, the Air Show deafens enthusiasts with aerobatic feats, and the City allows people to park—where else?—in the parks!
Marilyn Bell Park is located just west of the CNE grounds and is used by cyclists, in-line skaters, soccer players, and anyone else who just feels like doing nothing but sitting on the grass, enjoying a respite from city life. In fact, standing on the lake side of the small hill leading up to the Jameson footbridge, the sound of traffic all but disappears.
And so it is with much head-scratching that Torontoist looks at the nature of parking during the Ex. In an ongoing game of pass the buck, everyone involved seems willing to acknowledge that the situation is less than ideal, but suggestions on how to fix it are in short supply, and it doesn’t help that there are so many players involved. For example, the CNE—which uses Marilyn Bell each summer as part of its formal parking arrangement—gets its mandate from the Province but is controlled by the City. Joe Pantalone is the chair of the Board of Governors for Exhibition Place and councillor for the area in which the CNE is set, but Marilyn Bell Park is in the next ward over, stewarded by Gord Perks.

Park A.D.

It was 2005 when things in the area really got cooking. Ward 14 (Parkdale-High Park) residents have been particularly wary of the development of parkland after former, embattled councillor Sylvia Watson gave up green space for the Palais Royale parking lot. A number of alternatives were proposed, but ultimately dropped as the councillor, having exhausted all other arguments, noted that if the city were to pull the parking lot it would be sued for breach of contract. Watson was also in negotiations with the Toronto Sail & Canoe Club and the Boulevard Club to sell off the remaining land that makes up Dowling Park, until widespread media negatively highlighted the move. Although she left the municipal post to pursue a provincial seat in 2006, Watson created an almost universal atmosphere of contempt among her constituents over many issues, including the Palais Royale debacle, which greatly reduced her chances of ever getting elected again as councillor.
With this in mind, the residents of Ward 14 elected someone to defend its greatest asset: the waterfront. Gord Perks is well known as the environmentalist-cum-politician who won his seat two years ago with a nod from the mayor, and while Perks is sometimes criticized for not being tough enough on local issues, to his defenders, he has made an honest effort and is intelligent enough not to make promises he knows can’t be kept. Either way, Perks seems to be finding his voice as Parkdale’s representative, evidenced in his latest newsletter, which states that Exhibition Place (for which Perks also sits on the Board of Governors) is on its way to becoming self-sufficient by 2010. Perks, already an ardent transit rider, eschewed his parking spot at City Hall upon winning his seat on council, and, just before Canada Day, announced that with the exception of the Ex, parking would no longer be permitted in Marilyn Bell Park for any event and installed signs along Lakeshore Boulevard to further the point.

Takin’ It To The Streets

2008_09_04MarilynBell03b.jpgEnter Roger Brook and David White, perhaps Parkdale’s biggest defenders. As the leaders of the Parkdale-High Park Waterfront Group, and working alongside the Parkdale Residents Association, they have engaged the public in all matters relating to the western beaches, interviewing politicians and policy-makers and holding regular meetings to ensure the best possible outcome for any reconfiguration, redevelopment, or resuscitation of the lakeside land. But because attitudes in Toronto are slow to change, Brook and White have extended the City a helping hand.
Spending $200 of his own money, White had signs made up to remind motorists of the monetary cost of parking illegally on the Lakeshore. If people don’t respond to the ethical or environmental angle, they often do when it hits their wallet. The pair installed the signs along the boulevard on Monday, the final day of the Air Show and the Ex. Their efforts seem to have made a difference: where placed, cars cruised on past. But with not enough warnings to cover the four-plus kilometer stretch leading up to the fairgrounds, motorists parked on every available patch of grass that wasn’t emblazoned with the five-foot notices. City officials take note: the very real threat of $105 fines for parking on the grass ($60 on Lakeshore Boulevard) is a functional deterrent. Use some of the money from this year’s destruction of Marilyn Bell Park to pay for more signs so private citizens don’t have to defend city land on your behalf.
While the setting makes for a beautiful place to leave automobiles, it makes for a very shitty park. It’s not news that trees have delicate root systems, yet year after year the City of Toronto condones this bizarre practice. Eighteen days is better than year-round parking, but there seems to be a misconception that parking in the park is acceptable, simply because the trees haven’t yet fallen over after having been parked on for generations.
And this is the grey area. Perks is adamant that motorists quit using the city parklands as one big outdoor garage, but to do this he needs parking enforcement to back it up. He’s managed to secure the assistance of the Parks Board and Police Services to do additional sweeps, but some officers are reluctant to harsh the buzz of the driving public. During the Canada Day fireworks celebration this year, Torontoist noticed both sides of Lakeshore Boulevard, as well as Marilyn Bell Park, replete with cars. So did Brook. He asked officers to start ticketing, but was shocked to hear enforcement officers lament: “But it’s Canada Day.” In addition to this, defenders of the new ban find their environmental arguments weakened as the City decides on what occasions nature is less of a consideration than profit.


So why do motorists assume it’s business as usual? Unfortunately, the car culture mentality has been propagated by the Ex itself. David Bednar, general manager of the CNE, delivered this response to Torontoist:

CNE use of MB Park is not the result of expansion of parking needs. The CNE has used the park for several decades and has always done so in a respectful manner. The park is not used on rainy days when serious damage might be done, we make every attempt to keep the area clean during our event, and care is taken to restore the park afterwards. In this regard, both 2007 and 2008 were no different than previous years for the 18 days of the annual CNE. Ontario Place and the CNE operate as a combined site during the event and parking services are carefully coordinated between the two organizations. On busy days, the on-site lots at both locations fill quickly. Given the size and scope of this historic event, we see no viable alternative to parking cars at MB Park despite our efforts to encourage fairgoers to take public transit.

It’s not that the CNE doesn’t recognize the problem. It sells passes at GO stations as an incentive for the public to hop aboard a train and avoid standing in line to purchase tickets once they arrive at the Ex. But the reality is that people drive and will continue to drive as long as the CNE commandeers the park for its own use. With annual attendance of 1.3 million visitors each year, the 7,400 on-site and more than 1,800 off-site parking spaces can’t hope to accommodate all those arriving by car. Bednar knows this, and ditching the parking spots would mean losing a part of the CNE’s crucial revenue stream.
The CNE also reports that it only uses Marilyn Bell Park once all the on-site parking has been used up. The catch is that the on-site parking for the Ex fills up right away, daily, rendering Marilyn Bell not an overflow parking lot, which suggests it’s available just in case. That Marilyn Bell will be used for parking is a given and, because of this, residents are concerned. After all, considering the entirety of the CNE’s parking spaces are filled during the fair, what impedes the exhibition from requesting more spots next year? And the year after that? When the park was recently reconfigured for the Dragon Boat Race Festival, a service road was eliminated (good), leaving only a larger swath on which to park (not good), but the public has no input when the CNE applies to Parks, Forestry & Recreation for parking authorization each year and so can’t object to requests to use Marilyn Bell.

The White Knight

If there is one individual who has a voice at the CNE, who represents the constituents of one of the affected areas, and who is a champion of the environment, it must be Joe Pantalone. Pantalone is the always-incumbent councillor for Ward 19 (Trinity-Spadina) who has amassed an amazing amount of pull during his past 28 years at City Hall. And given his position as chair of the Board of Governors at Exhibition Place, he has the power, should he choose to use it, to implement change to the current parking conditions. Torontoist asked Pantalone’s office about the incongruity between his habitually broadcast position as a green politico and the parking situation in Marilyn Bell. We also brought up the notion of the CNE leasing 2000 spaces from Ontario Place, the cost of which could be offset by the CNE Casino, which has expanded its hours of operation to more than twice those of The Ex. Unfortunately, once Pantalone learned how Bednar had answered, he piggybacked on Bednar’s response, failing to acknowledge our questions about his direct role or ability to invoke change. The only difference between the two answers was the addition that “twenty-three per cent of net parking revenues from (Marilyn Bell) goes to plant trees, except in a year in which the CNE does not achieve a surplus.” And except where cars will be parked, apparently.
2008_09_04MarilynBell04.jpgInterestingly, Torontoist learned that Brook asked Pantalone these and other questions in an interview from last year that was never published. An excerpt, with Pantalone’s answer in italics:

Brook: I have heard that Exhibition Place hired people to look at alternative ways of earning revenue on the grounds without relying heavily on paid parking lots. What were their recommendations?
Pantalone: Well, there’s no magic answer. There is no money for nothing. Exhibition Place is very well-used, and we need to make it more accessible. We want to turn the automotive building into a “comfort centre,” which is a banquet hall with hotel-like features that will attract a lot of conventions.

When Brook pressed about dropping the parking in Marilyn Bell, Pantalone complained that “there’s never enough money to do what you want.” Odd, since he describes Exhibition Place as “very well-used.”
Pantalone’s responses suggest that the CNE’s hands are tied; it’s doing everything in its power to reach a compromise, but darn it, these fairgoers just keep showing up and it would be irresponsible for the Ex not to offer more parking. The CNE can’t simply move the way a video shop or bookstore can when they’ve outgrown the confines of their retail space. At the same time, however, the CNE can’t appropriate land just because they have customers, or even an increased number of customers, and it’s up to the City to disallow the practice.
Where will people park? There are the obvious (if unattractive) options of underground garages or elevated parkades, which drastically reduce the footprint of the current at-grade lots. The CNE is employing the backward, suburban model of using as much land as possible and building out, rather than the inner city template of building up. The point, however, is that all parties involved need to find an alternative to parking automobiles in public parks, whether it be through additional on-site locations, better transit, or something else altogether. Doing something wrong for years on end doesn’t make it less wrong. It just makes it more embarrassing.
A special thanks goes to Roger Brook, chair of the Parkdale-High Park Waterfront Group for additional information. All photos by Jake Bauming