The future of the historic David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill could be decided in a hearing that wraps up today. The University of Toronto sold the 190-acre property to a developer last summer, who told a Conservation Review Board hearing yesterday that their plans for the site preserve the three historic buildings but don’t include a public park. At the other extreme, the Richmond Hill Naturalists want to see the entire site preserved as a park, research facility, and operating museum. Coming up the middle is the town of Richmond Hill, which wants to set aside the forested western half of the property that includes the buildings while allowing development on the eastern half. The Observatory’s rich history and importance to the town as a large greenspace in the middle of suburbia should all but cinch the case for preservation of a significant portion of the site.
As with most municipal decisions, the provincial government has the ultimate say, with the power to preserve the entire site by decree that the Observatory is of provincial interest. And with virtually everybody except the developer agreeing that the site is important not only locally and provincially but also nationally (it still houses the largest telescope in Canada) and internationally (scientists discovered the first direct evidence of black holes there and still do active research at the facility), what’s the delay?
The historical value of the site is not in question: Ontario Minister of Culture Aileen Carroll received a letter from the Ontario Heritage Trust—the provincial agency charged with “identifying, preserving, protecting, and promoting” the province’s heritage—in September explaining that the site holds “architectural, archaeological, cultural, historical, landscape, natural and scientific” significance and recommending that the province intervene to preserve the Observatory and 177 acres of land surrounding it. As first reported last night on Yorkregion.com, the Ministry sat on the letter until it was obtained through a Freedom of Information request last week and presented to the hearing yesterday. Unfortunately, the letter was not entered into evidence because lawyers at the hearing objected to the way it was introduced in what one observer called an “L.A. Law–type stunt.”
Of course, had the province heeded its own agency’s recommendation four months ago, the hearing could have been avoided. Had anyone had the foresight to designate the property a year ago when it was clearly threatened, the entire affair could have been avoided. But that’s typical of heritage in Ontario: don’t think about it while you have it, don’t take action when it’s threatened, take half measures when it’s too late. At least one good thing has come out of all this: with its windfall from the land sale, the University of Toronto established the David Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, which recently sponsored the CoolCosmos ad campaign on the TTC. While it’s an innovative way to get people interested in astronomy, a piece of translucent plastic on a subway car will never inspire the awe and wonder of looking through the eyepiece of a telescope and seeing the cosmos for yourself.