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In a forest of condos, a community plants a tree

Council was on lunch break, and the divisive battle over the Gardiner Expressway was paused. So Kristyn Wong-Tam (open Kristyn Wong-Tam’s policard), the Ward 27 standard-bearer, came to this mostly empty lot at Yonge and Wellesley Sts. and grabbed a burger.

A progressive champion of community initiatives, Wong-Tam is not automatically a friend of developers. But under a high June sun on Thursday, she stood side-by-side with two honchos from Lanterra Developments – one of the city’s most prolific residential tower builders – and asked a gathering of local residents to give the men a round of applause.

Together, they were announcing the establishment of a new city park in the shadow of a planned condo at 11 Wellesley St. W.

“Had it not been Lanterra with Barry and Mark we wouldn’t be here today,” Wong-Tam said.

The group clapped warmly.

“This councillor rocks, everybody,” said Barry Fenton, the company’s president and CEO.

It was a scene of such comity and good will that it was easy to forget the bitter debate still raging at City Hall, where a coalition eventually voted to maintain the eastern Gardiner in a “hybrid” form by a vote of 24-21.

It was a fight that pitted planners against the mayor, bureaucrats against political staff, and exasperated residents against everyone else.

But here at 11 Wellesley, after years of wrangling and name-calling and red tape of the classical Toronto kind, interest groups were cooperating, people were leaving money on the table, and potential adversaries were singing each others’ praise.

“This is a story about community persistence,” said Wong-Tam.

The result is a 1.6-acre public park that will be built adjacent to a swanky condo building, dubbed 11 Wellesley, that is not yet under construction. For about twenty years, the plot lay fallow, owned for much of the time by the province.

During that time, the surrounding neighbourhood sprouted a forest of condos. The increased density led residents to call for more parkland, often vociferously, staging protests at Queen’s Park and marching around the vacant lot.

Two and a half years ago, Lanterra swooped in and bought the property, originally intending to build over most of it. Some nearby residents were put off at the prospect of another condo going up.

“We just about flipped,” said Peter Rogers, who bought into a condo at 24 Wellesley St. W. five years ago. “To have some green space in the midst of this concrete monolithic whatever is hugely important. I mean, we don’t want to lose our sun.”

After lobbying from groups like the Bay Cloverhill Community Association, and the intercession of Wong-Tam, city council agreed to pay $8.5 million for a swathe of the land. That was added to parcels set aside for parkland by the developer as required by city planning law. Stitched together, more than two-thirds of the site will be park.

“There was a very strong, very well-organized group of community organizations who banded together to let city hall know what they wanted,” said Lanterra Chairman Mark Mandelbaum.

The final arrangement, consecrated on Thursday by the ceremonial planting of a birch tree, was a compromise.

“The community, given the option, would love two acres of park,” said Mandelbaum. “Given the option, we would love six buildings on this site.”

The green space is still rough, just a handful of trees clustered amidst tall, unkempt grass. A community-driven design process has yet to begin. And the site is small by park standards.

Still, by downtown standards, it has the makings of an oasis in a concrete desert.

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