Thursday, July 2, 2015

Faculty of Law alumna Cynthia Wilkey and her decades-long fight for a mixed-income, mixed-use neighbourhood

By Jelena Damjanovic

Cynthia Wilkey '85
Alumna Cynthia Wilkey has spent decades working on the transformation of the West Don Lands from a brownfield to a sustainable, mixed-use community (photo by Johnny Guatto)

When the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Games are over and the athletes pack their bags, approximately 250 apartments in the Athletes' Village will be turned over to affordable housing.

And Cynthia Wilkey’s long fought battle for a safe, sustainable, mixed-income neighbourhood will come to a happy end. 

A Faculty of Law graduate and lawyer who has dedicated her career to labour law and advocacy on behalf of low-income residents, Wilkey has dedicated decades to this project. She’s one of the founding members of the West Don Lands Committee. That’s the coalition of neighbourhood organizations working with Waterfront Toronto and driving the revitalization of the area where the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Games Athlete’s Village is located. 

The West Don Lands came into public ownership when the city and the province decided to expropriate the land in 1988 and turn it into a new, mixed-income neighbourhood. But in 1993 the project was abandoned because of escalating costs, unresolved flood protection and contamination issues. 

The land was transferred to the province, which put it on the market and in 1997 the community learned that it would be sold to a harness racing facility.

“We were horrified, because the West Don Lands had been derelict for many years,” says Wilkey. “We thought there had to be something better to do with 80 acres in public ownership, a 20-minute walk from the financial centre of Toronto, 10-minute walk to the waterfront, at the end of the Don River.” 

The race track bid fell apart but the scare galvanized the community into forming the West Don Lands Committee and figuring out what they wanted to happen with the land, says Wilkey.

Just around that time, Toronto was bidding for the 2008 Olympic Games; the West Don Lands area was identified as a potential media village. 

“We thought that if they were planning something, we wanted to be part of it,” says Wilkey. 

With the help of a community capacity building grant from the federal government, her group was able to mount a very sophisticated workshop that involved developers, financiers, designers, engineers, and members of the community all working together to identify the opportunities and obstacles to the redevelopment of the lands. Among the attendees: Robert Fung, who had been tapped by Jean Chretien, Mel Lastman and Mike Harris to head up a task force to look at the viability of revitalizing the waterfront as part of Toronto’s Olympic bid. 

Toronto lost the bid, but the Fung task force recommended the creation of Waterfront Toronto, with the West Don Lands as one of the star projects. 

But, just when Waterfront Toronto was ready to go out to the market to start selling the land, the global financial crisis hit and the market disappeared.

“We thought, what happens next? Is this going to be another huge setback? Are we going to have another decade of dereliction on these lands?” Wilkey remembers. 

Enter the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/ParaPan Games. Wilkey was recruited by Pan Am to sit on the Community Engagement Council – a group of representatives of various communities and constituencies that would advise Pan Am organizers.

“I come at this not so much from the sporting angle but from the legacy angle, because the Athlete’s Village is a huge legacy for the provincial government and for Pan Am,” says Wilkey, “and one of the priorities of the West Don Lands Committee was to ensure that there was affordable housing included in this neighbourhood.”

Thanks to Wilkey’s group, the number of affordable housing units will total 500: along with the 250 units being constructed for the Games, another 250 have already been built by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation on the lands. 

“The Pan Am units are being built now like market condos and they're being set up for the athletes’ accommodation but starting in September they'll be refit so that they can be turned into affordable housing,” says Wilkey, adding the energy efficiency of the units is expected to achieve the LEED gold certification for environmental sustainability.  

Once Pan Am organizers got involved, Wilkey’s dream of a mixed-income and mixed-use neighbourhood started to become a reality – with the construction of the Canary District private condos, a 500-bed residence for George Brown college students and a brand new community centre: the Cooper Koo YMCA. As well, a block of land on Cherry St. that will be used for the dining tent during the games will provide a new location for Anishnawbe Health Toronto, after the Games. 

“Members of the West Don Lands Committee look at this and we're very proud of this work,” says Wilkey. “We look back at 1997 and think: if we hadn't made this fuss, we could have ended up with just a race track and video gaming terminals, and it would have been a huge mistake.”  

But, rather than slow down now, Wilkey is gearing for the next big battle for the greater good.

“Oh there's so much to do,” she says. “There's the Portland's planning and the re-naturalization of the mouth of the Don River. We continue to be key stakeholders for that work. We're still here keeping an eye out for the community.” 

Wilkey is also working with one of the Pan Am community celebration sub-committees on a web-based Pan Am Fiesta in a Box to be launched shortly. Aimed at encouraging and helping Torontonians who want to have a Pan Am celebration in their community, neighbourhood, business or school, it will include advice and ideas about food and music. 

She’s also involved with the Athlete’s Village local host committee, developing a neighbourhood guide for the athletes and visitors which will feature the communities around the Athlete’s Village: St. Lawrence neighbourhood, the Distillery District, Corktown, Regent Park, Riverside (Queen/Broadview area) as well as 85 kilometres of trails of the Pan Am path.

And, yes, she will be going to the Games. “I have tickets to the opening ceremony designed by the Cirque du Soleil. I'm very excited about that. I think it should be fantastic.”

Jelena Damjanovic writes about community-building at U of T News.