https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/10/09/john-tory-announces-commitment-to-toronto-parks-critics-cite-encampment-evictions-lack-of-basic-facilities.html

John Tory is facing criticism for his latest claim of protecting public parks after violent evictions of homeless encampments were followed by paid security and fences blocking off public space from use while residents complained of dry water fountains and shuttered washrooms.

Tory, who is running for re-election as Toronto’s mayor, released a video message and platform over the holiday weekend on the city’s parks saying he “reaffirmed” his commitment to make Toronto “cleaner and greener.”

“I protected our city services, including parks, during the pandemic,” he said in the video message. “And now we need to build on that success.”

But the message, shared on Twitter, has been met with public ire.

“This would be more believable had we not seen $ allocated towards violent evictions vs ensuring parks have water and bathrooms accessible before June,” wrote one user @prettygoodread.

Comments were largely negative, focusing on how the city spent nearly $2 million to clear homeless encampments at three parks in the summer of 2021, including nearly $1.2 million on contracted security and fencing that made large parts of Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, Lamport Stadium Park and others inaccessible for several months.

The other costs, a city release said, were for “unprecedented” remediation.

“The fencing allowed for initial growth that would not have otherwise been possible with foot traffic in freshly seeded areas,” the city said in an earlier release.

People responding to Tory’s video shared photos of the encampment clearings which saw protestors and encampment residents along with journalists corralled inside fencing and clashing with armed officers as well as paid security guards — prompting an outcry from residents, homeless advocates and Tory’s fellow council members.

Star columnist Shawn Micallef also recently reported on George Hislop Park, a linear space between Charles and Isabella Streets in the downtown core being surrounded by a “tall chain link fence” for most of the pandemic.

“It’s been there so long that leaves and debris have collected under the fences and begun to compost,” Micallef wrote.

City staff told Micallef the park “was closed in July 2020 to allow for deep cleaning of the park, soil remediation and to investigate the most suitable turf repair methodology.” There was also, he reported, a broken water line discovered that was repaired in November 2020.

With ongoing delays, the park is expected to be fenced off through 2023.

Micallef noted the park is next door to a shelter where people were seen living at times. A sign posted on the fence warns against setting up shelters and tents.

Commenters on Tory’s post also noted the lack of access to park washrooms and water fountains during the pandemic when outdoor, socially-distanced activities were being recommended by public health officials in a city where many downtown residents rely on public spaces as their backyards.

Following that pressure — and only after the strictest lockdown measures had been lifted — the Star’s Ben Spurr reported council voted earlier this year to have washrooms and fountains open earlier in 2023.

Tory is promising to create more public art installations in parks; create a new multi-use trail along Etobicoke’s Greenway; and build a new park at Bathurst Quay. It makes no mention of a previous more than $1-billion promise to build a park decked over the rail corridor that has been blocked by developers.

His plan also highlights what he says is a “strong record of investing” in parks. It focuses on specific park projects, like the Bentway under the Gardiner, which was funded through a cash gift, and also claims of investment, including addressing the state-of-good repair backlog for existing parks.

But despite investments, the latest budget documents from city staff note that park infrastructure to be repaired makes up 41 per cent of the total backlog or $263.4 million, including splash pads, wading pools, parking lots, tennis courts, trails and more. Recreation facilities account for another $371.4 million in unfunded projects.

That backlog increased from 2021 by more than $100 million as staff continue to assess the current conditions of these facilities.

“On average, facilities are over 40 years of age, resulting in breakdowns and facility closures which in turn impacts on service for residents across the city,” staff said.

Parks advocate Jake Tobin Garrett said to Tory’s credit he has overseen the development of “cool new public spaces” like the Bentway and the Meadoway in Scarborough, which were both made possible with private donations, he noted.

“But I think every Torontonian who uses our parks regularly can see that the real problem is maintenance and upkeep,” he said in a message. “This really boiled over this past summer with locked washrooms and inoperable drinking fountains and overflowing garbage.”

Despite Tory celebrating a 19 per cent increase in the operating budget between 2014, when he first took office, and now, Tobin Garrett said the operations budget has been “starved.”

“When you factor in inflation and new pressures from a growing city with a population using parks more than ever, that’s barely enough to keep our head above water let alone invest,” he said, adding security contracts for parks is a “slap in the face.”

“I’d love to see an equity-focused parks operations investment plan that ensures parks are maintained at a high quality in every part of the city,” he said, including all-season access to washrooms, more seating and maintained pathways even in winter.

Gil Penalosa, who is challenging Tory for the mayor’s seat and who has made a career out of focusing on people and public spaces, challenged the current state of park maintenance in his “parks for everyone” platform released earlier in the campaign.

He is promising to winterize washrooms in “large parks” and leave them open later during summer hours; empty waste more frequently from bins across parks; and increase pay for lifeguards to prevent pool closures.

“Art in the parks is a nice idea but how can anyone enjoy it if the washrooms are locked and the water fountains aren’t working?” he said in a statement to the Star. “Residents who actually use public parks know Tory has neglected the basics for eight years and they feel lied to by this glossy video saying everything is great.”

Tory campaign spokesperson Jenessa Crognali responded to the criticism saying Tory is “committed to focusing on the nuts and bolts of parks services.”

“If re-elected he will ensure the work underway to modernize and update services goes full speed ahead so that we are continuously improving our city.”

She addressed the criticism about encampment evictions by saying Tory is “committed to ensuring that our parks can be enjoyed by everyone.”

“That’s why he does not support unsafe, unhealthy and illegal encampments and why he has ensured vulnerable people in these situations are provided with safer living alternatives,” she wrote. “When illegal encampments are removed, the police are only present to protect the safety of everyone involved.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based crime reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags