'Vital' downtown Toronto parkette destroyed, homeless advocacy group calls for answers

·4 min read
The installation at Ryerson Avenue and Queen Street West was a joint project of the city and the local business improvement area. The space featured seating, a set of stairs, as well as distinct arches. (a.c.e.s.thatsus/Instagram - image credit)
The installation at Ryerson Avenue and Queen Street West was a joint project of the city and the local business improvement area. The space featured seating, a set of stairs, as well as distinct arches. (a.c.e.s.thatsus/Instagram - image credit)

A downtown Toronto parkette that had become a gathering place for some of the city's unhoused has been destroyed, and city officials are now trying to determine who is responsible.

The installation at Ryerson Avenue and Queen Street West was a joint project by the local business improvement area and the city, which said it contributed just over $1.8 million toward the project.

The space featured sets of stairs, seating as well as distinct arches — and was "vital" to members of the city's homeless community, according to the Alexandra Community and Encampment Support (ACES) group.

"After the eviction of Alexandra Park encampment last year, we all convened there. In the absence of safe shelter, during the winter people would sleep under the benches because it was the warmest place they could go unharassed," the group said.

But on July 12, it was destroyed, the group says. Video posted to the ACES Instagram account showed two people taking apart the installation with hammers.

Despite the city's contribution, the parkette's destruction has some officials scratching their heads about what to do about the dismantling. That's because the land on which the parkette was built is city-owned, while the seating and arch installations were owned by the local business improvement area.

"That's what makes this case a little bit different," said Coun. Joe Mihevc, who represents Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York.

Homeless as entitled 'as any resident' to use space

Mihevc said his office is trying to understand what authority the City of Toronto has to go after people who've vandalized property the city has helped pay for, but may be privately-owned. The councillor now has a motion going before city council this week to try to determine exactly that.

Mihevc said he had heard some complaints about people experiencing homelessness congregating in the area and receiving food from faith communities on the site.

But "they had as much right to be there as any resident of Toronto," he said.

He also said his office has heard from several people upset about the parkette's destruction — "from local businesses, from local residents, from people who have been serving the homeless community that congregated there and sometimes had meals delivered to exactly that location."

"It did serve a public purpose," he told CBC News, calling the destruction "reprehensible."

Individuals acted 'roguely': BIA

In a statement on its website, the Queen West BIA said the parkette had been slated to be dismantled and redesigned in mid-July by a third-party vendor, but that those who destroyed it last week were unauthorized to do so.

"There were individuals who started roguely removing some of the seating and staging ahead of schedule without consent. Neither the City BIA Office nor the Queen Street West BIA had prior knowledge, consultation or gave permission for any demolition that took place," the statement said.

@a.c.e.s.thatsus/Instagram
@a.c.e.s.thatsus/Instagram

The BIA also said the parkette had originally been built "to offer a safe place to have a break, eat some take-out, fill water bottles and quench your dog's thirst too." But with the COVID-19 pandemic and related issues, the space saw "unintended" uses too, it says.

As a result, it says it undertook "extensive efforts to clean and maintain the site of harmful materials that could endanger the public realm."

According to the BIA, the redesign was meant to focus on safety and lighting and was slated to take place in late summer or early fall. The organization did not take media requests Tuesday.

Advocate calls on vandals to 'admit their guilt'

City spokesperson Brad Ross called the incident "disappointing" and said the city helped to clean up debris and acquire fencing to help with any related safety issues.

"We're not supportive of any unauthorized dismantling of any city property or any BIA property," he said.

Toronto police told CBC News they are not aware of any report filed about the incident.

Whether the redesign of the installation will bear any resemblance to the original arches isn't yet clear.

But Charles Tilden of the Alexandra Community and Encampment Support group says for now, he wants to see those responsible come forward.

"If nothing else, I hope those who chose to destroy this public infrastructure realize the harm they have done," he said.

"I hope they will admit their guilt and start with an apology and move on toward replacement costs."

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