BEFORE THE FLOOD
FROM OCTOBER 2018 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
“Whenever they hear a storm is coming they get this feeling in their stomach of pure worry,” says Chiara Padovani, who lives in Rockcliffe-Smythe, a delicate flood plain on the banks of Black Creek. They have reason to worry. Using a zoning loophole, the city has approved the sale of a large plot here to St. Helen’s Meat Packers, which plans to build a storage facility on the green space, impeding the land’s ability to absorb storm water. According to a vocal group of angry residents, outdated regulations shouldn’t trump basic science, or safety.
A BLACK AND GREEN “FOR SALE” SIGN WAS ERECTED at the corner of Rockcliffe Boulevard and Rockcliffe Court in Toronto’s West End in 2011. It advertised the sale of a “development property” on public land declared surplus to the city’s needs just five years prior. Behind it lay a tangle of trees and piles of mulch belonging to a Parks Operations office down the street.
Students at Rockcliffe Middle School across the two-lane road might have noticed in 2016 when a larger red placard from Cushman & Wakefield was installed beside the original sign put up by Build Toronto, the real estate arm of City Hall. No one in the community was fussed about the signage. After all, the city had been courting buyers for the dishevelled site since 2007 without luck.
Things shifted abruptly in October 2017. With potential buyers lined up for the public land, Build Toronto wanted to sever the property into four parcels. While one would remain a TTC storage yard, two others would be sold off to building and landscaping businesses currently operating on the land. St. Helen’s Meat Packers, which owned a slaughterhouse nearby, was in talks to purchase the final parcel closest to Rockcliffe Middle School. Wanting to buy some eight acres, St. Helen’s hoped to erect a 50,000-square-foot cold storage facility where, for decades, a green space had sat.
Yet the community knew none of this. Those “For Sale” signs parked at the lot’s corner were the only indication local residents had that the city was close to selling the land. And, when offers were made, no mechanism existed to inform the neighbourhood that ownership changes were imminent unless the local councillor, Frances Nunziata, alerted her constituents. She didn’t.
Locals may have remained in the dark until the entire privatization was complete, save for one fact. In asking to sever the land, the city automatically triggered a public hearing on the proposal. A meeting was called for Oct. 12 last year, sparking a land battle that would, over months, lead to furious local residents marching in opposition and taking their claims of being run over roughshod by the city from the mayor’s office to the media.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if the water that was washing down the creek and into the Humber weren’t so rancid? If we could walk out the door and into the green space that lines our streets and feel safe and proud?” wrote Erin Ronningen, a co-founder of Black Creek Alliance. “There is a way for this community to enjoy more green space and to be proud of our growing and diverse neighbourhood. We deserve park equity.”
The Black Creek Alliance, one of the most vocal of several community groups active in the area, may have formed in spring 2017 to beautify the neighbourhood. But in fighting to have the community’s voice heard to stop the sale of 200 Rockcliffe Court, they found a cause. Because 200 Rock lies entirely within the oft-inundated Black Creek flood plain. And in rallying to stop the sell-off of public land, the Alliance ultimately found a way to save green space while mitigating the worst effects of flood waters rotting their homes nearly every time it rained.
WHAT’S NOW THE ROCKCLIFFE-SMYTHE NEIGHBOURHOOD near Jane Street and St. Clair Avenue West was mostly farmland until the 1920s. Then, Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs for more than three decades in the mid-20th century, turned much of the land he owned in the area into a gravel quarry. Aggregate mining dominated until after the Second World War, when single-family homes were built for returning servicemen. Roads were laid out, and a sewage treatment plant was constructed at 200 Rock to handle waste streaming from hundreds of tidy, postwar bungalows.
With rapid urban development came poorly considered alterations to the natural landscape. Black Creek was channelized as far back as 1942 to make building rows of homes easier, with flood control never a top priority.
A residential neighbourhood gradually formed on and below the hills surrounding 200 Rockcliffe Court.
Hurricane Hazel changed everything. On Oct. 15, 1954, 124 kilometre/hour winds pushed eight inches of rain on Toronto in 24 hours, inundating sewer systems and flooding rivers. The Humber in particular, with its heavily urbanized watershed, grew torrential, rising 30 feet and ripping homes from their foundations. “It was like dumping a lake the size of Lake Simcoe on the Humber River drainage area and having it all trying to get out by way of the river at once,” Fred Turnbull, head of the Malton (now Pearson) airport weather office, told the Toronto Star at the time.
Bridges were knocked out; highways closed; trains were thrown from their tracks. When the rain ceased, 81 had died and 1,900 in Toronto were left homeless. Cleanup cost $25 million, some $238 million today. And a battered province vowed never again.
While the rainfall brought on by Hazel was devastating, the resulting death toll was equally the fault of poor city planning. Toronto is a city of rivers, creeks and ravines. And before 1954, too many Torontonians had been allowed to live in those ravines and too close to those rivers in active flood plains, putting them in a path where excess water has always flowed through the city.
Soon after Hazel, Queen’s Park amended legislation governing conservation authorities, allowing them to purchase land for flood mitigation and conservation. In Toronto, the Land Acquisition program also allowed the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to buy properties in dangerous floodways, in addition to erecting dams, channels and reservoirs to keep flood waters under control. Hazel itself became an official benchmark for flood proofing the Authority would oversee – part yardstick, part reminder of just how destructive water is in the concrete city.
The Black Creek dam was one of the first TRCA constructed. And while subsequent channelling did make its flow more predictable, neither did much to halt routine flooding.
“Because the Black Creek watershed is entirely developed, it tends to be a very flashy water course,” says Steve Heuchert, associate director of Development Planning and Regulation with TRCA. The concrete channel containing Black Creek that runs 200 feet from the proposed meat-packing plant was never designed to accommodate Hazel-type disasters.
Flooding here is exacerbated by a too-small culvert running beneath Jane Street that’s unable to handle huge quantities of water rushing through Black Creek toward the Humber. Everything behind it, Heuchert tells me, fills up faster than it normally would. Plans to improve flood protection in the neighbourhood list replacing the Jane Street culvert (costing $15 million) as priority one. But never mind a Hazel-like storm being needed to flood the area – some parts of Black Creek spill its banks in minor storms predicted to occur every 10, or even five, years.
The sewage plant that once stood at 200 Rock was torn down after Hazel when the new Humber sewage plant was constructed. Nearby Lavender Creek was forced under Symes Road and along Hilldale Road before connecting with Black Creek at Alliance Avenue. For a time, the city used the land for a public works yard, turning its sights to “prestige employment” opportunities, as the land is zoned for, only in the early 1980s. Nothing much came of it, perhaps because, as the city acknowledged in declaring the land surplus in 2006, the site possessed “major environmental issues,” including mercury and PCB contamination, toxic legacies of its time spent as a sewage plant and PCB storage facility. The space became derelict.
And derelict it remained. While more than 600 properties were built around it in the Rockcliffe flood plain, the site has, over numerous decades, done what natural areas do in the absence of humans – it went back to nature.
IT’S ONLY THE OUTER PERIMETER of 200 Rock that would make parents anxious about letting their kids loose inside. Faded Coke bottles and sardine cans burst out of black garbage bags piled two feet thick on cracked asphalt. A razor-wire-topped fence ringed the site, yet the three-sided fence was open at the back. I wandered in and saw dragonflies darting through knee-high grasses and meandering butterflies seeking out the year’s last flowering plants. Aspen, hackberry and maples grew tall; apple trees held on to the last of their fruit.
Affixed to the fading metal fence facing Rockcliffe Boulevard were two hand-drawn signs: “Keen 2 Be Green” and “Parks NOT Parking Lots,” placed there by Black Creek Alliance, subtle reminders that the contentious makeshift refuge would not last.
Just away from Rockcliffe Boulevard I met Tanya Connors and Johnny Dib, two Black Creek Alliance co-founders and activists willing to meet a journalist on a Friday night. Connors, a transplant from Newfoundland and Labrador, is a social worker with an effortless laugh who’s lived in Rockcliffe-Smythe for a dozen years; Dib had come from a shift at the Fresh City Farms warehouse, where he stocks produce. He moved to nearby Mt. Dennis in 2012.
“You don’t have to be an engineer to see two rivers are colliding here,” Connors tells me. “We’re in a river valley.” As we head into the site we’re joined by fellow activists Lola Slade and her mother Catherine. As we walked they told me the history of the site, and how their frustration fermented over winter. At a TRC meeting in January, Build Toronto, rebranded as CreateTO, moved to delay formally approving the sale to allow Councillor Frances Nunziata a chance to hold public consultations, which she did on March 3, 2018. It was here that residents of Rockcliffe-Smythe first learned that St. Helen’s was the intended buyer. “People were angry,” Connors says.
Black Creek Alliance rallied 100 local residents on March 17 to oppose the sale. Nunziata attended and, alongside Connors and provincial Immigration Minister Laura Albanese, posed for a photo. Together they held a banner reading: Where there’s a willow there’s a way. “We walked right by the Rockcliffe land,” Connors tells me, and Nunziata “did not tell us the plans or that it was severed.”
On March 23, at the TRCA headquarters near Jane Street and Hwy. 407, a hearing was held to approve the sale. “It was maddening,” Connors recalls. Councillors shouted over each other at the hearing, Slade remembers; most failed to take it or public complaints seriously. Others heckled Nunziata for declaring her opposition to placing an easement on the land (a prerequisite for the sale to proceed) despite speaking in favour of the easement at the Oct. 12 meeting.
The tense atmosphere wasn’t helped much when St. Helen’s sent workers to the meeting in matching T-shirts talking up the jobs the proposed plant could create. The outcome felt fixed. While St. Helen’s was required to flood-proof the site for 350-year flooding, its transformation from green space to meat locker was complete. CreateTO closed the sale on June 26, 2018, for $3.91 million. “You can’t buy a shed in Toronto for that price,” Connors says.
FEW BELIEVE IT’S WISE TO BUILD ON A FLOOD PLAIN. For one thing – well, they flood, destroying homes, cars, trees, risking injury and releasing contaminants into local ecosystems. The risk is great enough that some buildings, including hospitals, retirement homes, schools and hazardous material storage facilities, are permanently banned from construction in flood plains by Ontario’s Provincial Policy Statement.
But the intensification pressures facing the GTA are leading many developers to eye land that has been off limits since Hurricane Hazel. “A number of properties...are certainly up in play now,” TRCA’s Steve Heuchert says. “We have a lot more pressure on our ravine systems and flood plain areas.”
That said, the real culprit at 200 Rock was a bureaucratic snafu two decades in the making.
Each Ontario municipality can set out in its official plan what are called Special Policy Areas (SPAs). These designations can be used to overrule flood plain building restrictions when a community (or parts of a community) has historically existed in a flood plain.
As explained in the Provincial Planning Statement, SPAs exist so that new rules regarding where and how cities build in floodways don’t economically or socially knee-cap a neighbourhood by driving out businesses and/or homeowners. If a city chooses, it can designate flood plain land historically zoned for employment as a Special Policy Area to retain commercial uses, flooding be damned.
200 Rockcliffe Court is a Special Policy Area.
Yet many municipalities are currently updating their SPAs. Flood modelling has significantly advanced since the 1980s, when most policies were put in place. In some locations, Heuchert says, TRCA can now perform 3D modelling to know how and where water will flow in storm events. There is also recognition, he says, that “we need to relook at a number [of factors] and determine whether certain land uses would be allowed within those SPAs that currently are allowed but probably, perhaps, shouldn’t be.”
Toronto’s Special Policy Area guidelines, however, remain tragically stuck in a pre-amalgamation past. When the city adopted its Official Plan in the early 2000s, it submitted an updated SPA list to Queen’s Park. But the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing never approved them. The city appealed the rejection to the Ontario Municipal Board, though nothing happened. Toronto turned to updating its downtown and employment land plans, leaving the SPA list to languish at the OMB. Or, as Toronto’s planning department tells me, the new SPA guidelines are “still outstanding” more than a decade on, leaving the future of 200 Rock governed by a policy contained in the old City of York official plan from the late 1980s.
These outdated SPA rules are the only reason development at 200 Rock proceeded, says Chiari Padovani, a social worker who has lived in the area all her life. Padovani is running in the Oct. 22 municipal election in Ward 11 (where 200 Rock is situated) against incumbent Frances Nunziata. “We know we shouldn’t be building in flood plains,” Padovani tells me. “And in 2006 we knew this site was a flood plain.” We know this still.
I ask Heuchert whether economic considerations driving SPA designations should trump the basics of urban hydrology. He demurs. “We are obligated to implement the Provincial Policy Statement in the Natural Hazard section. And that Natural Hazard section allows for a Special Policy Area,” he says, rattling off bureaucratese before, suddenly, changing tack. “If the Special Policy Area wasn’t there, which it is,” he tells me, “that site would be undevelopable.”
BASEMENT AND SURFACE FLOODING ACROSS THE CITY, including in Rockcliffe-Smythe, has occurred with ulcer-inducing regularity. May 12, 2000; July 26, 2002; Aug. 19, 2005; July 23, 2006; July 8, 2008; June 26, 2010; July 15, 2012; July 8, 2013. “So many members of the community are afraid of the rain,” Padovani says. “Whenever they hear a storm is coming they get this feeling in their stomach of pure worry.”
It happened again this summer. On Aug. 7, 2018, houses less than half a kilometre from 200 Rock were flooded when a flash storm blew through Toronto, stranding streetcars under railway overpasses and trapping two men in an elevator on Alliance Avenue, a stone’s throw from the site. They were rescued by police with only 11 inches of space left before the elevator would have filled to the brim.
Homes, naturally, were inundated. “It’s getting to the point where a lot of these homeowners aren’t even covered by their insurance anymore because their houses are so flood prone,” Padovani says. Now, homeowners pay out of pocket to repair damages. Transforming the green space at 200 Rock would never have eliminated flood risk in the neighbourhood, she admits, but the land had a role to play in preventing flooding. “And we sold it off.”
This piecemeal approach to thinking through flood risks is of limited value, says Usman Khan, a water resource engineer at York University. “We need to be looking at watersheds and subwatersheds at that scale to see how we can design or redesign our urban areas to minimize the flood impacts,” he says. “Otherwise it just becomes a combination of Band Aid solutions.”
In thinking through the risk-reward analysis for building in the Black Creek flood plain, Khan says, we shouldn’t think about 200 Rock in isolation. “We need to see what else is happening in this area and how development here would impact everything around it.” Because the water that rips through the flood plain doesn’t just fall on Rockcliffe-Smythe – it lands on a paved watershed stretching north past Major Mackenzie Drive.
In 2017, Mayor John Tory had an opportunity to mitigate the city’s flood risks through stormwater infrastructure improvements. He opted instead to shelve a proposal to raise money via levy to fund the upgrades. Tory was forced to defend that decision after August’s flash storm, when city sewers failed again.
According to Tory spokesperson Don Peat, “Under the Mayor’s leadership, city council has approved a 10-year capital plan that will see billions invested in storm water management.”
Yet the science of how water moves through Rockcliffe-Smythe has always played second fiddle to political whims. After City Hall announced its intention to parcel 200 Rock, triggering the public consultation that alerted the public that something was afoot, the Black Creek Alliance arranged two separate meetings with John Tory. Neither went well.
While Tanya Connors was under the impression her group was meeting one-on-one with Tory, unannounced, his office invited St. Helen’s and their legal team, along with Nunziata, who has long supported the land sale despite public statements to the contrary. The mayor told Connors what he later told media – the sale could not be halted for “legal reasons.” The meeting was solely an attempt to quiet Black Creek Alliance’s fears. “We were told it was time to make nice,” Connors recalls. “We’re not ready to make nice.”
According to Peat, the mayor “is working with residents to address [their] concerns and will be creating a working group to manage issues around the property including minimizing truck traffic, improving the appearance of the land, and ensuring it is respectful to the community.”
Nevertheless, the sale has become a political flashpoint. In July, local NDP MPP Faisal Hassan told Premier Doug Ford his constituents had been “ignored” by the city and urged Queen’s Park to halt the sale. Padovani included images from 200 Rock in her campaign videos, while former chief city planner and mayoral hopeful Jennifer Keesmaat toured the site in September, calling the community’s struggle a David vs. Goliath fight. “We just need one strategic stone,” she says.
Peat, however, reiterates the mayor’s words to Connors: “We understand every option to cancel the sale has been explored and due to legal reasons it cannot be stopped.”
BACK AT 200 ROCK, THE SUN DROPPED BEHIND THE TORONTO Community Housing apartment towers in the distance. The spate of cars working their way up Rockcliffe Boulevard had slowed to a post-rush-hour trickle. From deep in the thicket a dog parted the bushes and lumbered up to join our group. Lola Slade jumped. Not long ago coyotes were a common sight; foxes, too.
The site’s transformation is almost certain. But until St. Helen’s (which did not respond to a request for comment) submits a design for approval, no one knows what will be built here, if anything. “Whatever they design there,” says TRCA planning director Steve Heuchert, “it has to meet Special Policy Area requirements. It’s not going to be easy.”
As we traipsed through the tall grasses on what is now private property, hearing the geese honk from the nearby creek and watching bugs scurry away from us, it was hard to picture industrial development of any kind (let alone a meat storage facility) being an improvement on what’s already here. Or what could be.
Johnny Dib appreciates the need to protect employment lands. But as we walk through the site he wonders aloud why other neighbourhoods are allowed to change, yet the economically depressed parts of Rockcliffe-Smythe have been forced to retain the slaughterhouses, tanneries and meat-packing plants that fouled the area’s water and air for decades. And, ultimately, why the community had no chance to advocate for the creation of parkland that doubles as protective green infrastructure before the land was sold. These twin angers, both with the city that failed to listen and at losing a vital opportunity to dramatically improve the safety of their neighbourhood, are palpable in Rockcliffe-Smythe.
“This could become part of a network of green spaces that...serve an ecological purpose,” Dib told CityTV at 200 Rock not long after Black Creek Alliance mobilized. “It serves a purpose of retaining wildlife and cleaning the water” and could, he maintained, become “one of the most beautiful places in Toronto.”
Not for nothing does the Alliance look to the Don Valley Brickworks for inspiration. Both were home to garbage dumps and industrial uses in flood plains; both were sold, though the city possessed a vision for the Brickworks it has utterly lacked for 200 Rock. “People here feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick,” Chiari Padovani says. “The Brickworks is beautiful and it has turned into a community space and tourist attraction. And here in Rockcliffe-Smythe we’re getting a parking lot and a storage facility for a slaughterhouse up the street.”