Views / Toronto

The new Don River Valley Park comes to life after a two-summer silence: Micallef

The park was reopened to great fanfare last month, but the dismal state of the trail is a reminder that the city must pay attention to detail.

The new Belleville underpass is wide and includes large-scale photographs of the Don Valley from the archives.

SHAWN MICALLEF

The new Belleville underpass is wide and includes large-scale photographs of the Don Valley from the archives.

The Lower Don Trail was closed a long time. Two summers came and went. When it finally reopened last month there was relief, but also great fanfare because it coincided with the opening of the new Don River Valley Park, an enhanced and renovated part of the Lower Don Valley.

It’s the most altered part of the river valley, crossed by numerous bridges, roads and rail corridors and straightened into a canal-like channel from its original meandering course. It’s a unique semi-natural and post-industrial place at the same time, where you can run into a deer along the trail while the incessant ocean-like roar of the DVP nearby fills the air.

Into this landscape Toronto architecture and urban design firm DTAH created a Lower Don Trail Master Plan in 2013 that the new park is based on. It’s an ambitious plan for the valley between Taylor Creek by Don Mills Rd. and Lakeshore Blvd., an area that includes the Evergreen Brickworks, Todmorden Mills, Corktown Commons and both the east and west sides of Riverdale Park.

The park comes with new signage currently being installed both along the trail and in the adjacent parks. In Riverdale Park West in Cabbagetown, there’s one by the corner of Winchester and Sumach Sts., 200 metres from the valley’s edge. The signs reach into the city like octopus tentacles inviting people into their valley. Some signs have maps and historical or ecological information on them; others simply tell people how far they’ve come and how much farther it is to landmarks and exits.

New signage, including maps, helps people navigate the Lower Don Trail.

SHAWN MICALLEF

New signage, including maps, helps people navigate the Lower Don Trail.

There are also big infrastructure improvements on the path. The most impressive and complex piece is the new Belleville underpass. Previously a narrow and dark corrugated steel tunnel that invited collisions, the new underpass is wide and includes large-scale photographs of the Don Valley from the archives. It gets its name from the disused “Belleville Subdivision” rail line it passes under. Disused, but not abandoned, that is. The line could become part of a Metrolinx transit plan, so it had to be rebuilt anticipating future use which contributed to the delays in opening the park.

There’s also a new cycling and pedestrian bridge crossing the Don at Pottery Rd. that connects to a new protected cycling lane along Bayview Ave. that runs south to Rosedale Valley Rd., providing an additional ravine connection. In the middle of that path is the Brickworks, a hub for the park. The Chorley Park switchback path adjacent to it is finally under construction too, delayed for years by Rosedale NIMBYs. It will provide essential wheelchair access to the Brickworks and valley itself and a short route to a nearby stop on the TTC’s 82 Rosedale bus. The network is knitting together despite confounding resistance.

There’s also new public art. “Monsters for Beauty, Permanence and Individuality,” by Duane Linklater, is 14 concrete copies of bits of Toronto’s architecture scattered about a clearing in view of the Prince Edward Viaduct. By an Omaskeko Cree artist from Moose Cree First Nation north of North Bay, the work comments on Toronto’s commitment to its own history as well as using places such as the valley for resource extraction to create what we sometimes treat as temporary architecture.

Also beginning Oct. 29 and every Sunday until Nov. 29, Toronto performance art duo Life of a Craphead — perhaps the best named performance art duo around — will float a life-size replica of the King Edward VII statue found at Queen’s Park down the Don River. As reckoning over historic and colonial statues is an ongoing public debate, the work is timely. More art is planned for the future. As ever, there’s a lot to see in the Don Valley, but there’s also a lot to feel. Bumps, that is.

The most disappointing part of the opening of the park is the state of the trail itself. Despite being closed for so long, it remains in as awful shape as ever, with gaping holes, bumps up to 10 centimetres high caused by tree roots and orange spray paint to serve as warnings for all the rough parts. It’s embarrassing. The trail itself should be the most important part of the rehabilitation and grand opening, but it’s emblematic of a city administration that likes to make announcements about shiny new things, but ignores that the details need attention too.

New infrastructure in the Don River Valley Park includes a pedestrian and cycling bridge over the Don River by Pottery Rd.

SHAWN MICALLEF

New infrastructure in the Don River Valley Park includes a pedestrian and cycling bridge over the Don River by Pottery Rd.

Mayor John Tory cheered the park’s opening last month, but the subsequent phases of the master plan haven’t secured funding yet. These details include staircases to the trail from Gerrard and Dundas Sts., an access ramp in Riverdale Park and trail widening in the narrow southern part between the rail corridor and river.

With the trail closed for so long, it’s not unreasonable to have hoped most of it could have been repaved. The mayor receives a lot of good will and political capital launching a park, but insists that this wealthy city can’t raise money to pay for the things it seems to want.

The current shiny mega-project the mayor and others are supporting breathlessly is Rail Deck Park. It’s not a bad idea to create needed park space over rail lines, and cities such as Chicago and Melbourne have done just that. But if it ever gets built here, how will we treat the details and ongoing maintenance? Look at how the broken Toronto Island Ferry system continues to make getting to Toronto’s gem difficult each summer. After watching Ontario Place decline over the decades, its architect Eb Zeidler said, “It’s like if you get a fantastic Jaguar, and you run it into a ditch.” That’s the Toronto way it seems.

Here’s a challenge for all the Rail Deck fanboys and girls who want it to happen: be as vocal about the state of good repair of our existing parks as you are about the new one. And let’s make sure the rest of the Don River Valley Park comes to fruition too.

Shawn Micallef writes every Saturday about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter @shawnmicallef

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