A huge, free and adventure-packed playground awaits kids on the waterfront … if wealthy Torontonians can be convinced to direct their cash from the hospitals and universities adept at landing the city’s super-donors.
The playground planned for Villiers Island, a new island being created by Waterfront Toronto at the mouth of the Don River, could be a sprawling adventure paradise for kids starved of places to safely climb, fall and explore.
“Families are living downtown. Cost affordability is forcing families to grow up in smaller and smaller spaces, and there are profound developmental issues with kids in a small space; we have a playground deficit,” said Iain McMullan, Waterfront Toronto’s executive director of philanthropy.
“We want to build a huge playground, so a half-million to one million kids a year can use it. That would deal with the playground deficit head on. We’re talking sandpits, climbing frames, swinging tires, water play, tunnels … a play space for generations of Toronto kids, accessible by transit and free.”
But that kind of landmark playground might never get built, because the city-provincial-federal agency estimates it needs $50 million. The pandemic-battered governments are spending many fortunes on the waterfront, but don’t have the extra cash for this.
For projects big and small, Toronto is desperate for donors.
City finances are stretched like never before; facing a potential $1.5-billion budget shortfall in 2023, Mayor John Tory is talking about potential tax hikes and cancelled building projects, not pricey new projects.
Waterfront Toronto is searching for deep-pocketed donors.
But it faces stiff competition from the fundraising arms of leading Toronto institutions, which are skilled at finding, wooing, welcoming and publicly acknowledging, families with fortunes.
From John Howard’s 1873 gift of what would become High Park to U.S. tycoon Andrew Carnegie’s early-1900s grants to build public libraries including seven still in use today, philanthropists have helped shape Toronto.
Hopes for a revival of city-building largesse flared in 2015 when Judy and Wilmot Matthews donated $25 million to create The Bentway , which transformed gritty spots under the Gardiner Expressway into year-round activity spaces.
There have been hits, including the $25-million Lassonde Art Trail which is coming to the Port Lands.
There have also been misses, including, the Star has learned, fruitless efforts by a member of Canada’s richest family to donate tens of millions of dollars for a city community centre with an LGBTQ focus.
What’s not in doubt, say urban advocates, including McMullan, is the dire need for privileged Torontonians and family foundations to step up and help a booming city, build public jewels, as can be seen in other North American cities, such as Tulsa, Okla., which created The Gathering Place , for example.
Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, who have also designed a potential playground for Villiers, the Tulsa riverfront park was made possible by a $350-million gift from the family foundation of civic-minded Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser. It includes a five-acre adventure playground with inventive play structures, sponsored by local families and foundations.
Here in Toronto, officials and prospective donors say that the Bentway gift and its structure — Judy Matthews, a former city planner, required strict timelines and site-maintenance guarantees — opened philanthropists’ eyes to new possibilities.
But there are reasons wealthy citizens aren’t flooding Toronto with eye-popping projects.
Competitors for donor dollars, such as the University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children, have compelling messages, decades of experience and big teams of skilled fundraisers, who turn personal connections into gifts that transform their institutions.
Cash-strapped cities, including Toronto, aren’t hard-wired for what can be years of negotiations, especially as superrich residents can be accustomed to five-star service.
While the names of Toronto’s wealthiest families are emblazoned on University Avenue’s hospital row, putting individual or corporate names on civic infrastructure is tricky, and requires a city council visit and can invite controversy.
Ken Greenberg, principal of Greenberg Consultants and former director of urban design and architecture for the city, helped the Matthews bring a fully formed proposal for what would become The Bentway straight to Mayor John Tory.
What’s now known as “the Bentway model,” includes creation of a conservancy, a charitable non-profit created to develop, operate and program the site year-round, with its own fundraising capacity, such as the one New York’s Central Park has.
Greenberg says conservancies address the worry he often hears from wealthy civic-minded Torontonians: that a project will get built with their funds and name, only to become a “white elephant,” because the revenue-starved city won’t be able to fund its maintenance and programming.
“People are really nervous about doing a wonderful public space, and, then, because the parks department budgets are insufficient, it deteriorates, and visibly so,” Greenberg said.
“I think we have to sort that out.”
He continued: “I’m working on another big project. I can’t say what it is yet, but that is the heart of the discussions we’re having (on) whether the donors will be prepared to go ahead.
“Conservancies,” he added, “are great but it’s a lot of work to create a board and to do the fundraising, whether it’s philanthropic or corporate-sector fundraising, and to recruit a staff. We need some other model as well.”
After The Bentway project was under way, Mayor Tory gathered representatives of some of Toronto’s wealthiest families and foundations to pitch them on following the Matthews’ lead and partnering on public spaces.
“Everyone was pretty receptive,” Tory said. “The only comment I got was: ‘Don’t have us stepping in to provide basic services of government — bring us something that will go the extra mile, an extra special addition to a program or project!’ So that’s what we’ve done.”
The Weston Family Foundation pledged up to $25 million toward The Meadoway, a 16-kilometre walking and cycling “linear park,” connecting parkland, ravines and neighbourhoods between downtown and Scarborough.
Tory’s meeting hasn’t yielded a rush of projects.
“We’re working on a couple of others,” said the mayor, who noted he helps facilitate projects, but leaves direct appeals for cash to the city’s partnerships office.
“I’m not at all discouraged.”
Tory says he believes the city’s obligations should be contractual, and the it should turn down generous offers if it can’t afford to live up to its obligations.
Exciting donor-funded projects are being discussed, according to Tory and Greenberg, but neither can say when, or if, there will be another Bentway.
One project that hasn’t got off the ground, according to two sources with knowledge of negotiations, but not authorized to discuss them publicly, was proposed by a member of the billionaire Thomson media empire family.
Travis Farncombe approached the city years ago about funding a community centre that could have been built in Moss Park, the sources said. However, amid what one source called an unfocused city response, the project stalled.
Farncombe did not respond to the Star’s emails and social media messages.
Civic philanthropy shouldn’t fund just megaprojects, says Sharon Avery, chief executive of Toronto Foundation, which oversees charitable funds for about 800 wealthier Torontonians and endowment funds for about 40 charities.
“There is inequity within charitable giving, with most donor money flowing to big institutions with big marketing plans and big fundraising teams,” Avery said.
“It’s a pattern of wealthy folks giving to wealthy institutions” that do provide valuable community services.
“They’re very important, but what we try to do is convince donors to expand their giving to a broader range of work that affects their communities in a very wide variety of ways,” and chips away at Toronto’s growing gap in income and opportunities.
“Imagine $25 million committed to work happening in the grassroots at Jane and Finch, or in Regent Park, or in the Junction,” she said.
“We’re always trying to encourage folks to think of their giving as a portfolio, as opposed to one pet project, and be generous, because the intractable problems that the city faces — poverty, gender violence, youth at risk and homelessness — are not actually going to be solved by making one enormous gift to big institutions.”
Toronto Foundation is working with Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society to raise between $2 million and $3 million to build a transitional housing healing lodge for Indigenous women free on bail, parole or probation.
Patti Pettigrew, the society’s executive director, says rising interest rates and the skyrocketing cost of timber required to construct the environmentally responsible building make the need for civic-minded philanthropists that much greater.
“In the spirit of reconciliation, this is a healing lodge for Indigenous women who have been affected by the genocidal practices of Canada, by residential schools, by the Sixties scoop and by intergenerational challenge,” Pettigrew said.
“The city has been incredibly supportive and there have been private donations that were very generous, but we can’t make this happen without more contribution toward the capital fund.”
While finding one or more philanthropists to fund a public space, such as a $50-million waterfront playground, can seem daunting, McMullen remains hopeful that the long-term impact will be a deciding factor.
“If you put money into a park or the art trail or a playground, it’s there forever,” said McMullen.
He points to High Park. “It’s changed the lives of generations of people.”
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