Toronto

Toronto Parking Authority tried to sell public land in pricey midtown area to condo developer

The Toronto Parking Authority tried to sell a piece of prime midtown property to a condo developer, even though city had identified the land as a good spot for a much-needed park, CBC News has learned.

Land was earmarked for a public park north of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue

The Green P lot at Yonge Street and Castlefield Avenue. At right is the old Capitol Theatre. The new condo project will include a 10-metre strip of the lot along the theatre's back wall. (Grant Linton/CBC)

The agency that oversees parking in Toronto tried to sell a piece of prime midtown property to a condo developer without city permission —  even though staff had identified the land as a good spot for a much-needed neighbourhood park, CBC News has learned.

The land sale agreement involving the Toronto Parking Authority (TPA) would have seen the Green P lot on Castlefield Avenue, a few blocks north of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, transformed into a block-long condo tower, but councillors found out about the deal in June of 2018 and put a stop to it.

The city solicitor asked council last week to keep the deal a secret. But CBC News pieced together the timeline and the details of the agreement and its aftermath by speaking with the area city councillor and then reviewing legal and real estate records for the property. The city, the TPA and the developer all declined to go on the record for this story. 

"It was quite astonishing," Coun. Mike Colle, who represents the neighbourhood, told CBC Toronto. "The TPA obviously did not do something that was kosher. [It was] very disturbing ... I'm glad that we were able to get the park back."

Coun. Mike Colle, who represents Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence, says he is relieved the city was able to win back the parking lot property, which he wants transformed into a park. (Grant Linton/CBC )

The agreement led to several years of legal wrangling and negotiations. Last week, after three years of efforts behind the scenes and a lawsuit, city council voted to take the city solicitor's advice and keep the details of a settlement it reached with the developer confidential, citing the potential for further litigation over the botched TPA deal. 

The TPA doesn't own the land that it manages. Instead, it oversees it on behalf of the city. According to city documents, the TPA  didn't have the necessary permission from council when it agreed to sell the land in 2016, 

Although the Castlefield sale had not yet been finalized with the developer, Madison Group, the original agreement was still in place in June of 2018, about a month after city staff identified the four-hectare lot as a good spot for a neighbourhood park.

And as far back as 2014, commercial parking lots in the neighbourhood had been identified by city staff as potential new parks.

The Yonge-Eglinton area is undergoing intensification after the city identified it as a neighbourhood that could sustain a larger population. (Grant Linton/CBC)

It wasn't until its June 2018 meeting that council instructed city staff to try to nix the sale.

That decision led to a lawsuit about two months later by Madison Group against the city for breaking the original agreement.

That lawsuit dragged on for two years, during which the city could have been developing the new Castlefield park, according to Colle, who has championed that effort.

"The area's being flooded with wall-to-wall condos," Colle said. "We need more green space, parks, desperately."

City staff have written in the past that residents of the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood are among the most starved for green space in the city, with fewer than 43 hectares —  or less than half a football field — of parkland per 1,000 people.

The lawsuit was finally settled in September of 2020, when the city and Madison agreed to swap parcels of land, each worth about $1 million.

An ad for the new condo complex that Madison Group plans to build using the old Capitol Theatre, and part of a Green P lot at Yonge Street and Castlefield Avenue. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Madison currently owns the closed Capitol Theatre on the northwest corner of Yonge Street and Castlefield Avenue, which it planned to develop into a condo tower. That building could have stretched the full block, from Yonge to Duplex Avenue, had the parking lot sale gone through.

Instead, in the land swap, Madison gets only the easternmost strip of the Green P lot, expanding its footprint for the condo building by about 10 metres. In return, the city gets a 10-metre strip of land along the lot's northern edge.

It's unclear how much money would have changed hands, had the TPA agreement to sell Madison the full lot been finalized, or how much time city legal staff spent fighting the court battle.

Neither the TPA nor the city will talk about the deal or its aftermath. Both say confidentiality agreements are in place.

Former city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, who sat on the TPA board at the time of the deal with Madison, said he doesn't remember hearing anything about it. 

"I don't recall any reports coming to the board about it," he said.

The TPA is no stranger to controversy. Just a few months before the December, 2016 Castlefield sale agreement was signed, the city's auditor, Beverly Romeo-Beehler, issued the first of two reports slamming the authority for its handling of another land deal — the attempted purchase of an Arrow Road lot for about $2.5 million more than its actual value. That controversy led city council to fire the entire TPA board of directors.

'You can barely see the sky'

Shari Lash, vice chair of the Eglinton Park Residents Association and a 12-year resident of the area, agreed her neighbourhood desperately needs this park.

"It almost slipped through our fingers," she told CBC Toronto.

"There's so much development you can barely see the sky," she said. "There are shadows constantly, and there are going to be more of those shadows because the buildings are getting higher and higher. We just need to have spaces for us."

Shari Lash, who is an area resident, is pictured here in the parking lot that will eventually be turned into a music-themed park. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Three months ago, the Castlefield lot was formally rezoned as parkland, according to Colle.

"I'm hoping by early 2023," the new, music-themed park will open on what was once a parking lot, he said. 

And as for the opening ceremonies? He's hoping to get singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell to attend, and perform her song Big Yellow Taxi.

"You know, 'They paved paradise'? We want to do the opposite here. We want to make it into a park."

With files from Nicole Brockbank, John Lancaster and Chris Ensing

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