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Cawthra Park to close for nine-month renovation beginning Aug 19

Neighbouring business owner complains of “aggressive drug users” in village park

The city is about to begin a long-awaited renovation to Cawthra Park, which will be surrounded by construction hoarding and closed to the community from the week of Aug 19 until next May. The renovation is part of a $1.45 million city project meant to improve the area for when Toronto hosts WorldPride next year.

Xtra first reported on the Cawthra redesign in Feb 2012, when a contentious proposal suggested replacing much of the park’s grassland with concrete paving. Since then, nearby residents and community members approved a final design. It will leave most of the park green, instead levelling the grassy area to improve drainage and creating new pathways with concrete paving stones. Dynamic LED lighting will also be added and the walls at the Church Street end of the park will be removed.

The community shot down another proposal that replaced most of the grass and trees with concrete paving to improve drainage and wear and tear caused by events such as Pride. Instead, only unhealthy trees will be removed, while new underground Strata Cell structures will protect those trees that remain and encourage growth.

“In our consultations, we found that people didn’t want to lose the green space,” says councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who emphasises that the space is designed for flexibility. “It’s a heavily used urban park, so there will be different elevations for people to sit and sun bathe.”

A proposed mural for the 519 Community Centre’s north wall — part of the Church Street Mural Project — will also be completed during the construction period if it’s approved by the 519 Board.

The long closure will be disappointing for park users, however the children’s playground and splash pad, the dog run, the AIDS memorial, and a pathway to Cawthra Square will remain open throughout construction.

The 519’s long-term plan aims to increase all-day programming in the park in order to encourage community members to use it — and to ward off aggressive drug users who frequent the park when it’s empty, says Matthew Cutler, the 519’s director of strategic partnership initiatives.

“This neighbourhood has a history of being a place where the homeless and those with mental illnesses come,” Cutler says, comparing the site to the old Second Cup steps and the former Alexander Street benches. “Every time, the solution has been to remove public space. We need to look for answers that are systemic and long-term.”

The 519 previously programmed activities such as yoga and movie nights in the park, which filled the space with residents and displaced drug users. Anticipating that the renovation project would start earlier this year, The 519 didn’t program park activities this summer.

That’s caused consternation among one nearby business owner, who says drug users harass customers and frighten away foot traffic. On Aug 9, Ladybug Florist owner Claire Rose McLeod decided she’d had enough when one customer told her that she’d been frightened by a man screaming nonsensical violent threats in front of the store.

“She was shaking and saying ‘just cash me out, I don’t feel safe in your store,’” McLeod says. “I had to escort her to her car.”

After the man left, McLeod took matters into her own hands by pouring corn syrup on the entrance wall to Cawthra Park, which adjoins her store — and on which she says “aggressive drug users” tend to hang out.

The 519 cleaned off the corn syrup on Aug 10 and placed planters on the wall to discourage people from sitting on it. But Cutler disputes claims that the 519 invites or tolerates aggressive behaviour and drug use in Cawthra Park. “There was just an individual having a psychotic break. He was not a service user at the 519. It could have happened anywhere,” Cutler says. “We called the police twice to deal with him. For whatever reason, the police wouldn’t take it further.”

Cutler says that the 519 regularly calls police when individuals are being disruptive in the park or in front of the building, but that’s not a viable solution without a constant police presence.

“At the same time, we have to recognize that we’re pushing out members of our community from public space. When we blocked off that wall, seniors had no place to sit down, parents with kids couldn’t rest them on that wall,” he says.

That’s part of the rationale for the park redesign, which incorporates crime prevention through environmental design principals of enhanced lighting and sightlines.

“It’s about people coming in and using the space. We’re going to see a very different park,” Wong-Tam says.

But that won’t address the core issue, says Cutler. “People who use the park to use substances will move to other parts of the community,” he says.