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How will the Maple Leaf Gardens makeover impact the Village?

Feds kick in $20 million for project; but how public will it be?

A decade after it shut its doors, Maple Leaf Gardens is ready for a makeover, made possible by a partnership between Ryerson University and grocery chain Loblaw — and lubricated by a generous handout from the federal government.

 
A Ryerson facility on the upper two floors will include a skating rink with capacity for 5,000 spectators; the ground level will be a giant grocery store. The project’s defenders say it could be a boon for the Church-Wellesley Village, but no decisions have been made on what access the public will have to Ryerson’s facilities.
 
Loblaw bought Maple Leaf Gardens in 2004 with the intention of turning it into its flagship store, but the company has yet to begin renovations — leading some to speculate that the building is larger than needed. Ryerson president Sheldon Levy has been eyeing the space for several years, but until now the cost has been prohibitive. 
 
“Very early on when I came to the university and saw how landlocked we were and the need for improved recreation facilities, it became a bit obvious the only large footprint would be at Maple Leaf Gardens,” says Levy.
 
The purchase was finally made possible last spring, when students voted in favour of increasing tuition fees to cover the mortgage on Ryerson’s portion of the building. The increase means that Ryerson will contribute $20 million, a third of the money necessary to buy and renovate the space. The federal government pitched in a further $20 million from the stimulus budget, and Loblaw has donated $5 million – leaving $15 million that Ryerson and Loblaw must raise from other sources.
 
City councillor Kyle Rae, who represents the area, has pledged to work with the fundraising campaign. Rae took an interest in the redevelopment project from the beginning, supporting both Loblaw’s and Ryerson’s ambitions for the space.
 
“I think over the years Loblaw was finding it difficult to carry the transformation on its own,” says Rae. “Ryerson put a lot of pressure on them to get access, and I was supporting Ryerson 100 percent.”
 
The south edge of the Village is dominated by the aging building. Maple Leaf Gardens was the Leafs’ home rink for 68 years and 11 Stanley Cup wins. The unused building has left something of a dead zone, but until the project is completed, those involved can only speculate about its impact on the Village. 
 
“I think it will bring a significant revitalization of the neighbourhood,” says Levy. “I think it’s a good place to invest.”
 
Rae says that it is good news for local condo owners, many of whom bought properties five years ago with the understanding that the new megamarket would open imminently. 
 
It might also be a boon for local businesses, says David Wootton, of the Church-Wellesley Village BIA. 
 
“Even the success of the Battle of the Blades was a real positive influence on a lot of restaurants and bars in the neighbourhood. That end of the street is kind of dead. I think it’ll bring a lot of revitalization.” 
 
Wootton doesn’t think there is a risk of conflict between the neighbourhood’s queer club-goers and the hockey fans that the new rink will attract. 
 
“When Maple Leaf Gardens was [last] in use, the restaurants were extremely busy from games,” Wootton says. “And we are just as gay now as we were then. I think it’s going to be more of a concern for residents in the area because of noise levels and deliveries of produce at all hours of the night, but here in the Village I think it’s going to be a great thing.”
 
One group that might find themselves less welcome after the project’s completion are the trans women and sex workers who have long worked at Carlton and Jarvis. The results are impossible to predict, says outreach worker Wendy Babcock, but she is not optimistic. 
 
“Every time we gentrify, we end up pushing sex workers more into the margins of society,” she says. 
 
Another thing that is still unclear is how much access the public will have to the new facilities.
 
“I’ve had conversations with Ryerson and they are keen to make [the rink] accessible to the community in off-peak periods,” says Rae. “I’m going to be sitting down with our recreation staff to see if there’s anything we can do in terms of providing assistance with programming.” 
 
Sheldon Levy echoes that the general public will get its share of ice time. 
 
“Clearly there will be opportunities,” he says. “You can imagine summer camps for example, you can imagine weekend skating. Obviously, given that the students have put in $20 million, the Ryerson interests are going to lead but not be exhaustive of the opportunities we can and must make available to the wider community.”