Pan Am Games: Turf war heats up over U of T’s planned artificial field

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The University of Toronto’s back campus is either an idyllic field worth protecting or a mud pit that should be replaced with artificial turf so students can actually play sports on it.

It depends who’s doing the talking: prominent Torontonians and heritage activists or university and Pan Am Games officials.

City council will have to decide next week between these two warring visions after a surprise move last week by Councillor Adam Vaughan to have the university’s grass fields designated “a cultural heritage landscape.”

If council were to pass the city preservation board’s recommendation to designate the private property tucked in behind Hart House as a heritage landscape, it would spell the end of the $9.5 million 2015 Pan Am Games project for field hockey and para soccer.

Pan Am Games rare opportunity for local athletes

“The University of Toronto was created in a pastoral setting to replicate the great universities of Europe. The back field campus has always been green,” Vaughan said. “It’s a new kind of thinking about heritage that’s made possible with the provincial heritage act.”

It’s also thinking that has left the U of T administration spitting mad.

“This is an improper, 11th-hour-and-58th-minute effort to scupper this project,” said Scott Mabury, vice-president of university operations, who added that no issues of heritage were ever raised before. “This project had the full, all-in support from the city in 2009 in the (Pan Am Games) bid book.

“How do you protect grass that’s heritage if you’re going to play on it? Frankly, much of the year it’s a mud pit.”

The university was “absolutely blindsided” by Vaughan’s move in bringing this forward to the Toronto and East York Community Council on May 13 and then to the city’s preservation board on May 29, Mabury said.

There have been numerous Pan Am Games announcements about the field hockey and para soccer facility at U of T – attended by city staff and Toronto Councillor Mark Grimes, the city’s lead on the Games – and millions of dollars have already been spent on the project.

If council were to pass the preservation board’s recommendation, there will be “very significant financial liabilities that we will seek redress for,” Mabury said.

Vaughan is backed by a group of concerned citizens that includes author Margaret Atwood and architect Ken Greenberg.

As more information came to light about the project, Vaughan said, the group became more concerned about the biocides that will be used with the specialized turf, the potential for damage to elm trees and the 5,000-seat stadium.

“We all understand the potential short-term opportunity (of the Pan Am Games). The question is, should the short-term opportunity have an impact on the long-term health of the community?” Vaughan said.

But, according to the university, the project’s opponents are wrong on both the short and long-term impacts.

There will be no 5,000-seat stadium, only temporary seating that will be set up along the road where parking normally is and after the Games are over, the fields will be used for all university students and athletes, not just field hockey players, Mabury said. The university is proud of its 130-year-old American elm trees, and will protect them, having gone so far already as to move the site of the planned turf fields, he said.

Beneath all the misinformation, though, is something that may be harder to fight.

“There is this undertone of nostalgia for a day, decades, decades past when the university was smaller. When back campus was first a playing field in the late 1800s, we had hundreds of students, not 60,000 or so. Time has gone by. We have more needs now than we did before,” said Mabury.

It’s impossible, with the use the fields get and Canada’s climate, to keep grass alive but for a few months. That’s why even Toronto elementary schools are turning to artificial turf fields.

The artificial turf fields will allow students – both elite players and recreational athletes – to have more access than they do now because fields are often so muddy and pock-marked as to be unusable, Mabury said.

Bruce Kidd, warden of Hart House and a U of T professor, was taken aback by what he heard at the preservation board’s meeting.

“One of the members of the committee said, ‘I met my husband there; it’s really important that we keep those memories alive. I vote to designate the grass,’ ” Kidd said.

“First of all, the cultural heritage of the back campus has been sport for more than 100 years and, secondly, we’re not changing the landscape, we’re changing the surface to bring it up to what is a world standard and give our students the best possible facilities we can,” he said.

“They want to protect their memories at the expense of sport opportunities for students today.”

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