Ghost town in a city: Toronto military neighbourhood set to be dismantled to make way for condos

Jul 14, 2012 – 4:50 AM ET |

Darren Calabrese / National PostWilliam Baker Park, the last Canadian military housing area in Toronto, is expected to be bulldozed.
William Baker Park is like a ghost town. A whole row of empty houses sits with overflowing mailboxes and weathered, unused phone books on the porch. The only sound you can hear other than a passing airplane is the buzz of cicadas and the wind blowing through the thick canopy of mature trees. A deer sits peacefully on the grass between two houses. An emaciated tomcat slinks up a driveway nearby.This is the last Canadian military housing area in Toronto. It is set to be bulldozed as early as this fall to make way for condos after the military completes its eviction process.
Joshua Learn/National PostA deer basks in the shade in William Baker Park. (See the video.)

The result is a peaceful, empty neighbourhood that feels like a cottage district outside of tourist season. Weeds overflow from the flower boxes but the lawns are perfectly shaved. Furniture sits on the curb of one house while a sign at the entrance to the neighbourhood reads “All salesmen must be licensed by Canadian Forces Housing Agency.” One of the last residents in the neighbourhood describes it as looking “like one of those nuclear test communities.”“I’m going to miss it,” says a resident from the Royal Canadian Air Force as movers carry furniture from his duplex into a truck that looked larger than his house. “If you were here two years ago there would be kids running around, riding bicycles,” he says. “It was a really bustling neighbourhood.”Although the military transferred most of the 7.99 hectares of William Baker Park to Downsview Park in 2006, they will only transfer the actual land the houses sit on after the last residents move out. Meanwhile, Downsview Park will soon make a proposal call to developers. Once Downsview reviews the proposals and bids, they will sell the land. It is unclear how many trees the developers will cut.

Tyler Anderson/National PostUninhabited homes on the mostly deserted Robert Woodhead Crescent.

“Generally speaking the bulk of houses will be deconstructed,” says David Anselmi, vice president of development and sustainability for Downsview Park.The Canadian military built William Baker Park in 1953 and originally housed people from the air force in detached and semi-detached homes. Although most residents like the neighbourhood, they aren’t all thrilled about the quality of the houses.“There’s not a single right angle in the house,” one resident says. “Everybody complains about them, but then everybody complains when they can’t move into them as well.”Councillor Anthony Perruzza wants the area saved. “It has a long history in the community. People who have lived there, I’m sure, have gone off and fought for this country, and some have even died for this country. It was housing that was specifically built to a particular style in a particular era for a particular neighbourhood,” he says.“They are beautiful homes in a beautiful setting and are worth preserving. I can see it becoming another Wychwood Park,” says Rosanna Iaboni, secretary of the Downsview Lands Community Voice Association. She blames the destruction on Ottawa.“The whole situation is terrible because the Conservative government refuses to fund this park,” she says “It’s a shame that this is the sort of thing [Downsview Park] has to do in order to make that money.”Mr. Perruzza criticizes the North York Community Preservation Panel (NYCPP) for not stepping in to save William Baker. “The North York Preservation panel and their historical board is asleep at the switch,” he says.

Darren Calabrese/National Post

But the preservation panel chairman, Geoff Kettel said no one alerted him. “Has he brought it to our attention? The answer is no. Nor has anybody else.”Mr. Anselmi says the military has asked them to deconstruct the houses sooner rather than later to avoid vandalism. “There’s a chance some of them also might be picked up and moved, or auctioned off to preserve them,” he says. “There are some interesting little houses.”The houses aren’t all as cheaply made as the ones along Robert Woodhead Crescent. The houses along John Drury Drive get progressively nicer as you go deeper into William Baker Park. One former resident, a former military policeman, said the bigger houses were reserved for the “big wigs.” According to him, the house at the end of John Drury Drive started with the base commander’s, then worked all the way down through the lieutenants and officers.Although the former MP used to live in Stanley Greene Park, another former military neighbourhood Downsview is demolishing right now (having sold the land to Urbancorp for townhouses), he spent a lot of time in William Baker.“It’s a nice, quiet area in the middle of the war zone,” he joked.Indeed, it’s an oasis of tranquility, blocked off from Keele Street and the rest of Toronto by an eroding brick fence and a huge canopy of trees.Huge old maple, oak, ash, douglas firs and beech trees cover the area and Mr. Anselmi would not say how many will be preserved through development.“Magnificent trees. It’s like an old forest,” says Mr. Perruzza.“There was a lot of community involvement to spruce up the area,” says the former military policeman. “People planted a lot of these trees.”When the city dragged its feet on approving Downsview Park’s plans, the park took the city to the Ontario Municipal Board. It a ruling last year, the OMB identified three hectares of the William Baker area as preferred locations for parkland. Some of the forested areas will be added to the Natural Heritage System.“It would be a very sad thing indeed if we lost the bulk of those trees,” Mr. Perruzza says. Residents say animals abound in the woods: deer, pheasants, raccoons, skunks and groundhogs.Mr. Anselmi also likes the woodlot, but won’t promise to save it. “It contributes greatly to the canopy of the park,” he says. “Any development that we do, or that development partners do, we will look to the extent to which that woodlot can be integrated into the overall national urban park concept.”“If you want to build a park, [William Baker] is where you build a park. This is where the trees exist already. You don’t have to wait 100 years for the little seedlings you planted to grow up, right?” Mr. Perruzza says.He says Downsview Park didn’t drive the the planning process by park consideration. “It was driven by planning consideration. You know, where can you stack housing? Where will developers pay a premium buck for it? Where do you locate the storm water management pond?”But Mr. Anselmi disagrees. “It’s just not that simple. Do we locate development neighbourhoods where we think they make the most sense? Yes, of course. And that includes economically where they make the most sense. But the entire plan of the park has not been based on where to get development,” he says.“It used to be a very vibrant community neighbourhood,” says the former military policeman of William Baker.“You’d hear the pitter-patter of little feet coming around,” he says after noting he raised three children in Stanley Greene in the 1980s.“It’s very unfortunate but it’s progress.”National Post

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