Columbus Centre Redevelopment Plan Sparks Outrage

Fear that a mixed-use building will replace a ‘jewel’

The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) and the Villa Charities are not your typical developers. The TCDSB wants to build a much-needed school for students now taking classes in 22 portables at the Dante Alighieri Academy in the Lawrence and Dufferin area.

The Villa Charities is a charitable foundation that provides care facilities for elderly, mostly Italian-Canadian residents, as well as cultural programs for the city’s Italian-Canadian community.

The centre of Villa’s efforts is the Columbus Centre in the Lawrence and Dufferin area. The charity owns and manages the centre which was built in 1980 with public funds and private donations.

Villa wants to build a 435-seat performing arts theatre, which will house, among other things, arts studios and improved athletic facilities “with state-of-the-art fitness studios for spin, aerobics and yoga.

“The shared complex will also have a half-kilometre outdoor circuit around the site with a park for community use.”

The plan is to house the school and a new community centre under the same roof at a cost of $70 million to be shared equally by both Villa Charities and the TCDSB.

An icon but ‘costly and inefficient to operate’

Problem is the project will see the beloved Columbus Centre torn down to make room for the school and a new centre.

Villa Charities thinks there’s nothing wrong with that.

“The Columbus Centre has served our community well for two generations. Age, however, has caught up to our facilities, which today are costly and inefficient to operate.

“In addition to being the new campus of the new intergenerational community hub will be a premier destination for Italian-Canadians in the GTA and others wishing to explore Italian culture. It will provide fully modernized and enhanced facilities, with an array of programs. This will be a reimagined space to better meet the needs and expectations of future generations and the community we serve.”

Many not persuaded new means better

But many in Lawrence and Dufferin community do not agree. In fact, they are up in arms over the plan.

MPP Mike Colle, whose Eglinton-Lawrence riding is home to the present centre, agrees that there is a need for a school. Not to be accused of NYMBYism, he offers a solution: build the school on the present Alighieri site or on the site of a nearby public school, which is vacant.

“This was a good idea and I expressed it to the Trustees and the Catholic Board,” Colle says.

Colle and his son, city councillor Josh Colle, addressed a rally of about 500 protestors held near the centre on July 14.

Josh Colle told the gathering one remedy is for the City of Toronto to give the building a heritage designation to stop the demolition. He said city staff was looking into that.

Colle warned that tearing down the centre would mean demolishing the “jewel of the Italian Canadian community in Canada” leaving the community with a mixed-use facility, part school, part community centre.

Community input needed

Anthony DiCaita, Villa Charities’ president and CEO, told CBC he expects there will be shovels in the ground by next summer, and that the redevelopment will be completed in 2020.

DiCaita conceded there had been no community input, so the Villa Charities is in the process of establishing a community advisory panel which DiCaita says would give members and citizens in the surrounding neighbourhoods a chance to express their concerns.

Josh Colle favours a renovated centre. But wants the TCDSB to build a school on land the board owns at 25 Good Shepherd Court, land the TCDSB purchased for that purpose in 2015.

Colle warns that giving stakeholders a chance to vent is not enough.

“It would be wise for them to withdraw their OMB proposal and start working on a new one. Had they done that before, they would have come up with something that everyone would be happy with.”

Is this just the prelude to a housing development?

He fears that going forward with the OMB application to redevelop the land is a “sword over the stakeholder’s necks.”

Writing in the Toronto Star, another critic of the project, Angelo Persichilli, worries the relationship between the TCDSB and Villa Charities that will see Villa  get a long-term lease to share the facilities with the school is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He wonders whether the lack of input early on might have been laziness or “just part of an aggressive business plan designed to set the stage for a future housing development.”

If these principles are compromised, the entire area will be at risk of losing its original purpose. It may end up as just another residential area with high-priced condominiums.”

n Aug. 1, in a press release, the duo said it would be re-examining the current proposal to develop additional options for the joint-use facility

Village Stories contacted the representatives of the TCDSB, Villa Charities by email asking for comments, but got no reply.