The Honourable Joe Volpe, Publisher
TORONTO - “Why are we here?”, asked Trustee Sal Piccininni, following a preamble in response to a [rather vacuous] presentation by the Chair of Villa Charities Inc. (VCI), Aldo Cundari, at a meeting of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) on August 24, 2017.
That, translated for the uninitiated, would be “what do you want from us?”. Or, for those with less time on their hands, “get to the point”.
VCI “missed” making it. It had come to implore the TCDSB to go, on their combined behalf, cap in hand, to the Minister of Education and ask her to extend the deadline for revised, more palatable, proposals for their joint venture project. $32.8 million of Ontario government monies ride on the request.
Those proposals were not forthcoming, or, more precisely, they were not evidenced in the public session of the meeting. It was not until the question and answer session, when Trustees for the TCDSB probed for greater transparency that some inkling of “the meat of the matter” surfaced.
Two months ago, the Minister had made public consultations, and a revised model reflecting those consultations, a pre-condition to releasing $32.8 million allocated, in 2011, for a rebuild of Dante Alighiere Academy. The TCDSB wants a new school, whether enrolment currently justifies it or not; the money has been set aside by the Provincial Government.
At the time (six years ago), the Minister had also approved a potential partnership with a not-for-profit organization, Villa Charities, should a combined project be feasible. No one envisioned that the partner would [eventually] be a Private Developer, VCI.
VCI had put forward a development proposal for the southeast quadrant of Lawrence Ave and Dufferin St. that would see the erection of three towers containing 3000 condo units. Planning Department officials responded that 2400 might be more appropriate. Real public consultations, as per the Planning Act, were commenced.
No one initially envisioned the demolition of the Columbus Centre as part of the project. Italian Canadians view the Centre as an icon of the Italian-Canadian experience, integration and achievements in Toronto. It is open to all other communities, all of whom see it as a cultural/community centre of great value.
But Mr. Cundari argued that the Centre is no longer viable. It is “an end of life” issue, he maintained. He meant end of economic life, and not worth the operational costs to keep it going.
Nonetheless, Municipal Councils, at both the Local and City level, are unanimously against the project, and hence the demolition. The local MPP, Mike Colle is vehemently against it, as is Minister Laura Albanese in the adjacent riding. No one from the “community” has come forward to support the project.
The “partnership” (VCI and TCDSB), known as “the Developer” on applications to City Planning Department, appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The TCDSB protests that it did not sign off on the application. Yet, all “updates” on the project include th
e logo of both “partners”.
Demolition of the Columbus Centre is key to the longer-term redevelopment plans whose retail value is estimated at well beyond one billion dollars, making it one of the biggest construction projects in the city.
In response to a question by Trustee Rizzo, “what are your plans for the [campus]?”, Mr. Cundari gave an absolute, “None” … not on my watch, he added for good measure.
Unable to mitigate his enthusiasm, he continued that VCI (which has yet to build anything) is a builder of Social Housing and that it is looking for land on which to construct. Further asked for clarification about what Social Housing means to him, he responded, “subsidized housing” – government assisted.
It doesn’t have to be on the current campus, he said (view the intervention on video), offering that VCI’s next project is in fact Villa Colombo.
When Villa Charities was still a not-for-profit, charitable organization, it built Caboto Terrace and Casa Del Zotto with government subsidies and government geared-to-income rental subsidies programs. The organization also acquired Casa Abruzzo and built Villa Colombo Vaughan. It already owned Villa Colombo, a long term, chronic care centre just 100 metres south of the Columbus Centre.
Columbus Centre is not a significant economic generator, according to VCI. The land can be put to more rewarding financial use.
When questioned about Villa Colombo in the context of plans for the campus, Mr. Cundari declared the Villa “obsolete”. He offered that VCI may have to may delocate. Villa is at “end of life” economically.
Applying the “highest and best use principles” to the premises suggests to him that instead the Villa should be replaced by “a hospice - a service better equipped to handle end of life cases – and townhouses”.
Mr. Cundari confidently stated “our community is overall positive” to VCI’s vision – offering no evidence in support.
One Trustee responded that “the community doesn’t trust us”. She probably had a more accurate assessment of the issue.