The People’s Budgeting: Those Park Stairs Make Sense

Updated: September 19, 2017 — see FOI response on cost of new stairs below.

There’s been a lot of controversy recently about stairs at the south end of Tom Riley Park in Toronto (see for example this CBC piece). Locals, and the councillor, had been given an estimate by Parks, Recreation and Forestry (PFR) of $65k to $150K to build stairs from southwest entrance, so one of the locals actually installed some (quickly erected) stairs for $500, obviously to call the Parks’ bluff.

There are many interesting aspects to this story. Let’s look at a few.

The need

Are the stairs needed? Well, here’s a picture of a well-worn path created by locals who routinely took this shortcut. Obviously a lot of people wanted to use that shortcut. Somebody even went to the trouble to add a rope for stability! As you can see that part of the park is in a hollow. Stairs were eventually built in this exact location.

Source: CBC News

Does this look safe by the way? I don’t think so.

Here’s a satellite view of the south end of the park, showing that the location of the new stairs accommodates pedestrian traffic flow from the southwest.

Satellite image from Google maps; later annotated

There are existing paths around the corner to the west, and a little further east. But the new stairs accommodates traffic from the southwest, particularly for people going to the community garden there. For people going to the garden, it takes 2 1/2 or 3 minutes extra to go around using the southeast entrance. That’s annoying when you do it repeatedly, particularly when the garden is “right there”.

So the new southwest entry through the stairs accommodates people from the parking lot, from the buildings across the street, and from the businesses down the street (not to mention the residential area across the street).

Residences and businesses to the west of Tom Riley Park, on or near Bloor. Source: Henrik Bechmann

By comparison, look at the entryways for Christie Pits, also in a hollow, er, pit.

Source: Google maps; then annotated

Entrances all over the place, which is good. People like to take the most direct route. They’ll make shortcuts if necessary.

The cost

Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation provided estimates of $65,000 to $150,000 to build stairs there. Anyone who has ever dealt with PFR (or many other bureaucrats) would immediately recognize this as absurd, and an invitation to, um, ‘go away’. So Ati Astl…

Source: CBC News

… built some stairs for $500, with the help of a homeless person he says. Here they are:

Source: CBC News

He acknowledged that they’d have to be replaced every two to three years for a variety of reasons, but in any case he put them there as a ‘negotiation’. That is he called their bluff. Good for him!

That’s when the media craze started. Of course PFR had to take the stairs down and replace them. Here are the new ones:

Source: Henrik Bechmann

Pretty nice! This picture was taken Saturday, July 29, 2017, just before the stairs were made available to the public. A worker I talked to there said they put up stairs like this “all the time, all over the City”. Apparently each stair concrete slab weighs 500 pounds, so they’re not going anywhere. And they should definitely last the 30–50 years that PFR uses as criterion for justifiable construction, he says.

So given that PFR uses this technology all the time, they should have known better than to give those insane estimates. They now say this installation will cost about $10,000. (I’ve submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out what the details are — see below for the response). A supervisor on site told me that the installation took about a week. It looked like there were five or six people on site when I was there, doing finishing touches.

So if Ati’s wooden stairs lasted, say, two years, that would be a cost of $250 per year. If the City version of the stairs lasts 50 years, at $10,000, that would be a cost of $200 per year.

Is this cost fair in relation to other community priorities? That would have to be a broader community discussion.

The aesthetics

The stairs fit in nicely with their surroundings too.

Source: Henrik Bechmann

Right beside a long established community garden.

Source: Henrik Bechmann

Look how nicely curated this garden is!

Source: Henrik Bechmann

Another look at how well the stairs integrate with the garden:

Source: Henrik Bechmann

For more details of this garden, see newhorizonsgarden.ca. (I’m very pleased to say that I helped these lovely folk set up their website many years ago.)

I think it’s fair to say that the stairs add to the aesthetics of the garden, as well as being practical.

The process

Councillor Shelly Carroll, who I generally respect, wrote a missive about this which I think was way over the top. She said this was “a troubling return of a certain kind of populist politics”. Or put another way “the sky is falling, the sky is falling”. No, it isn’t. And she sort of condescendingly mentions that a “paved pathway into the park that requires a 60 second walk to get to the community garden will continue to function”. Or put another way “Obey! Resistance is futile!” (a Borg reference, for any who may not recognize it). Apparently Councillor Carroll would have us stop being so lazy, and go where our bureaucrats tell us to go! Most of her missive relays, uncritically, what I would call spin from the Director of PFR. I’m not buying any of it (as you can tell by my matching over-the-top rejoinders). Much of the resistance from Parks according to the Director related to worries about eroding and shifting earth. Yet build it they did. And for $10k not $65k. Have Parks staff now built an unsafe, unstable set of stairs as the result of intimidation? I don’t think so, based on what workers told me. Presumably erosion, even if it develops, could be corrected before the problem gets too serious.

To be sure, the Mayor is right, we can’t have people willy-nilly building things without consultation all over the place, all the time. But in the absence of reasonably available, reasonably conducted collaboration between the City and communities, an action like Mr. Astl’s serves as a constructive reminder that we need to modernize our civil service at all levels to accommodate community concerns in a reasonably expeditious way.

The fault here lies not with Mr. Astl. Instead it would behoove all of us, particularly Parks, Forestry, and Recreation, to take this episode as a clarion call to work together to modernize our civil service.

Update September 1, 2017: the City has indicated it will fulfill my Freedom of Information request for the all-in costs of these stairs around the end of September. I thank them for their diligence and timely communications.

Update September 19, 2017: below is the response to my foi asking for an itemized list of the direct costs of the new stairs at the south end of Tom Riley Park. These costs should include materials and supplies, all staff costs, and any other cost incurred in construction of the stairs.

Source: City of Toronto FOI 2017–01622

Henrik Bechmann is the project lead of budgetpedia.ca. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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