“Where is our pool?” read one of the signs held aloft by children who had waded into the reflecting pool in Nathan Phillips Square on a summer day in July 1969.
Their protest was over the lack of recreation space in their Regent Park neighbourhood and their demand was for a wading pool for those hot days.
It would take several more decades for their request to be exceeded by the state-of-the art Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre, which opened its glass doors in 2012 with a 25-metre lap pool, hot tub, water slides and more in the heart of a neighbourhood in the midst of revitalization.
But now that there is plenty of pool right in their backyard, Regent Park and nearby residents say they are consistently struggling to access the new space and that most of the people signed up for the popular swim programs are coming from other parts of the city, a claim backed up by City of Toronto data.
The data provided to the Star shows that only about a quarter of the registrations at the aquatic centre for the most recent fall/winter session of city-run programs were for registrants whose home address was in Regent Park or the area immediately surrounding it.
And while there continues to be a waiting list tens of thousands of people long for recreation programs across the city, the Star has learned that the most recent budget recommendations would significantly delay the council-approved goal of creating 70,000 new spaces in three years. Instead of 25,000 new spaces council had approved for 2019, the latest budget includes just 7,500 spaces and stretches the plan over five years instead of three.
In response to questions about proposed delay, Mayor John Tory’s spokesperson, Don Peat, noted Tory’s earlier push to increase the number of recreation spaces funded in 2018.
“This is just the beginning of the 2019 budget process,” he said in a statement. “The budget committee will be reviewing the staff recommendations in the coming weeks and will make further recommendations.”
In the case of Regent Park, nobody is abusing the system. The city has a policy that allows anyone to access any centre regardless of where they live or their income level. Someone who lives in a suburb but works downtown might prefer to use a centre en route. Across the city, there are just not enough recreation spaces for those who want them, creating a competitive environment during registration and the long waiting list.
Mary Ann Scott, a mom of three in the Church and Dundas Sts. area and member of the group Access to Recreation, which was created by Regent Park parents over these types of concerns, knows how it feels to be missing out.
Scott said she typically lines up overnight outside a local community centre at 8 p.m. ahead of registration that begins 7 a.m. the next morning in hopes of getting her children into the programs they helped pick out — swimming at the aquatic centre as well as gymnastics and other programs at the nearby Regent Park Community Centre.
That’s because she’s competing with other parents, some who are using multiple devices and high-speed internet to get through the city’s often cumbersome online system in hopes of getting the spaces they want.
Hani Afrah, also mother of three who grew up and still lives in Regent Park, met Scott waiting in line to register. As a member of the Access to Recreation group since its inception, she said they have no issue with the aquatic centre attracting people from across the city. They just want priority to ensure local residents can use the space.
“We know that if youth know to swim, how to skate they’d rather be doing those things than getting into trouble,” she said, adding she feels sad to see that her children’s friends miss out on programs.
“They feel disadvantaged and the community centre is right there.”
The gleaming aquatic centre, with windows overlooking the park under a cedar-panelled roof, has been celebrated for its sleek and welcoming design. On a recent weekday, moms pushing strollers traded recipes in the warm, chlorine-scented lobby. A meeting was being held in a nearby multi-purpose room that’s sometimes used for kid’s birthday parties.
The Regent Park Community Centre was also rebuilt as part of the revitalization, featuring a gym, indoor track, dance studio, weights room and more.
Both centres in Regent Park — which the city still officially designates as a priority neighbourhood based on low income and other factors — offer free programs for children and adults, and they are both “at or near capacity with extensive wait lists,” according to recently-posted city budget documents.
Scott said their community has also been squeezed every time there are local emergencies. Recent cold-weather alerts and a fire at the 650 Parliament St. apartment building have seen the community centre taken over for shelter, cancelling programs for residents.
On one such day in September of last year, Mackai Bishop Jackson, who had just turned 15, was shot and killed up the street from the centre while outside an apartment building with his friends. He often attended the after-school programs at the community centre, which was closed at the time because of the 650 Parliament fire. His death has left friends and neighbours wondering if his fate would have been different had the centre been open that day.
“What’s the logic in closing down a recreation centre in a community that needs places for children to be?” Scott asked. “It should have never been closed in the first place.”
The aquatic centre replaced an existing recreation centre and outdoor pool in what was once an insular Toronto Community Housing complex of interlocking lowrise apartments and highrise towers. The long-term revitalization of Regent Park, still underway, has seen TCH units demolished and rebuilt alongside market condos and townhomes surrounding a park and the new aquatic centre.
The site is one of 38 city-designated free centres, which are selected based on their proximity — within 1.5 kilometres — of census areas where at least 30 per cent of families are classified as low-income.
However, the city has a policy that allows anyone to access any centre regardless of where they live or their income. City staff say participants “typically travel within 3.5 (kilometres) of a recreation centre” for registered programs.
The city also has what is called a “welcome” policy that provides a limited amount of funding to low-income families to access programs at paid-for centres.
The city provided data for all fall/winter registrations in Regent Park by “forward sortation area” — the first three digits of a postal code. The area for Regent Park also includes neighbourhoods including Cabbagetown and St. Lawrence.
That means it is likely that of the 326 sign-ups in that immediate area captured in the data provided to the Star, not all were made by Regent Park residents, meaning even fewer than 25 per cent of all registrations came from Regent Park.
The data shows residents living as far away as the Kingsway and Malvern are accessing the centre for programs. And there are more sign-ups from East York, The Danforth, Riverdale, Leslieville and the Beach combined than from the Regent Park area.
At the Regent Park Community Centre, which is also a free centre, registrations from the immediate area made up 40 per cent of all sign-ups.
Both recreation facilities also offer free drop-in hours.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents the Regent Park area, said the data confirms what those in the community already knew — that the majority of those signed up for swimming programs live outside the community.
After advocates recently organized to demand Regent Park residents be given priority access, Wong-Tam moved a motion at committee earlier this month to have staff explore a pilot project to increase recreation availability at local schools. Staff say a pilot could be launched in the fall of 2019 but the $160,000 cost is currently unfunded.
“They had already said quite eloquently and with a lot of urgency that we needed to reform the system so that people who had championed these facilities, who had borne the brunt of construction impacts, who had waited patiently, could have access to their own swimming pool,” Wong-Tam said. “It reconfirms what communities are feeling, is that they’re struggling to get their children and themselves and families into recreation programs.”
The city has 123 community recreation centres, 119 splash pads, 61 indoor pools, 59 outdoor pools, 68 outdoor artificial ice rinks from Etobicoke to Scarborough, serving 10.7 million programmed visits each year, according to the most recent budget documents.
But not all neighbourhoods are treated equally. While there are a number of recreation centres, not all have the same amenities. For example, there are large areas that are not served by an indoor pool, such as most of Etobicoke North and large pockets of Scarborough. There are only four indoor pools in all of northern Scarborough, where staff have had to scramble to find temporary program spaces after one centre in Agincourt caught fire Thursday.
There is a concentration of free centres in or near the eastern part of downtown, including the aquatic centre, Regent Park Community Centre, Wellesley Community Centre, John Innes Community Recreation Centre and the Jimmie Simpson Recreation Centre. Another free centre, Secord Community Centre, is near Danforth Ave. and Main St.
Of those, three have pools. The Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre provides more than twice the number of time slots for swim programs than both the Jimmie Simpson and John Innes pools, offering a total 208 options for swim classes during the fall and winter registration.
Across the entire city there are 11 free centres that have pools, two in the Etobicoke and York district, two in North York, one in Scarborough and six in the Toronto and East York district.
According to a staff briefing note provided to council during the 2018 budget process, there were more than 600,000 recreation spaces across the city and more than 198,000 wait-listed spaces representing more than 62,000 people on the waiting list. Those are 2016 numbers, but said to be the most recent, verified data.
To try to address the waiting list, city staff proposed a growth plan in 2017 to add 60,000 new spaces over three years. During the 2018 budget process, council increased the number added in that first year, bringing the total new spaces planned to 70,000 at a net cost of $2.4 million.
City staff say both Regent Park recreation centres directly benefited from that growth plan, with the total number of registered recreation spaces increasing 22 per cent in 2018, creating more than 1,500 new openings.
But after staff were asked to bring forward budgets this year that froze spending at last year’s levels, the 2019 recommended budget from staff only plans for 7,500 new spaces to be added in the second year of the growth plan — 17,500 fewer than the 25,000 council approved. It will now take five years, staff say, to reach the goal of 70,000 new spaces. The budget process continues for the next month and will be finalized by council in March.
Responding to the Star late Friday evening, city staff said they “misrepresented” council direction in their budget notes, saying council had decided to “fast-track” the plan and that council never intended to actually expand the plan from 60,000 to 70,000 spaces.
“There is nothing we can find in council’s decisions and direction that indicates council’s intention to expand the plan from 60,000 to 70,000, but rather that they wanted staff to implement more spaces in the first year,” a city spokesperson said, adding they would be correcting a budget note.
A 2018 budget briefing note from staff outlined how adding an additional 10,000 spaces in the first year of the plan would increase the total number of spaces to 70,000. Council later voted to “further increase” the number of spaces funded in 2018 to 20,000.
The original three-year plan would have seen 35,000 spaces approved by the end of 2019. The current budget plan would see just 27,500 approved even with the increased number of spaces council added in 2018 — still 7,500 short on the original growth plan.
Asked about stretching the original plan over five years, the city spokesperson said: “Given our experience in the accelerated implementation of the first 20,000 new spaces in the first phase of the program, we have recommended a more gradual implementation of the remaining 40,000 spaces.”
Wong-Tam said the city should be able to set a target and then allocate the resources needed to make it happen.
“Clearly there’s a disconnect there,” she said.
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags