Toronto’s Columbus Centre, considered to be the heart and soul of the Italian community in the city, is besieged by its own board. Forced by the city to hold a public meeting in May, Villa Charities Inc. finally revealed its plans for the much-loved centre.
This is the latest proposed development in Toronto that targets public space. Without consulting the community it serves, Villa Charities Inc. (VCI), a charitable organization, has partnered with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) to redevelop the Columbus Centre. The public meeting, required by the city when an amendment to a zoning by-law is necessary, confirmed everyone’s worst fears.
VCI will sell 3.47 acres of its property which includes the centre at 901 Lawrence Avenue West, just in from St. Charles Borromeo Church on the southwest corner of Dufferin Street and Lawrence Avenue, to the TCDSB. It wants to demolish the centre to build a new school.
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The Villa Charities Campus
The VCI board refers to its 12 acres of land and its buildings as a campus. It incorporates several city addresses on Dufferin Street, Lawrence Avenue West and Playfair Avenue and it includes three seniors’ apartment buildings and services as well as the Columbus Centre – a cultural, social and athletic centre; a park-like green space and several parking lots. Like a university campus, the four buildings are each an important part of the whole. VCI also has other seniors’ buildings – one at Keele and Wilson and another in the City of Vaughan.
The Columbus Centre, completed in 1980, serves the entire campus as well as the broader community. Its facilities are extensive and include the Joseph D. Carrier Art Gallery (uniquely designed with circular ramps; closed in August), a library area (currently dismantled), a daycare centre, a health club, Caffè Cinquecento, the Boccaccio Restaurant, a rotunda for public and private events, day camps for kids, arts programs, offices for cultural and social service organizations such as Centro Scuola – an organization dedicated to teaching Italian as a heritage language. The centre also includes a health club with tennis, squash and racquet ball courts, an indoor pool, multiple gyms, indoor track, sauna, steam room, and lounges. In the plan presented at the public meeting most of these facilities would not be replaced.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board
The TCDSB owns another 12 acres on Playfair Avenue, next door to the VCI Campus where it currently has two schools – Regina Mundi, a grade school, and a high school built in 1974 called Dante Alighieri Academy. In June 2015, The TCDSB announced a land purchase agreement of 3.15 acres located behind Dante Alighieri Academy, from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd:
“The Toronto Catholic District School Board and Sisters of the Good Shepherd are pleased to announce the completion of a Land Purchase Agreement for 25 Good Shepherd Court to pave the way for the construction of a new school for Dante Alighieri Academy.”
The TCDSB wants to demolish the Columbus Centre building and build a new Dante Alighieri Academy in its place. VCI would lease back space from the school through a 99-year agreement to share facilities like the school gym, a 435-seat theatre and rooms for cooking classes, dance studios and spin classes.
The seniors’ buildings would remain but the park-like green space which connects to the tennis courts and all the buildings would be paved over. No one knows what will happen to the centre’s cultural and social programs, or if other assets belonging to VCI, like the seniors’ buildings or the remaining land, will be sold or redeveloped. No long-term plans have been presented. The board announced that the Columbus Centre would close sometime between September and December 2017.
Protests against the redevelopment plan have caused the major funder, The Ministry of Education (which would provide the money to build the new school), to put a hold on funds. The City of Toronto has required VCI to conduct extensive community consultations. Consequently, VCI has extended the closing date of the Columbus Centre to June 30, 2018.
In an attempt to appease health club members, VCI also promised to include an indoor pool and track in the new school design. However, it remains committed to the redevelopment project.
The battle to save the heart and soul of the Italian community is on.
The Columbus Centre
When you walk through the centre’s doors there is no mistaking where you are. You are in the Italian-Canadian psyche. In the atrium, natural light streams in from north-facing windows and skylights. It creates the feeling of an indoor piazza. White marble, imported from Carrara, transports you to any public building in Italy. Colourful banners representing the different Italian regions hang from the ceiling but not in an intrusive nationalistic way, more like a gentle reminder. The atrium’s openness declares everyone is welcome.
Artwork commissioned by founding donors gives prominence to the old masters of Italian history. Their proud contribution of stern-looking marble busts representing cultural and scientific icons (Dante, Galileo, Verdi, Marconi and Cristoforo Colombo himself, to name a few), highlights only one part of the Italian story.
The real story is on the wall to your right – a gigantic colour print of the spontaneous 1982 soccer celebrations on St. Clair Avenue West. The picture was taken by Roberto Portolese at 4 p.m. on July 12. Two hours earlier, the Azzurri, the Italian national soccer team, had won the FIFA World Cup. The people in that picture are the people who had imagined and built the Villa Charities campus which saw the completion of the Columbus Centre, two years earlier.
The picture of the lively street party which stretches out to the horizon was shot from a storefront rooftop. It was the only way to capture the tens of thousands (estimates put the number at 300,000) of Italian-Canadians and others who instinctively made a beeline for St. Clair Avenue and jammed the street from Keele Street to Bathurst Street and beyond.
I remember the homemade flags, the people, the babies, the cars, the cement truck, the dogs, the chickens, the goats, and the donkey painted with the Tricolore — green, white and red, the colours of the Italian flag. Music and dancing in the street. And the honking!
The celebration was a turning point for the city and heralded its multicultural legacy. The community had come into its own in a very public way and celebrated its place in the city. The picture hangs in the Columbus Centre because the building is its heart and soul.
The Early Fundraising
Lawrence Pincivero, a health club member since the beginning, doesn’t mince words, “For the community, the centre and the campus is its life’s blood.” Pincivero was part of a group of men who moved up to the Columbus Centre from the Dovercourt YMCA three months before it opened to the public. They were asked to test the machines to ensure everything worked as it should.
He remembers the early days:
“We had lots of fundraisers. We sold bricks for $20 and the money raised went towards Villa Charities and the Columbus Centre. I sold bricks with Toni Ciccorelli. She must be over hundred years old now and she lives here in one of the buildings. Every day we would set up a little table, people would come by and buy bricks. If you donated $100 you got an honorary square foot.”
Gina Lollobrigida and Rossano Brazzi
A major telethon was organized through CHIN TV, a television station which at the time was run by the late Johnny Lombardi. “I was one of the young people, a university student, who answered the phone for the telethon,” recalls Maria LaRegina, a retired TCDSB teacher and a health club member for over 20 years. “Gina Lollobrigida and Rossano Brazzi were there to help spread the word, to donate.”
Brazzi, who starred in ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, ‘South Pacific’ and ‘The Italian Job’, was Hollywood’s Latin lover before Marcello Mastroianni. Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren were Hollywood’s Italian female star counterparts. “Luciano Pavarotti gave a concert and donated money for the elevators in the seniors’ buildings,” recalls Pincivero.
Construction workers, factory workers, grocery store clerks, caretakers, cleaners, seamstresses, teachers, doctors and lawyers – everyone pitched in, reached deep into their pockets and pulled out a fistful of dollars. Everyone was so excited. We would have our own centre, a place where we could explore our Italian-Canadian identity through social and cultural programs and events and most importantly, provide much-needed social services. “The phones were ringing constantly, we raised a lot of money,” LaRegina adds.
City Councillor Maria Augimeri also remembers the fundraising efforts, “I still have the submission for the original $11 million Wintario grant. I wrote it while I was a university student.” She adds, “It documents the dream of a community and the pact we made in order to receive that provincial grant. The Columbus Centre was built with this grant money and the sum of collected funds from individual donors.” The provincial government also donated the land the campus sits on.
More Italians in the GTA than in Florence
There are over half a million Italian-Canadians in the GTA, over 8% of the population. It outnumbers most Italian cities including Florence, Bologna, Trieste, Reggio Calabria, and Pescara. As Italians spread out across the GTA, the campus has become even more important as a point of reference. It holds the community’s accomplishments and its memories. It’s so important that in 2016, the Committee for the Italian Fallen Workers Memorial Project unveiled its poignant memorial on the campus. It honours over 900 Italian-Canadian workers who died on the job in Ontario.
Visiting dignitaries such as the President of Italy, our Prime Ministers and Premiers – anyone who wants to be seen and heard by the Italian-Canadian community pays a visit to the Columbus Centre. Even the coach of the 1982 Italian national soccer team visited the centre the year after the big win.
Organizing the protest
The Columbus Athletic and Social Association (CASA) is a newly formed group leading the charge to save the community centre. On September 27, with support from the community and local MPP Mike Colle, CASA organized a protest walk around the perimeter of the campus. Politicians from the three major parties and Mayor Tory were there.
Founding member, Ian Macdonald, one of Canada’s foremost experts in commercial risk for businesses, has been a health club member for 30 years, “It’s my club. I go to the small gym in the men’s health club; I talk to people there and watch the news. I have a good time.” Macdonald is also a painter and regularly attends the art exhibits and cultural events at the centre. “After 30 years here you establish close friendships. I’ve been to weddings and celebrated births. You get to know children and grandchildren. You feel like you are part of their family and they are part of yours.” It’s what the centre was designed to do. It’s the Italian-Canadian spirit at work.
Maria LaRegina adds to MacDonald’s experience, “When I was teaching I saw many Italians at work but at the Columbus Centre I’ve met people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. We have interesting conversations and I’ve made a lot of long-lasting friendships.”
In April 2017, Villa Charities President and CEO, Anthony DiCaita invited MacDonald to a customer appreciation dinner along with three other members. MacDonald didn’t like being called a customer and he didn’t like what he heard about the redevelopment. “I left notes about it in the men’s health club. I immediately got feedback. Everyone was upset. Then I find out Joe (Joseph Baglieri) was doing the same thing.”
It’s how MacDonald met Joseph Baglieri, a Toronto lawyer with a post-graduate degree in political science from Yale and a health club member since 1986. He’s an avid racquet ball player and a co-founder of CASA. “I became concerned when the maquette (a scale model) of the proposed development went up in the atrium,” Baglieri explains. It’s beside the bust of Francesco Petrarca, one of Italy’s greatest poets and humanists.
On his own initiative he made up information flyers and left them in the change rooms and lounges. In the parking lot he tucked them under windshield wipers and handed them out to whoever would take one. Both MacDonald and Baglieri felt it was important to let people know what was happening because VCI had not consulted the community about selling its building and land.
MacDonald points out, “The conflict has brought people closer together. We got together and started to organize.” In response, Villa Charities has threatened to expel anyone who leaves flyers on the campus.
The aroma of freshly brewed espresso from Caffè Cinquecento and the scent of freshly baked homemade pizza waft through the entrance hall of the Columbus Centre. A tall lanky boy with a protruding schnozzle and a jaunty hat greets me with a smile. The two meter tall statue of Pinocchio is a warm and whimsical welcome.
Designed by master carver Antonio Galati, the sculpture toured Toronto for a 1975 project called ‘Pinocchio For All People Week’. A plaque at the base of the statue reads “Pinocchio lives in all of us.” The hapless boy looks like he can’t get his balance and might topple over any second. What kid doesn’t identify with the wooden boy puppet, trying to do his best. I fixate on his pointy nose which has become a symbol of all that’s wrong with the centre’s current board and its redevelopment project.
“We feel like we’ve been lied to by this board,” says LaRegina. “They changed their story a number of times. Just like Pinocchio. We started hearing rumours of a redevelopment about six years ago,” she recalls. “They were going to knock it down and rebuild the Columbus Centre. Then we heard about the high school and then this partnership with the TCDSB – all through rumours. The Italian community and the Columbus Centre community was never consulted or informed of any changes.”
That Pinocchio feeling has stuck with the community. Cardinal Collins had to write a letter to the worried parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo Church, located on the coveted corner of Dufferin and Lawrence right next to the campus, quashing further speculation that the church land would also be sold to the TCDSB; that Regina Mundi would move into the old Dante Alighieri school building, and that a new church would go up in the place of the old Regina Mundi school.
The Pauline Sisters who own a bookstore and land directly south of the church want nothing to do with the project. Mens Sana, a respected organization that provides assisted living to those living with intellectual disabilities and/or mental health issues, and owns over 80 houses across the city, has also distanced itself from the project and notably from Villa Charities Inc.
In its July 18, 2017 newsletter, VCI states that it and the TCDSB chose to partner together “… for one reason above all: to deliver more to the communities we serve.” It refers to operational and programming benefits. Almost everything they describe is already available in the current building. Columbus Centre members complain that the new facility actually offers less rather than more.
A puzzling redevelopment
Imagine you have a box full of puzzle pieces but not the box cover with the picture that shows you the completed work. It’s how the members of the community fighting to keep the centre alive are working. They are diligently piecing together the pieces of the redevelopment proposal and putting together a revealing picture.
At first glance, the proposed new Dante Alighieri Academy looks like any other new building – the maquette shows a pale block of glass attached to bricks and mortar; a paved walkway lined with trees delineates its perimeter, the green rooftop (required by the City) looks like park space, but isn’t. Little figures representing people add some colour to the design. Cyclists with no helmets ride by.
The four story edifice is a departure from the Columbus Centre’s red brick, low-rise building with round arches. You can’t really tell if the new building is a school or a community centre, Italian-Canadian or otherwise. It could be anything.
According to VCI, the first floor and lower level would house the joint-use facilities it would share with the school. Its current literature refers to an art gallery, a restaurant and café, a gym and a 435-seat auditorium meant to replace the existing affordable, flex-use space at the centre that includes the Joseph D. Carrier rotunda. Details are not specified.
“The plans show a proposed new north-south road on the campus,” Baglieri explains. The VCI board claims the new street would improve access to the new school building and parking lot. The community is worried that down the road, the new street could lead to new development projects. It’s that Pinocchio feeling.
You need some trombones
Five hundred people attended the May public meeting held at Yorkdale Secondary School. “People in the packed auditorium were stunned when they heard what the plans were,” Baglieri recounts. “The TCDSB was nowhere to be seen. We learned that, in an unprecedented move, the Villa Charities board bypassed the city process and went directly to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) with two applications.” One is for the redevelopment of the Columbus Centre, the other is for the new street. Then, another health club member stood up and calmly, in a booming voice, broke the silence, ‘They are selling our community lands to development. It’s about condominiums.’ You need some trombones,” Baglieri explains. “It was like a thunderbolt and the dam burst.”
Money seems to be flying around like confetti at a wedding
In an interview published in Panoram Italia August/September 2017 Issue, a glossy Italian-Canadian lifestyle magazine, Villa Charities’ DiCaita, says “The TCDSB needed to expand and had the allocation of funds for a new high school. Villa Charities (which needed to redevelop …) had the land.”
“The TCDSB has 12 acres behind the school. Why does it want to tear down the Columbus Centre and build here?” Pincivero asks It’s the question that everyone asks but the TCDSB won’t talk about it. Its meetings about the project are ‘in camera’ which means it won’t discuss it in public.
$32 million grant for a new Dante Alighieri Academy
Local MPP Mike Colle, who in 2011 helped the TCDSB obtain $32,800,000 to build a new school, was upset when he learned about its plans to demolish the Columbus Centre. In a deputation to the North York Community Council he expressed what everyone is thinking, “… for six years they have been in camera about this project. It is not transparent, it is confusing and it is very sad that two charities are alienating supporters…”
$70 million for the Dante Alighieri/Columbus Centre Redevelopment
In the Panoram Italia interview, DiCaita states the cost of the redevelopment project is “estimated at $70 million with the TCDSB providing approximately 50%.” Villa Charities will provide $35 million from the sale of the land to the school board, “… and other sources like fundraisers and, potentially, from other assets that we have.” The community fears the other assets are the seniors’ homes or the rest of the campus.
$18 million to buy 3.15 acres from Sisters of the Good Shepherd
The TCDSB bought the land from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for $18 million dollars. This piece of land, combined with the land purchase from VCI, would be used for the new Dante Alighieri Academy. The community wonders why the TCDSB needs to partner with VCI for its land – a puzzle piece that needs to be connected.
A Residential Apartment Zone
“The property is already zoned for RA which includes apartment buildings,” Baglieri explains. A June 16 City of Toronto Staff Report referring to the charity’s holdings states that the VCI campus falls within the boundaries of the Dufferin Street Secondary Plan as a development block.
…the Zoning By-law Amendment application, including the Columbus Centre at 901 Lawrence Avenue West, Casa Del Zotto and Caboto Terrace at 3010 and 3050 Dufferin Street respectively and Villa Colombo at 40 Playfair Avenue, are zoned “RA”, a Residential Apartment zone which permits ambulance depots, apartment buildings, fire halls, parks, police stations and retail stores among other uses.
The allowable intensification for the area, successful rezoning applications at the OMB, and the need to sell assets to pay for leased space at the new school, could potentially lead to more development on the campus – such as condominiums and townhouses. “Think about it,” Baglieri muses, “at today’s prices you’re looking at the potential for a billion dollar development.”
Dufferin Street north of Eglinton Avenue and Lawrence Avenue West are experiencing a rapid redevelopment which makes the TCDSB and VCI with their combined 24 acres, major land holders in the area, hypothetically, one of the biggest development areas in the city.
“Change is in the wind at Villa Charities” – VCI Board Chair, Aldo Cundari
In our booming city, usually it is schools that are closed and sold off to developers. In this case, it’s the school board itself that is acting like a developer putting a deal together with a charitable organization. In fact, their joint application to the OMB states that the two organizations are the developers.
How does this happen? “Change is in the wind at Villa Charities,” writes VCI Board Chair, Aldo Cundari in a message published in Panoram Italia, October/November 2016 Issue. “In August, 2016, the VCI board passed a new strategic plan,” he explains. “The plan charts a course to the future, with a centrally coordinated management, operations, marketing and services model that will benefit all parts of our family. It is time that this approach, long proven in the business world, be applied to Villa Charities.”
MacDonald explains the new thinking at VCI. He recounts what DiCaita said at a June 1 meeting with CASA members:
“DiCaita said the 4,000 health club members …were not members but were ‘consumers of a product’ and that the Columbus Centre was a vendor and the 4,000 consumers were just clients with no greater right to participate in or control the destiny of the vendor than any other supplier of services they might purchase.
DiCaita confirmed that all new directors of Villa Charities were appointed by existing directors. He said that Villa Charities had no obligation to report on their decisions to their “customers” or to anyone else since they take no money from the government or any other outside organization.”
“The board sees the Columbus Centre as an asset to be monetized,” adds Baglieri. “In 2013/2014 the board gave itself a new structure. It dissolved itself and the new board of directors passed a bylaw with new criteria to appoint new directors.”
VCI has gone through a restructuring process. It changed its name from the Italian Canadian Benevolent Corporation (ICBC) to Villa Charities Inc. It is armed with a strategic plan that adopts a business model for a charitable not-for-profit organization. The purpose of a business entity is profit. Who will profit from the redevelopment of the community’s land? It’s another piece of the puzzle that still needs to come together.
Calling all influencers
VCI’s July 18, 2017 newsletter announced, ‘Calling all influencers’. Forced to embark on a consultation process with the community it declared it was accepting applications for positions on its Redevelopment Community Advisory Panel (CAP). The purpose of the panel is to “gather stakeholder input into programs and services to be offered at the new Columbus Centre.” The panel will not discuss the redevelopment plan that has worried and angered so many people.
A walk in the park
I walked through the park-like setting that will be paved over. Reproductions of Italian statues from various historical periods dot the landscape and would excite installation artist Jeff Koons. Other contemporary artwork mingles with the classic reproductions. Kids run through the grass under mature trees, seniors walk by a gurgling fountain; yellow sunlight warms up Caffè Cinquecento’s outdoor patio – a familiar quiet oasis in an otherwise noisy traffic area.
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The popular Caffè Cinquecento wasn’t open yet. VCI ordered it closed on Sundays and during early hours on weekday mornings. It’s one of the many things people complain about. The feeling is that the board is cutting services and allowing the building, which after 35 years could use an update, to deteriorate on purpose. “It takes them three weeks just to change a light bulb,” Pincivero tells me, almost sounding like a punchline for a light bulb joke. “It needs some TLC, that’s all,” LaRegina explains. Pincivero agrees and would like to see community fundraising efforts renewed.
“The school board has more than enough land. Why does it want to tear something down that the community built up?” – Maria LaRegina
The Columbus Centre represents the spirit and the history of Toronto’s Italian community at a pivotal time in the development of the city.
“Today’s unelected Board has no moral or ethical right to tear down our collective dream,” states Councillor Augimeri, who sponsored a motion at City Council to consider the Columbus Centre a Heritage site. “It is time to move beyond consideration of Heritage Preservation in this city as only bricks and mortar. Architecture means much more than that. It can be the repository of a people’s heart.”
The heart is still pumping.
– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Elizabeth Cinello
Demo photos courtesy Ian MacDonald, Maria LaRegina and Mike Colle
Where things are at right now…
- VCI and the TCDSB (jointly referred to as the Developer) have applied to the Ontario Municipal Board for permission to go ahead with their development project. The prehearing date is December 11, 2017.
- The Minister of Education has frozen the $32,800,000 that had been designated for the construction of the joint Dante Alighieri Academy/Columbus Centre Redevelopment.
- At the North York Community Council meeting in June, Councillor Maria Augimeri moved that Heritage Services research and evaluate the property for inclusion in the city’s Heritage Registry. The community council unanimously supported the motion and voted unanimously to not approve the TCDSB and VCI redevelopment plans. In July, City Council followed suit and authorized city lawyers to oppose the application when it goes before the OMB.
- The TCDSB will meet on October 19 and will vote on a motion put forward by Trustee Sal Piccininni, to abandon the redevelopment project. CASA will be out in full force.
Further update, as of October 24:
- The TCDSB has agreed to allow Trustee Sal Piccininni to present an intent to debate his motion to step back from the redevelopment project with Villa Charities Inc. at a full meeting of the board on November 17.
- The OMB meeting scheduled for December 11 has been cancelled.
Excellent article. Thank you Elizabeth. We need to stop the destruction of the Columbus Centre.
Nick Murdocca, Toronto
VCI has displayed their logo all over the Columbus Centre, with their illogical slogan to “reimagine heritage, culture and community” emblazoned across their literature.
We should be celebrating those very things VCI is asking us to “reimagine”. It occurred to me that, clearly, VCI Charities do not understand the meaning of their own words RIPENSIAMO tradizione, cultura, communita .
Reimagine our tradition,culture and community?? Really!! I don’t think so!!
Joseph Palozzi, Toronto
Let me see…a charity that wants to be a business, but a not for profit one at that!
A Catholic school board that wants to be a land developer speculator.
A Cardinal and Sisters, that want no part of it.
A Board that reinvests itself without any transparency.
A city that wants and got a feasibility study for the overall redevelopment of the “camps” but only the CC demolition phase was shown to the stakeholders. Hmmmm
What a fabulous article. I had no idea, nor did I know the extent of the current property which does indeed seem a gem. I most definitely will go there to see it….good work!
Kathleen Howes, Toronto
Finally a comprehensive and well-researched report in the English language press on the heroic battle to save the Columbus Centre. Thank you, Elizabeth Cinello for having the courage to write the exposé on this sordid effort by a few insiders to destroy the heart and cultural soul of our community.
Mike Colle, Toronto
Sorry to hear of this outrageous plan – so much wrong with it. I remember the warmth that Samba Squad received when we played there for an event years ago, I believe to celebrate Abruzzi. The whole complex was charming. The seniors danced ecstatic ally when our band played a special Tarantella for them. Paving over a beautiful green area with favourite sculptures? Never! I hope the Dante Alighieri School can build an addition that fits in with the original brick with arches. Why do we need another nondescript glass cage? Magari! Hope the community rises up and kills this plan.
Janet McClelland, Toronto