Toronto city councillors voted 30-12 on Wednesday not to block the $9.5 million project to replace the grass on the historic back campus with two artificial turf fields.
Ground breaking will go ahead July 1 as scheduled, and the city avoided what some councillors said may have turned into an almost-$10 million liability suit.
"Literally, the contract is signed with the contractor," city manager Joe Pennachetti told council. "The shovel is going in the ground July 1 and that's the issue."
Councillor Adam Vaughan filed a petition with 5,200 names to have the grass behind Hart House designated a heritage site, with concerns over the project ranging to environment sustainability, heritage and history issues, and access to the field. Even Canadian author Margaret Atwood, a U of T alumnus, had waded into the fray. Atwood was vocal in her support of keeping the field grass.
"This is a very significant green space in the downtown," Vaughan said. "It was set up and designed to frame the university buildings in a particular way, in a pastoral setting, and that will be lost as a result of this decision."
Scott Sandison, an Olympian in field hockey, circulated his own petition, collecting 2,200 names over the last three days.
"Pretty good considering they started their petition in November," Sandison said. "I think it was the community coming behind the idea of how important sport is, and just voicing their concerns and how important this facility is."
Sandison's passion for the Pan Am project, he said, was a result of growing up in Toronto without access to decent field hockey facilities.
"It hits home. For so many years we didn't have anywhere to train. Now the next generation will," said Sandison, one of several Olympians who watched the proceedings unfold at city hall. "For me to be part of that in some way, and to have that legacy. . . first and foremost we're going to have a facility built for field hockey and other sports in the community.
"I just know how important it is to all of the athletes now who are coming up through the system and who will come up through the system in the next 10 years playing on this turf, and having a chance to first see the Pan Am Games being played here, and then being able to play on that same facility and think about 'One day I can be out there and I can be competing in those Games.'"
Ken Pereira, a 20-year veteran of Canada's field hockey team, plus Vicky Sunohara, a three-time Olympian in women's ice hockey, and volleyball player John Barrett were among other Olympians in attendance.
Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, who opposes the artificial turf, was also there.
While Coun. Rosario Marchese suggested the new field hockey facility in Brampton — the only one of its kind in Ontario — should be the host venue for the Pan Am Games, Pereira said the picturesque U of T location was ideal.
"I kind of knew the area, but when I went there and I saw where it would be, surrounded by those historic buildings, I thought it would be so amazing to play there," said the two-time Olympian and five-time Pan Am Games medallist. "It would be so easy for people to walk by and see it and stop and watch. That area at U of T, there's so many people walking through, on their way to classes or other places, they can stop and check it out. That's what I think is really cool."
The councillors debated over several heated — and at times humorous — hours. Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti called arguing over grass a waste of time, and asked "What are we smoking? Are we smoking this grass today?"
Coun. Gord Perks argued about the importance of having "green spaces that allow us to breathe" and spoke about picnics and dog walking.
"These athletes take what they do very serious," Mammoliti argued back. "When councillor Perks starts talking about picnicing in the area, having sandwiches, lying down, perhaps even sleeping there for the night, those athletes will tell you they want this thing taken seriously."
The facility will be the site for field hockey and para soccer at the 2015 Games, as well as an eastern hub for field hockey and a venue for U of T intramural sports.
"Just like anything you're going to have your people that like it and people that don't, but guaranteed the majority of students want that surface more than what's there now," Pereira said. "I would say a large percentage would pick the artificial turf."
U of T officials, several councillors and Pan Am Games organizers have argued the grass field in its current state is barely useable because of its poor condition. A city inspection this week showed the field had ruts. A couple of councillors referred to it as a "mud pit."
Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong called city hall a "buzz kill."
"We're trying to kill, we're trying to break an agreement that's going to cost millions of dollars when what we should be doing is endorsing it, endorsing the Pan Am Games," Minnan-Wong said. "These Pan Am Games are moving forward, it needs the city's help, and it just seems whenever the city gets involved in something it turns to crap. We should be promoting this, we should be celebrating this, we shouldn't be killing this, this is an agreement we should be honouring."
Counc. Mark Grimes, who is the city's lead for the Games, told council that it was simply "too late to come forward with this. Grimes called it "the 11th hour and 59th minute."