It's a dilemma worthy of an O. Henry story: to pay for the park, they have to sell off the park.
Or at least a big chunk of it.
When the former Downsview military base was closed 15 years ago, dreams of a sprawling, full-amenity green space on the scale of New York's Central Park danced in Toronto heads.
Today's plan for Downsview is more High Park-sized, as managers squeeze in ever more development to raise funds for creating Parc Downsview Park – not quite what residents had hoped would result from Ottawa's 1994 decision to turn over the land, but no cash, to create a "national urban park."
"We were originally promised a park, 100 per cent park, in perpetuity. And that changed," said Rino Cipolletta, president of the 400-member Downsview Lands Community Voice Association.
"The park is shrinking from what we were promised. That's why everyone is afraid."
The plans included playing fields, a "lake," basketball, volleyball and squash courts, community allotment gardens, wooded areas and more. The budget for all of that: $76 million.
The latest proposal to pay for it, to be debated by city councillors early next year, would see up to 10,000 housing units built around the periphery of the former base, with revenues from land sales and leases paying to develop the park itself.
Former Toronto councillor David Soknacki, chairman of the park board, said he's "delighted" with strong interest by developers in the first phase, a 19-hectare parcel known as the Stanley Greene neighbourhood near Keele St. and Wilson Ave.
Councillor Maria Augimeri, who represents that area, says it wasn't made clear at the beginning that park financing would have to come from developing a large chunk of the site into buildings from nine to 15 storeys high.
"People believed the government would build a park," Augimeri said. "We haven't seen one. It's been 15 years."
She worries the new housing and plans for a hospital complex nearby could overwhelm the area, overtaxing the already stretched sewer and water capacity and road network.
Some 3,500 housing units would be built in the William Baker neighbourhood at Keele St. and Sheppard Ave. W.
While an existing woodlot would be saved, that area's local councillor, Anthony Perruzza, argues the whole thing should stay green.
"They have put a series of buildings in what would otherwise be excellent green space," Perruzza said.
But he's up against planning consultants who say the area can accommodate more housing, particularly with the new subway station planned for the park.
"I know what they want; I don't agree with what they want," Perruzza said. "They just want too much for the existing infrastructure and services."
Over on the east side of the park, bordered by Allen Rd. and the subway line, Councillor Mike Feldman wants something else. "My community is totally deficient in community centres," he said. "My ward has less than any of the wards surrounding the park. So if they would talk about a community centre on the east side, I'd be interested."
Soknacki said he's been meeting with residents for months, but Augimeri said park officials need to do a better job of consulting – meaning more community meetings.
The latest plan is to be presented to North York community council, chaired by Augimeri, in January before going to city council for a final decision.
Cipolletta concedes residents "have lost that battle" when it comes to saving the whole site as parkland. "So we've gone to the next stage, which is to try to minimize the impact on the existing neighbourhoods."
The issues include increased traffic, impact on water and sewer systems, and more amenities for residents, he said.
"For them to plop in 10,000 units and affect the rest of the neighbourhood without a blink of an eye is what's scaring everybody that lives in the area. On my street alone, there's got to be a dozen retired couples, and we don't have facilities for seniors. That needs to be looked at, too."
Cipolletta said that for current residents, "it's a no-win situation. They're going to rezone. But if they can rezone with amendments to satisfy the existing community, it would make a big difference."
Soknacki, meanwhile, promised the new housing would be well-designed and built to high environmental standards.
"We want people to be proud to live there, we want neighbours in the surrounding areas to see their property values increase," he said. "We recognize that while we are park people, we want to be proud of the entire parcel."