Sunday, April 15, 2012

New Facebook group revives old Toronto landmarks with vintage photos

From Sam the Record Man to Odeon theatres, local haunts that have long since disappeared from Toronto’s landscape are getting a second life in a new Facebook group.
Vintage Toronto, which has racked up over 13,000 likes since launching in January, showcases thousands of old photos featuring city landmarks.
Albums are arranged according to time periods and themes, such as “Lost Cinemas and Theatres” and “Yonge Street Strip.” There’s also a series of “Then and Now” albums that compare present-day scenes or buildings with those from the past.
Ironically, the group’s founder Bill Stevenson, lives in Kingston, where he runs a general merchandise store that sells vintage items. But the two decades he lived in Toronto — from 1960 to 1980 — left a lasting impression on the 54-year-old Stevenson.
Stevenson was inspired to start Vintage Toronto after discovering Vintage Los Angeles, a similar Facebook group.
“When I first started, I thought it might interest, you know, friends and a few other people,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised how popular it is, how quickly.”
Stevenson mostly scours the City of Toronto’s online archives for photos. He also scans collections from the Toronto Public Library, universities and the federal and provincial governments. Members can contribute their own vintage photos.
“It’s just like a hobby for me. I like finding these things,” he said. “It’s kinda like detective work in some ways.”
With constant updates, Stevenson says he invests a lot of time in maintaining the group, which has images from the mid-1800s to the 1990s (some illustrations go back as far as the late 1700s). Every morning, he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to collect and post photos for several hours before heading to work at 9. He estimates that he spends two to four hours a day organizing albums.
Although the group appeals to a broad range of people, including fans from Korea, Australia and Israel, most members are current and former Torontonians who want a whiff of nostalgia, Stevenson said.
Matthew Blackett, who grew up in Willowdale, was one of the earliest members of Vintage Toronto.
“There’s a lot of people that are seeing either their childhood or where they now live or where they work in a little bit of (a different) light,” he said. “It doesn’t seem too long ago, but it’s changed.”
Blackett, who is the publisher of Spacing, a magazine about urban issues, adds that the group has images that aren’t readily available on other sites, including his favourite photo of Bathurst station in 1970.
“I use that station everyday now ‘cause that’s where my office is,” he said. “It looks kind of dreary and drab now, but at that time period, you can understand its aesthetics and its value.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Welcome to the Big Syringe

TORONTO - Instead of erecting a world class casino and hotel lets build a shoot up club for heroin addicts instead.

It sounds like something Toronto would do.

“Toronto and Ottawa would both benefit from the creation of supervised injection facilities,” said a news release for the Toronto and Ottawa Supervised Consumption Assessment (TOSCA) project promoting the idea of so called safe mainlining on the taxpayer’s dime.

A great benefit -- for drug fiends and social workers. The jury is out on how the taxpayer’s benefit.

Would it end property crime, thefts and break ins?

Or would those chasing the dragon take their free fix and then be on the craving prowl for illegal follow up highs anyway?

“These are important questions,” said Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. “With this idea are you really helping them?”

Interesting how there is no study on why a law-abiding Ontario grandmother like Jackie Wylie is not covered for her rare form of cancer but there is all sorts of people excited about enabling selfish heroin abusers. In denying her a special $42,000 method of chemo therapy Wylie was told in a Ministry of Health correspondence that “the value-for-money for the treatment of this form of leukemia was unclear.”

Clearly she should have been heroin addict instead. Perhaps there would be more interest in keeping her alive?

Meanwhile Holyday warns like in Field of Dreams, if you build this crazy party centre, you just know they will come.

“And from everywhere,” he said. “We give them free food, shelter and now free drugs? It may be a lifestyle people across the country would take to take us up on.”

Toronto’s new slogan: Free drugs! Get high on us!

Spread the word nation wide. Move over Big Smoke. It may become known as the Big Syringe instead.

Forget drawing in wealthy tourists, Toronto can draw in druggies.

If there is over the top demand, maybe they can put free heroin addiction clinics across the province in the soon to be vacant Ontario horse racing tracks and have the 60,OOO displaced workers mop up the blood oozing from veins.
As for Toronto, maybe they could place their legal drug den at an empty Ontario Place? Or how about at earmarked for closing Riverdale Farms?

The heck of with regular, law-abiding and taxpaying families and their children.

It’s all about the junkies.

How about free beer clinics? Or free chicken wings for those with deep fried poultry addictions?

Of course there is nothing flippant about drug abuse and there’s also nothing wrong with thinking out of the box, as well as having a discussion of ideas to combat the scourge.

But the idea that politicians use police as tax collectors by targeting drivers in a blitz for talking on a cellphone, while entertaining going easier on the loser drug addicts is a tough pill to jam down the throats of those following the rules.

There’s no question heroin addiction is a problem and it’s in the public’s interest to deal with addicts. But is the answer enabling addicts by sponsoring legal, state-run smack delivery houses? Or is the answer proper treatment programs inside schools, correctional institutions, hospitals and on the street? Could their be a discussion of forced interventions where a person either goes to rehab or jail?

How about life in prison for drug dealers instead of a slap on the wrist?

There is no easy answer. But creating hedonism for lazy heroin addicts to enjoy the pleasures of their failures at the expense of the people who play it straight seems bizarre.

“Using multiple sources of data, we projected that supervised injection facilities would prevent HIV and hepatitis C infections and result in meaningful health benefits for people who use drugs in Toronto and Ottawa,” said University of Toronto researcher Dr. Carol Strike.

Abstinence would also prevent those risks too.

Still, as well-meaning Ward 14 Councillor Gord Perks told reporters Wednesday, there’s no harm in politicians looking at all the data to find a better way of combating the narcotics problem.

But they should place the first free injection centre next to his home.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The house that Sam built still stands

The Brewery Lofts in Corktown, the master plan for Whitby’s Village of Brooklin, and the redevelopment of Sheridan College’s Trafalgar campus, are only a sample of the range of work handled by the Sorbara Group.

The insurance business Sam Sorbara started in 1942 has morphed into a multi-faceted firm, including commercial and residential real estate, planning, development and construction, management and investment companies — as well as insurance — within the Sorbara Group umbrella.

Sam Sorbara came to Canada from Italy in the 1920s as a teenager. A short biography penned by his second son, Edward, describes him as an inveterate entrepreneur who dabbled in various fields before focusing on the insurance business.

By the 1960s, however, the insurance business took a back seat to land development as a burgeoning population created a hunger for housing.

A June 3, 1963, article in The Toronto Telegram describes the extent of his land holdings: “When you see his For Sale signs on land — and there are lots of them around Metro — it means that Sorbara, or Sorbara and associates, own the property,” the article states. “When you see a factory or an industrial plaza that he’s built, it means that it’s owned by him or by him and his associates.”

The article suggests Sorbara’s land acquisitions, property development and construction activities generated business in the range of $5 million to $6 million a year.

According to the biography, in the 1950s Sorbara built Canada’s first strip mall, at Weston Rd. and Wilson Ave., and the first industrial mall on Howden Rd. in Scarborough.

His eldest son, Joseph, says during that decade Sam also started putting up industrial buildings. In the 1970s he added construction of highrise rental apartments and townhouses near Steeles Ave. W. and Jane St. and Finch Ave. W. and Keele St., some of which the Sorbara Group retains in its portfolio of properties.

Today the Sorbara Group (owned by Sam Sorbara’s four children, of whom MPP and former Ontario cabinet minister Greg Sorbara is the youngest) owns and manages some 6.5 million square feet of industrial, commercial and office properties, along with the portfolio of residential apartments.

Although the company has a long history in developing and planning communities for the housing market, it didn’t get into the building end of the industry until the mid 1990s. The Sorbara Group has since completed some 1,800 highrise and lowrise units, at the rate of about 150 housing units a year.

The Sorbara Group developed the master plan for the 160-plus hectares for the Village of Brooklin, although Tribute Communities built it. But Sorbara created the community’s vision, which included generous porches and detached rear garages not usually seen in new subdivisions two decades ago.

“(Brooklin) had 1,200 people when we arrived,” says Joseph Sorbara. “We’re still finishing it, but now there’s 12,000.”

The Sorbara Group also participated in the land development of Mississauga’s Churchill Meadows secondary plan, from land acquisition to draft plan approval. But in the Britannia Meadows area of that community, it also built some 400 semi-detached units through its company, Orchard Ridge Homes.

In 1997, the project earned best architectural design award for a house over $225,990 from the Greater Toronto Home Building Association (now part of the Building Industry and Land Development Association.)

The Sorbara Group got involved in the condo market thanks to an eight-storey, 240,000-square-foot warehouse it owned on Sumach St., which at the time the CBC used to store props. The building was situated behind the original brewery building on the site, once owned by the Dominion Brewery.

In fact, between 1987 and 1990, in association with Easton/Phillips Development Association, the Sorbara Group renovated the entire complex of buildings on the old Dominion site along Queen St. E. into trendy commercial and retails spaces.

“We bought the building as an investment,” says Edward Sorbara. “We bought it believing the CBC would never move out because the rent in that type of space was very modest.”

But the CBC did move out, and between 1993 and 1996 the building stood empty as businesses struggled in the aftermath of the housing market crash following the frenzied highs of 1989.

“We got into the condo business trying to find a solution for this monster that was eating us alive,” says Edward Sorbara.

It helped that the city had just relaxed zoning restrictions in parts of the downtown core to encourage redevelopment of empty and underused factories and warehouses. With the housing market also showing signs of revival, the Sorbara Group decided to convert the empty building into 100 units, which they named Brewery Lofts.

The company blasted out bricks to replace tiny windows with 14-foot-high sheets of glass, and left living areas in their raw state with thick concrete floors and large concrete pillars.

“We enjoyed doing it and got good at it,” says Edward Sorbara.

Other conversions followed, including Broadview Lofts, a former east-end Rexall Drug warehouse, as well as brand new midrise condos.

“(Midrise) is our market,” says Leith Moore, Sorbara’s vice president of development, who has worked for the company for more than three decades. “We don’t have to build the biggest buildings. When you’re building this size, it feels like homebuilding, too.”

And where homebuilding is concerned, two of Edward Sorbara’s guiding principles state: “Care about quality because it’s our family name that goes on it. And make sure it works.”

Star Contest

In 1977, the first New in Homes section appeared in the Toronto Star.

Back then, most new homes were detached and built in the suburbs; today, condos have overtaken new home sales, both in the city and the 905 regions, according to a recent report by RealNet Canada.

Here at the Star, we’re celebrating a special anniversary of 35 Years of New in Homes with special new features, including a contest.

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) is offering a hefty $35,000 toward the purchase of a new home or renovation to help us celebrate. All you have to do to enter is go to and tell us what a new home or renovation means to you.

You can also read all the profiles of our Industry Innovators at

Friday, April 6, 2012

Toronto’s subway brings downtown vision to Vaughan

While all eyes have been fixed on the subway fight in Toronto’s east end, the city of Vaughan has been quietly and quickly laying out plans to create a new downtown with the TTC’s newest piece of subway right at the heart of it.

The 8.6-kilometre Spadina extension, which will extend from Downsview and stretch the subway system beyond Toronto’s limits for the first time, is scheduled to arrive at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Station, at Highway 7 and Jane St., in the fall of 2015.

The vision is to create a city centre where commuters can pass through a state-of-the-art subway terminal and exit into a hub of office buildings, take a short walk to their condo, catch a bus from the rapid transit hub, and enjoy pockets of green space along the way.

But at the moment, all that sits at that spot is … a Walmart.

“What we have is the best transit area in North America — the subway, two highways and rapid transit” in close proximity, said John MacKenzie, Vaughan’s planning commissioner, who has been given the challenging task of creating a downtown from scratch on an area of 179 hectares.

“Of course, the subway is one big part of it. A city like Mississauga built a downtown in 20 to 25 years without one. But with the subway, it’s accelerated. It’s happening here much quicker,” he said.

The goals are ambitious: Create a new urban, walkable, transit-oriented downtown with close access to green spaces, bike paths and cultural and entertainment facilities, that will offer residents a place to both work and live. The aim is that, by 2031, the new downtown will be home to 25,000 residents and provide employment for more than 11,000 people.

Driving that rapid change is the subway’s arrival. Vaughan won big in 2006, when the provincial government announced it would extend the Spadina line north to take pressure off the overburdened Yonge line. The extension is expected to cost $2.4 billion.

There was controversy, with critics arguing that density levels in suburban Vaughan did not justify the plan. They dubbed it the “extension to nowhere.” That lack of density was much the same argument used in Toronto to fight Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to extend the Sheppard subway line into Scarborough.

But others say the new line, which will take the subway to York University and beyond, puts Vaughan in a unique position to prove the theory subway advocates have always claimed: If you build subways, development will come.

In Vaughan’s case, the land around the subway had largely been bought up before the announcement six years ago. But it has still taken a little prodding by Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua to get things going.

“When I became mayor, I felt the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre needed much more vision and focus, so I created a committee to solely deal with development in the area,” said Bevilacqua, who heads the committee made up of staff and councillors. “The idea was that we can’t just be writing reports about the VMC, we need to act,” he said.

Bevilacqua has been pushing developers and landowners to fast-track their projects, giving the public an earlier look at the future and, it’s hoped, help build support. According to a recent citizens’ survey, fewer than half the people in the region even knew about the VMC.

The response, so far, has been primarily from condo developers such as Cortel Group, which is creating the five-building Expo City. The first building has already sold out. Up for discussion in council last week were two other proposals for 40-storey residential towers — the tallest in Vaughan — to be built at the corner of Jane St. and Highway 7.

“It’s not a matter of if we will have development anymore. Now it’s, ‘When can we get my permit?’ — that’s the question from developers,” said MacKenzie. “And we say: ‘When you come in with a high-quality development proposal.’”

To encourage high architectural standards, the city created an urban design review panel — the first in York Region — made up of 14 architects and planners from around the GTA who review all of the development applications for the downtown and offer recommendations.

Sony Rai, a member of the panel and an intern architect at Diamond&Schmidt who calls the VMC “a big experiment,” says it has been difficult challenging the suburban feel of some of the projects.

“When you are doing so much at one time, it is always very tricky. There is a homogenous look and feel to what we have been seeing,” said Rai. “What we have seen so far … is that the developers and architects aren’t exposed to working in a downtown context.”

But it’s the first few buildings that will set the context for the downtown’s look and feel, Rai said. And creating that downtown experience is also the first step in getting business to move north, MacKenzie said.

But the success of the downtown north, say many planners and architects, will come from what the city can build in addition to the condo highrises-plus-office-towers equation that failed to add up in North York.

To succeed in the long run, efforts must be made to ensure mixed-used development and to cater to a variety of demographics and desired housing types, experts say.

“The key is to make it a place to live, work and play, and the third one is always the hardest,” said Pino DiMascio, an urban planner and partner with Urban Strategies Inc., who helped create the official plan for the city.

“Independent of having offices and condos is the question of: Why will people take the subway to the Vaughan Metro Centre? Will there be cultural spaces, retail, civic spaces and nice green space? It’s their ability to deliver on the third component which is going to determine how successful the downtown will become,” DiMascio said.

But the mayor says the dream of an urbane, modern, transit-focused downtown is achievable, because all parties involved have “bought in” to the vision.

“I always impress upon council and the administration that you really have one chance to build a downtown core,” he said. “It is a priority for us to get it right.”



The new city centre will be at the confluence of Highways 400 and 407, and the tip of the Spadina subway extension, to open in 2015. So the city has been actively talking with Metrolinx about how to capitalize on the area’s potential as a transit hub for the northwest GTA.

“We are right at the centre of everything,” said planning commissioner John MacKenzie. The city also plans tree-lined Bus Rapid Transit lanes and easy access to transit providers such as the VIVA express buses and Brampton Transit.

“When the subway gets to Vaughan Corporate Centre, that’s where our buses will connect to TTC,” said Sue Connor, executive director of Brampton Transit. “So it will make the commute for people much faster.”

But not everyone is happy about Vaughan’s new role. Some residents near the proposed downtown worry about traffic along Highway 7, which already crawls at times. The atmosphere, as one Vaughan resident put it, is “aggressive” for both drivers and pedestrians.



Taking a leaf from the success of urban design review panels in Toronto and with Waterfront Toronto, Vaughan launch its own — the first in the region — last July, incorporating volunteer planners and landscape architects. The group of 14, selected by staff, review and offer recommendations on how to improve development proposals, especially within the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.

The city decided to look outside for help to create a high-quality, urban environment.

“There has been great discussion out of this,” said John MacKenzie, Vaughan’s commissioner of planning. “The design review panel would say it’s not just about the buildings; it’s about the land between the buildings and spaces around the buildings and the streetscapes,” he said. “We are getting some great insights on city building.”

The panel, for example, has given feedback on the Expo City project, suggesting how to make the buildings look less uniform. The discussion that provoked with the developer resulted in revisions to the plan, MacKenzie said.

Vaughan has also created an inter-departmental team to coordinate plans for the VMC, and a VMC implementation team has drawn in representatives from various government levels, including the TTC, Metrolinx, Ministry of Transportation and Municipal Affairs and Housing.



If there’s one thing downtowns have in common, it’s tall buildings. Vaughan will be no exception.

In addition to the five-building, 37-storey Expo City, there are two recent proposals reaching as high as 40 storeys. Another proposal from Liberty Developments includes an office building and four condo buildings on the south corner of Jane St. and Hwy 7. The city is optimistic that office development will soon follow.

“As every month passes, we have a new player on the scene coming in with a development for something,” said John MacKenzie, commissioner of planning with Vaughan. “Most of these people are thinking about a 1 ½ to 2-year timeframe to get all their approvals and at least two years to build. So we expect to get a lot more proposals in the near future.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Toronto's St. Lawrence Market ranked best in world

Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market has been ranked as the world’s best food market.

The National Geographic book "Food Journeys of a Lifetime" gave the popular downtown market the rating.

The market emporium, operating since 1803, rules over others in New York City, London and Singapore — to name a few.

“We are excited to be recognized on an international scale. The locals always knew this,” said market spokesman Rebecca Grima.

“There are a number of factors. The vendors are passionate about food and the level of service. The vendors know the customers’ names. The products are diverse and we have every different nationality working behind the counter selling local and international products.”

Whitehouse Meats — one of the unique 120 vendors ­— sells buffalo, camel, kangaroo, wild boar and muskox.

“We have a huge selection because our customers want something different. We have more than anyone could want. We have all kinds of animals in all price ranges coming from all over the world,” said Leila Batten, owner of Whitehouse.

Alex Farm Products boasts an assortment of gourmet cheeses from the greatest pastures of the world.

“I’m happy about being number one. It is good for our reputation. We have people here from different countries with different perspectives,” said Alaisher Uzbekistan with Alex Farm.

Murray Graziano, owner of Golden Orchard Fine Food, is up at 2:30 a.m. every day to fetch the best organic fruits and vegetables from a food terminal.

“I knew we were the best for years because of the quality of our product. There is a rich heritage of merchants in this building, but the people who shop here make the market special. I have been here 35 years but my family has been here for over 50,” Graziano said.

Rube Marcus, 91, says he has been running Rube’s Rice forever.

“I’m too young to stop and I’m making money hand over fist. I think we won because we have a bigger variety than anyone,” Marcus said.

Barrie resident Adam Ryan goes to the market every time he is in Toronto.

“I have been to several markets and I would agree this is the best,” Ryan said.

Kelly Laplante, who works in Toronto, shops in the market on Fridays.

“I come here and pick things up before I take the train home to Newmarket,” Laplante said.

Ontario court approves Toronto billboard tax

Not only are many of Toronto’s billboards irritating, they’re illegal. So no one was surprised that the companies responsible for them were less than enthusiastic when council opted to tax their signs.

That was back in 2009. The industry responded by suing the city and won the first round. Then on Monday, in a major ruling, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the original decision in favour of Toronto.

The city, which stipulated that the revenues would go to the arts, stands to collect upwards of $10 million annually from the billboard tax.

Though the industry can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, it seems the free lunch is over. About time, too. These companies have flouted the city for years, deliberately breaking laws and taking advantage of every legal technicality.

“The city implemented the tax to punish the industry for its illegal activities,” explains veteran anti-billboard activist, Rami Tabello. “Council felt the billboard industry was not respecting its wishes. The industry has been disingenuous from the beginning.”

Tabello estimates there are more than 3,000 billboards in Toronto, 20 to 30 per cent of them illegal. That puts the number of outlaw signs between 600 and 900.

Most are downtown, where they’re most profitable. In Councillor Adam Vaughan’s ward (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), for example, 22 billboard sites have disappeared because of new buildings (condos), 16 illegal signs have been removed and 44 remain.

Keeping in mind how bad billboards are for property values, the impact could be significant. According to a study done last year in Philadelphia, “Using 2010 sale price data, and taking into account adjacent amenities such as libraries and parks, residential real estate within 500 feet of a billboard is $30,826 less valuable.”

In the meantime, the Toronto District School Board is trying to determine what its advertising policy should be. The answer, of course, is that none should be allowed. But at a time of civic impoverishment, it’s hard to resist the pressure.

Already, council has enabled Astral Media through its street furniture program to clutter the sidewalks with poorly designed and intrusive advertising signs. And by now most of us have grown accustomed to seeing TTC subway stations remade in the image of some corporate advertising campaign or other.

This selling of the city for the benefit of strictly private interests comes about because of two factors, (a) space in the city is valuable and (b) the city is too poor to turn down the offers. This contradictory condition — public poverty and private wealth — is the backdrop to many such decisions the city must take.

Scarborough Councillor Gary Crawford argues that the justification for billboard taxes lies in using the money to support arts and culture in Toronto, as council originally envisaged.

“We need to maximize the billboard tax to support the arts,” Crawford says. “A dedicated tax is key.”

As he points out, per capita culture spending in Toronto is an embarrassing $18 per person. It should be $25. The $10 million raised by the billboard tax would help the city reach that benchmark.

“It’s a positive ruling,” says Beautiful City founder, Devon Ostrom. “As far as our organization is concerned, it’s a question of who has access to public space. The idea of this tax was also to raise money for the arts.”

But since then, Toronto’s sign department has been gutted. At this point, no one is sure the city could enforce the new rules even if it wanted to.

Toronto real estate: Average GTA house over $500,000

The average GTA house price now hovers at over half a million dollars, up 10.5 per cent from March of last year.

Low interest rates and a shortage of homes for sale continue to propel prices skyward and fuel bidding wars that have now become virtually de rigueur in many Toronto neighbourhoods.

That combination of factors helped push prices to an average $504,117 across the GTA and to almost $550,000 in the Toronto 416 regions in March, up from $456,234 and $498,050 respectively a year ago, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) analysis of almost 10,000 sales across the region in March.

Prices in the 905 areas averaged $477,006, up from $428,155 last March.

The price escalations are showing no signs of a letup, given that the spring housebuying spree has started early this year — thanks in large part to the unusually warm weather — and has yet to hit its peak.

Even veteran realtors are shaking their heads as GTA home prices continue a climb that has been unstoppable over more than a decade, even through the recent recession and massive global economic uncertainty.

Inventory remains a problem and has realtors concerned why so few new listings are coming on the market.

“The huge shortage of listings, especially under $700,000, has made this early spring market crazy,” says Toronto realtor Desmond Brown.

“And with the threat of interest rates going up, people are in a bit of a panic to buy and close before their 120-day low mortgage rate commitments expire.”

New listings actually increased in March over a year ago, but aren’t keeping up with demand, says Jason Mercer, senior manager of market analysis for the Toronto Real Estate Board.

“If competition between buyers remains as strong as it is right now, we will almost certainly see an average selling price above $500,000 for 2012 as a whole.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Best and worst GTA hospitals: Toronto-area lags in patient care, national report says

Half the hospitals in Greater Toronto fare worse than the national average when it comes to keeping patients alive following major surgery, according to a watershed report released Wednesday.

The newly released data, which makes a host of hospital performance measures public for the first time, also shows that 11 of 18 GTA hospitals fall below the national average at preventing inpatients from dying within 30 days of being admitted for a major heart attack.

ALSO SEE: Online tool lets public search hospital results

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) released the landmark data in an innovative online tool that is being called the most advanced of its kind in the world.

It allows patients, physicians and hospital administrators to compare the performance of more than 600 acute-care hospitals across the country.

ALSO SEE: C-section more likely at these GTA hospitals

The tool provides data on 21 clinical measures, which include readmission and mortality rates after various procedures, as well as nine financial measurements. In most cases, CIHI released four years of results.

Experts say publicly releasing such data forces hospitals to compare their performance against other hospitals and helps administrators focus on specific system improvements to better protect patients.

ALSO SEE: Nurses could be doing a better job at half of GTA hospitals, shows patient safety data

Public reporting also provides patients with information about potential risks and problems inside their local hospitals.

Among the hospitals in the GTA, there is wide variation in performance measures with as much as a three-fold variation between some institutions.

ALSO SEE: Hospitals in Ontario spend more on administrative departments than hospitals in other Canadian provinces, report finds

To ensure fair comparison, CIHI assigned hospitals within peer groups based on size. In the GTA, there are five teaching hospitals, which typically see the sickest, more complex patients, and 14 large community hospitals that have more than 8,000 inpatient cases a year. (The Hospital for Sick Children is only included in three clinical measures, all of which involve readmission rates.)

According to a Star analysis of the 2010-2011 data, Lakeridge Health (with sites in Oshawa, Bowmanville and Port Perry) is the worst performing large community hospital in the GTA when compared against national averages in its peer group.

The analysis, which included the 21 clinical indicators, found that Lakeridge scored below the national average 13 times. The second worst performing large community hospital in the GTA is St. Joseph’s Health Centre, which fell below the national average on 12 clinical measures.

Halton Healthcare Services is tied with Mississauga’s Credit Valley Hospital as the best ranked hospital when compared against national averages for the same clinical measurements. Both institutions scored above the national average for 17 of the 21 measures

Michelle DiEmanuele, president of the newly merged Credit Valley Hospital and Trillium Health Centre, said she is delighted with the report, adding that it serves as a validation of the hard work the hospital has done to improve quality and patient experience.

“The CIHI report actually represents for us an indication of how successful we’ve been over the last several years in actually achieving our goals,” she said.

However, overall trends in the CIHI report do not tell the full story. When looking at a specific measure, for example, patients are three times more likely to die five days after major surgery at Halton Healthcare Services (with sites in Oakville, Milton and Georgetown) than at Markham Stouffville Hospital.

Dr. Lorne Martin, chief of staff at Halton, explained that the mortality figure reported for 2010-2011 is somewhat of an anomaly.

“In all cases other than the year that’s being reported, our mortality were well within expected ranges, and, in most cases, at the better level of performance for the GTA hospitals and better than national averages. So, the current year that’s reported is an exception,” he said.

Wide variation is also seen for the clinical measure that looks at an inpatient’s chance of dying within 30 days of being admitted to a hospital for stroke.

Patients admitted to Southlake Regional Health Centre for stroke are more than twice as likely to die within 30 days as patients admitted for the same condition at The Scarborough Hospital.

Among the five teaching hospitals in the GTA, the University Health Network and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre score the poorest. The University Health Network scored above national averages on measures of three clinical indicators and Sunnybrook did so for eight.

The University Health Network comprises four hospitals: Princess Margaret, Toronto Western, Toronto General and Toronto Rehab.

Dr. Bob Bell, president of the University Health Network, said it’s very difficult to compare data across hospitals.

“There are a great deal of apples and orange comparison in this data from my review of it,” Bell said. “But it’s certainly something we will use to do internal quality improvement.”

Keith Rose, executive vice president of Sunnybrook, said his hospital, as well as UHN, both have extensive regional province-wide programs, managing some of the sickest patients in hospitals.

“The kind of patients that are managed at Sunnybrook are high risk, severely injured or very sick patients,” said Rose. “It’s pretty hard to standardize for that kind of group of patients because they’re so much more complex than anywhere in the province.”

Jeremy Veillard, vice president of research and analysis at CIHI, said the Institute believes publicly releasing hospital measures “increases accountability and transparency in the system.”

Making the new tool will also help healthcare professionals improve their practice, which in turn helps improve patient care, he said.

In 2007, CIHI released mortality rates at hospitals for the first time. The rate, which is released annually by CIHI for individual hospitals, shows how effective institutions are at avoiding preventable deaths.

In the last five years, most Canadian hospitals have made progress in improving their death rates — with 40 per cent making “substantial progress,” Veillard said. The advances are largely attributed to hospital boards and administrators putting increased focus on system improvements in their institutions that better protect patients.

Overall, the CIHI analysis found, among other things:

• Fewer patients died after major surgery, heart attack and stroke at Canadian hospitals in 2010 than in 2007.

• Fewer patients were readmitted to hospital following heart attack, stroke, and hip and knee surgery in 2010 than in 2007.

• Hospitals across Canada have generally reduced the amount of money they spend on administrative costs. Ontario, however, spends more than any other province on hospital administrative departments, including human resources.

The tool is part of the Canadian Hospital Reporting Project at CIHI.

With files by Jayme Poisson; data analysis by the Star’s Andrew Bailey

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Earth Hour Toronto 2012: Power use down 6.8%

It’s a bright idea gaining popularity worldwide, but enthusiasm for Earth Hour may be dimming at home.

Toronto was one of 6,494 cities in 150 countries — 511 in Canada alone — to participate in sixth annual event Saturday night, with millions worldwide flicking off the lights in an effort to raise awareness about conserving energy and combating climate change.

But the city saw just a 6.8 per cent drop in power use throughout the hour, according to Toronto Hydro. While it’s an improvement over the dismal 5 per cent reduction last year, it falls short of the 10 per cent drop in 2010 and is less than half of the 15 per cent reduction in 2009.

Toronto Hydro spokesperson Tanya Bruckmueller said Saturday night she was pleased to see the improvement over last year.

In photos: Toronto marks Earth Hour

“Earth Hour is more about awareness, but we’re certainly happy that some people stepped up to the plate and turned off their lights,” she said.

Saturday night’s reduced power load, which represented about 193 megawatts, is the equivalent of about 128,000 homes, Bruckmueller said.

While the majority of lights continued to shine across the city throughout the hour, not all Torontonians were in the dark about the event. Various lights-out celebrations were planned in Toronto, including at the Distillery District, where World Wildlife Fund Canada hosted an outdoor party.

Eco-conscious revelers lit candles, swayed and sang along in the district’s square for the official performance Team Earth Hour Anthem, a newly penned song comprising lyrics submitted by Canadians on Facebook.

Moments before the countdown to lights-out, 10-year-old Isabella Spensieri declared her high hopes for the evening.

“I’m here to save the world,” she said shyly, swaying to the music.

“We wanted to come down here, because when you’re at home, you don’t really feel it. You’re just at home with the lights out,” said Mary-Kay Spensieri.

Around the city, the CN Tower went over to the dark side by turning off all its exterior lights, while some business logos on highrise towers and hotels went dark. Other Canadian landmarks expected to power down included Niagara Falls, the Montreal Cross and the Parliament Buildings.

Toronto was the first Canadian city to announce its participation in the event, signing on in 2008 — one year after the World Wildlife Fund kicked off the event in Australia.

Since then, participation has grown yearly, with 2012 seeing more countries than ever. Among the first-timers was Libya, where a teenager organized participation for the country, according to the WWF.

Some of the world’s renowned landmarks, from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to Sydney’s Opera House to the Great Wall of China, turned off the power switch. Paris’s Eiffel Tower participated, but only for five minutes due to security reasons.

There’s no way to measure exactly how much energy is saved globally, Earth Hour organizers say, but the aim is to show leaders that global warming is a worldwide concern.

With files from the Star’s wire services

Earth Hour in Toronto

2011: 5% reduction

2010: 10% reduction

2009: 15.1% reduction

2008: 8.7% less than the average for the past three years

Time for Toronto to close some schools

The Toronto District School Board serves the largest and most diverse student body in Canada. It faces all kinds of financial challenges and yet still manages to offer innovative education programs.

But the school board is also a pack rat — and that, increasingly, is contributing to its problems. It hangs on to far too many half-empty schools that it can’t afford because they might be useful someday. Keeping these schools open is certainly easier for trustees than battling with parents and local communities over which ones to close, but it wastes scarce education dollars. This can’t go on.

According to the province, the Toronto public board has the equivalent of about 170 schools that it doesn’t need. A fairer accounting that included the valued community programs that are run in some schools would produce a lower figure. And the number of those that should be closed is lower still because there are opportunities to fill some schools by adding programs that would serve the needs of the whole neighbourhood: child care, evening and weekend recreation, activities for seniors, public health clinics and settlement services for new Canadians.

But there’s no denying that a significant number of schools need to close, and it’s time Toronto trustees got serious about it. Enrolment has been declining for years; Ontario has 128,000 fewer students than it did a decade ago. Underused schools are an issue not just for Toronto’s public board, but its size and the energetic community activism here make its problems bigger and harder to solve.

The latest Ontario budget tries to force the matter by stripping $116 million in funding that helps to keep underutilized schools open. Toronto’s public board will be the hardest hit when that funding starts disappearing next year.

It is understandable that at a time of scarce resources the province wants to ensure every education dollar is used efficiently. Half-empty schools offer neither good educational opportunities for students nor good value for taxpayers. But it isn’t good enough to simply cut school budgets and move on. The province needs to help bring about positive change.

Part of the trustees’ reluctance to close schools is borne of a legitimate concern that in the future families will return to some neighbourhoods and they’ll need a school there. That’s why a rational approach is needed to determine where schools are most likely to be needed. Determining how best to turn some schools into community hubs that serve the needs of the entire neighbourhood takes real cooperation among trustees, city councillors and provincial officials. While everyone seems to agree with this in principle, so far it’s happened in only a few isolated cases.

Parents and homeowners rarely want a school in their community to close. But to provide quality education for all students in an era of declining enrolment, some must shut their doors. It makes no sense to heat empty classrooms when schools can’t afford to hire a librarian or upgrade science labs. Our students deserve better.