Metrolinx plans to chop down historic Osgoode Hall trees, skipping review

WATCH: Despite saying it would wait for the results of an independent review of controversial plans to build a subway station on the edge of a historic Toronto property, Metrolinx has announced it plans to chop down five centuries-old trees. The move faces fierce opposition. Matthew Bingley reports

They survived centuries of development and change in the heart of Toronto, but the days are numbered for five historic trees at the edge of Osgoode Hall’s grounds after Metrolinx suddenly axed its commitment to wait for a third-party independent review of a new subway station.

Metrolinx, the province’s Crown corporation responsible for transit expansion, already ruffled feathers when it announced it planned to build a subway station for the new Ontario Line on the iconic Osgoode Hall grounds on the north-east corner of Queen Street West and University Avenue.

But after the plans raised the ire of many, including Mayor John Tory, the transit agency committed to support a third-party independent review for alternative designs for the station.

Osgoode Rendering

A Metrolinx rendering of its planned Ontario Line subway stop.

Source: Metrolinx

That consultation has not been completed, but Metrolinx has indicated that it plans to remove five trees from the corner of the property as early as Dec. 5 to accommodate an archaeological assessment of the property. No one from Metrolinx agreed to an interview with Global News, but a spokesperson said in a statement the transit agency “is looking forward to the City of Toronto’s independent review of the technical details regarding the future Osgoode Station location.”

Osgoode Hall is the oldest continuously used institutional property in Toronto and it, along with its 1867 heritage fence and the grounds surrounding it, are designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and have been recognized as one of Canada’s most significant heritage assets.

Osgoode Hall Archive

Osgoode Hall circa 1913.

City of Toronto Archives

The Law Society of Ontario was informed by Metrolinx that the tree clearing would begin on Dec. 5 or possibly earlier, which its Director of Communications Wynna Brown said would cause irreversible damage to the grounds and the historic urban forest. “It is the Law Society’s position that tree removal or any other invasive work should not proceed until City Council receives and responds to the study and the community is fully consulted,” said Brown in an email to Global News.

It’s a view shared by the office of Toronto’s mayor.

“Before any trees are removed by Metrolinx, we want to see the City of Toronto’s independent review of the Osgoode Station site,” said Don Peat, deputy chief of staff for Mayor John Tory in a written statement. Peat said Mayor Tory will be meeting with Metrolinx in the days ahead to reiterate the Crown corporation is expected to be respectful of the communities around its transit projects.

“It’s certainly not helpful for them to say that they’re willing to do an independent third-party study on whether this is the right location, but then cut the trees down first,” said Erin O’Donovan, president of the Toronto Lawyers Association. “That really is bad faith and we really would encourage Metrolinx to approach their plans in a more constructive way.”

Erin O'Donovan

Erin O'Donovan, president of the Toronto Lawyers Association, accused Metrolinx of acting in bad faith with its plans to chop down trees.

Matthew Bingley/Global News

O’Donovan is among many members of the province’s legal community who want the transit agency to move the stop to a location where it wouldn’t damage the city’s heritage. “It is one of the few green spaces in Toronto and I think we should really fight for it,” she said.

She said Metrolinx has settled on Osgoode Hall grounds because it has come to the conclusion it is the easiest and hasn’t given enough consideration to other areas that wouldn’t require the tearing down of centuries-old trees. “They’re conflating what is easy, with what is feasible,” she said, adding that the groups opposing the location aren’t opposed to transit expansion.

Osgood Hall 1950's

Osgoode Hall and its trees, pictured here in the 1950s, managed to survive the brutalist architecture movement. But now transit expansion appears to be ending its run as an untouched green space in the heart of the city.

City of Toronto Archives

The loss of the trees is also raising concerns among the city’s historical community, including Morgan Cameron Ross, who hosts the Old Toronto Series. “This is a slippery slope. Sure we allow five, ten trees to go missing, but this is an important space, an important block, an important building,” said Ross. “So if we allow these trees to go, what is next?”

Metrolinx said it plans to host a community meeting in the coming weeks and that while it has announced plans to remove the trees, those plans could be subject to change.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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