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Under-the-Gardiner park draws $25-million from a modest donor

An artist's rendering of the view east at Strachan Gate on The Bentway.

PUBLIC WORK

Judy Matthews likens the towering concrete supports known as "bents" that hold up Toronto's Gardiner Expressway to the arches of a cathedral.

They gave her an idea to give the city a $25-million donation to turn the strip of waste land beneath the bents and between two roadways into a public park.

She and her husband, investment banker Wilmot Matthews, have previously made donations to develop public spaces in Toronto that bore their name, including a Chinese sculpture court at the Royal Ontario Museum and an educational centre at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

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But recently their Judy and Wilmot Matthews Foundation has donated to projects anonymously.

As for a name for the under-the-Gardiner project, "we felt that the people who are using it should have the opportunity to give it a name," Ms. Matthews explained. And so began an innovative public naming process that concluded with the project being named The Bentway.

The Matthews' gift was rare not only for being done modestly, but also for being in the public realm, said Julian Sleath, CEO of the Bentway Conservancy, which manages the project.

"Universities, colleges, hospitals and major art institutions have a long track record of attracting substantial funds, but it's rare for parks and public spaces."

The Bentway follows Toronto's original shoreline on Lake Ontario. (The current shoreline is much farther south as decades of infilling extended the city into the harbour.)

The plan envisions a 1.75 kilometre-long pathway from Strachan Avenue to Bathurst Street, with year-round programming spaces for activities including music and dance performances, art festivals and farmers markets and skating in the winter.

While the legacy of naming rights is often an attraction for large donations, an increasing trend is to see donations come without public credit.

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Another anonymous donor has just made the biggest ever gift to the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group. The $6-million donation will allow it to attract five top researchers, said Zul Merali, president and CEO of The Royal's Institute of Mental Health Research.

While Dr. Merali said he can't discuss details of why this gift came with no name attached, "the reason for staying anonymous often comes down to not wanting to be pursued by other groups wanting donations."

The grant will enable the establishment of Emerging Researchers in Mental Health, or e-RIMh, the first program of its kind in Canada. It's significant because public sources of grants are shrinking, Dr. Merali said.

Large donations for hospitals generally come with names attached to facilities, he said. The Royal's next highest gift was $5-million from the Foustanellas family, and the gift led to the hospital's reception area being named the Foustanellas Winter Gardens. A previous gift established the Foustanellas Endocrine and Diabetes Centre at the Riverside Campus of The Ottawa Hospital.

In hindsight, Ms. Matthews now thinks that it might have been a mistake to give some named donations in the past, because they have been inconsistent.

"From our perspective and our values, we see no advantage in providing named donations. We prefer to be understated," she said.

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There are significant disadvantages, too. "You're exposed to a lot of other charities and organizations – often that you know nothing about, and have no connection to your interests – approaching and requesting money. Also, you are exposed to the media who request interviews. That intrudes into your private life and you are never sure what they're going to say. We find both of these situations awkward and not particularly pleasant," Ms. Matthews said.

The Matthews' gift in Toronto became a hybrid because Toronto Mayor John Tory asked them to be publicly involved in the project and "we wanted to set an example for private philanthropy," Ms. Matthews said. "We want others to think differently and consider donating to the public realm, to realise projects that enhance the quality of city life."

The couple also wanted to take responsibility for kick-starting the project and be accountable for its development. They had put conditions on the donation, including that it be built within a reasonable time frame. Another condition was that the city and Waterfront Toronto develop a new model for maintaining and programming the space. That led to the formation of a park management agency, the Bentway Conservancy.

"We knew from the beginning that the surrounding neighbourhoods would define the success of the project and we placed great importance on hearing from them about what they would like to see and do there," Ms. Matthews said.

That got the couple involved in every stage of the project, including sitting in on all the executive steering committee meetings, maintaining oversight and accountability for the project's development.

Inviting the public to come up with the name provided an excellent opportunity for public consultation, allowing a wide range of people to brainstorm and actively contribute to the project, Mr. Sleath said.

"It wasn't a competition, or the usual crowd-sourcing, but rather quite a unique and serious public naming process that took place over four months."

Meanwhile, naming rights are still being offered for other elements of the project, Mr. Sleath said. "We have a beautifully designed, very elegant new pedestrian bridge, a half-kilometre extension to the skating trail, plus many unique programming ideas – all of which could be named."

Ms. Matthews said the biggest reward from the experience came when the mayor told her their donation had inspired another donor to give a significant donation to another public project in the city.

"That was very gratifying. We'd like to encourage others to donate to the public realm, either in name or anonymously as they see fit."

The name game

The Bentway started with the working title Project: Under Gardiner.

Waterfront Toronto organized a public naming process, with the Matthews as one of its supporters, that took four months, co-ordinating with schools, libraries and community organizations to host naming parties to describe the project and get suggestions from users of all ages.

Citizens suggested more than 800 names, including AvantGardiner, Wundergarden, Funtastic Park, The Secret Way, Rainbow Lane, Under the 6ix (Drake inspired and popular with a youth session) and Shark Park (popular with school groups).

The jurors whittled the choices down to four: The Artery, The Bentway, The Canopy and The Gathering Place. Local artists created videos championing each of the names that were posted online for public voting. The votes were updated in real time, so people could check in and see how the tally was going.

The first online voting site was hacked with blocks of hundreds of votes coming in for The Artery, forcing a shutdown and the addition of stronger security. In the second round of voting, The Bentway ultimately emerged as the top choice.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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