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David Dunlap Observatory and Park

123 Hillsview Drive, Richmond Hill, Ontario—ASTRONOMICAL DEVELOPMENT PRESSURE ENDS PEACEFULLY IN MAY, 2013

The latest news!

In May, 2013, in what is touted as a "uniquely successful" outcome, most of the 76 hectares of greenspace surrounding the Observatory is to become a public park. The Ontario Municipal Board ruled in favour of a multi-party settlement agreement, involving once-adversarial groups, clearing the way for Metrus Development Inc., to build 250 housing units on the site and for the town to assume ownership of the historic observatory and 40 hectares of forests and fields.

Why it matters A cultural and scientific landmark and the home to Canada’s largest telescope, the David Dunlap Observatory and Park is directly associated with Canada’s international accomplishments in the field of astronomy. The 77 hectare park-like setting contains a number of architecturally significant buildings including the Observatory with its 18-metre dome (1935), the Beaux Arts Administration Building (1935), designed by the noted Canadian firm of Mathers & Haldenby; the Radio Astronomy Equipment “Shack” and the director’s residence, Elms Lea, a finely crafted farmhouse dating from 1864. A prominent cultural landscape in the history of Ontario, the site contains exceptional heritage values related to its agricultural past and its scientific function. Examples include the arboretums designed to support the technical operation of the telescope by modifying the microclimate around it; the north-south axial line of the north star Polaris on which the Telescope Dome and the Administration Building lie; and the entrance road, Donalda Drive, carving a passage through the treed grounds to the astronomy campus. In 1950, a 12-acre parcel of land known as “the panhandle” was added as a southern entrance to the site. The rotating copper Observatory Dome with its 188-cm telescope saw a number of internationally important astronomical discoveries, including C.T. Bolton’s discovery of the first stellar-mass black hole in the universe and Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg’s photometry of globular star clusters.

Why it’s endangered Philanthropist Jessie Donalda Dunlap, widow of amateur astronomer David Dunlap, donated the property to the University of Toronto (U of T) in 1935, with the condition that it revert to the Dunlap heirs in the event U of T no longer required it for use as an observatory. However, after a controversial legal battle, the university obtained the right to sell the property in 2008 for residential and commercial development. Given the development pressure created by proximity to theYonge Street corridor, local efforts to ensure protection of the site’s heritage values have been intense. The Town of Richmond Hill declared its intention to designate only half the property as a cultural heritage landscape under the Ontario Heritage Act, leaving important features that contribute to the scientific, ecological and heritage significance of the site unprotected. In the meantime, U of T has diminished the integrity of the site by removing valuable scientific and cultural contents commissioned, prepared and collected exclusively for the Observatory Building.

Where Things Stand In 2007 the Richmond Hill Naturalists, a non-profit club established in 1955 by Dunlap Observatory astronomers filed an objection to the town’s proposed designation with the Conservation Review Board (CRB) in favour of maximum heritage protection for the site. In fall 2008, The Hon. Lincoln Alexander, chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, wrote the Minister of Culture calling for action to protect the site. In May 2009, a delegation of stakeholders met with federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice to underscore the site’s national significance. In June 2009 the CRB recommended that the Town of Richmond Hill increase the protected area to 80% of the 77-hectare property by adding a minimum of 150 metres to its site designation. The recommendations also advise re-examining the heritage value of the 12-acre panhandle; and include protecting Donalda Drive and its associated trees, the interior and exterior of the Great Telescope Dome, the Administration Building, the Radio “Shack”, and the Elms Lea residence. The CRB’s report also recommends that the site be designated as provincially significant. The final decision rests with the Town of Richmond Hill, which can either act on the CRB recommendations, or ignore them.

In May, 2013, in what is touted as a "uniquely successful" outcome, with most of the 76 hectares of greenspace surrounding the Observatory becoming a public park. The Ontario Municipal Board ruled in favour of a multi-party settlement agreement, involving once-adversarial groups, clearing the way for Metrus Development Inc., to build 250 housing units on the site and for the town to assume ownership of the historic observatory and 40 hectares of forests and fields.