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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

David Dunlap Observatory sold

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The University of Toronto confirmed this week that they have an agreement in place to sell the David Dunlap Observatory.

In 1935 when the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) was first opened, the surrounding Town of Richmond Hill had just over 1,000 residents. The site of the DDO was chosen because it was far enough away from the bright lights of Toronto, which make astronomical observation impossible, yet close enough to allow for easy travel from the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. The observatory buildings and surrounding park lands were a gift to the University of Toronto by Jessie Dunlap in memory of her late husband, David Dunlap, a businessman and amateur astronomer. The David Dunlap Observatory is home to the largest telescope in Canada, and was where Dr. Thomas Bolton conducted ground breaking research that led to the discovery of black holes in the early 1970s.

During the 73 years since the DDO opened, Richmond Hill’s population has grown to over 160,000 residents. The booming development around the 189 acre David Dunlap Observatory site has led to an increase in light pollution. In October 2007, U of T decided to sell the observatory buildings and surrounding park lands on the grounds that the space was no longer appropriate for astronomical observation. The university felt that the memory of David Dunlap would be better served by investing the proceeds from the sale of the observatory into a new David Dunlap Institute of Astronomy, to be located at U of T’s St. George Campus. Although U of T has not confirmed the sale price, with land in Richmond Hill selling for up to of $600,000 an acre, it is believed that the David Dunlap Observatory is worth as much as $ 100 million dollars.

Although the the deal has not officially closed (this is expected by the end of the month), university staff who work at the observatory have been given their notice to leave the premises. Some of the staff will move to other U of T facilities, others were laid off entirely. Public tours of the observatory were officially stopped last month. The university has guaranteed that the site will be fully vacant when the buyers take ownership.

The proposal to sell the DDO has been very controversial. Community activists such as the Richmond Hill Naturalists believe that due to scientific, cultural and environmental attributes, the DDO is a site of not only community, but also provincial and national importance. They fear that by selling the land, its important attributes will likely be lost to development (speculation has been that the property was bought by Menkes, a development company, though this can not be confirmed until the deal officially closes). The Cultural Heritage Landscape Study of the site identified that in addition to 1930s architecture of the observatory and administrative building, the site is also home of surviving elements of the Alexander Marsh Homestead, and has a regenerating natural landscape complete with a resident deer herd. Located between Yonge and Bayview north of 16th Avenue, the site is especially unique in the area when compared to the surrounding surburban neighbourhoods.

In addition, many people who use the facility disagree with the university’s assertion that the observatory is no longer useful. Dr. Thomas Bolton, who has used the observatory since his ground breaking research in the early 1970s, has stated repeatedly that the light pollution in the area is not a significant source of obstruction to meaningful research. In an interview with CBC Radio’s Sounds Like Canada, Bolton stated that because of a light pollution by-law that has been in place in Richmond Hill since the 1990s, and advancements in telescope technology, the quality of visibility has not been reduced below what it was in the early 1970s.

listen to interview

With further small investments in technology, Dr. Bolton has said that visibility could get even better. Astronomers who support the observatory have argued that it is a change in priorities to different kinds of research, and not an increase in light pollution, that has motivated the university to sell the site.

The fight to preserve all or part of the land is not yet over. Later this summer the provincial Conservation Review Board will hear begin a review process to determine how much of the property should be protected. The Town of Richmond Hill is looking for 48% of the site to be protected, including the property’s historic buildings, while the Richmond Hill Naturalists want 100% of the property protected.

There is also a Facebook group dedicated to saving the observatory.

Photo by odei



  1. Oh no.

    That is horrible. That was a bright spot in suburbia.

  2. sigh. UfoT is ready and willing to sell out virtually whenever, wherever, if the price is good enough.
    There’s no light pollution at the downtown campus?!!!
    The core glows in the dark (as it were).
    How much would Simcoe Hall be worth if we could plop a 4-storey condo there?
    Would it be worth it to add values to the place? as they seem to have a long history of deflecting the wishes and conditions of bequests…

  3. I had the chance to work there for a summer back in the mid-90’s. From the moment that you entered the drive from the road, it was like stepping back in time.

    The change of pace is different and the atmosphere is relaxed – conducive to allowing research.

    This needs to be preserved, if not for scientific use, but for a museum – a heritage place of our development. It could be renovated to accommodate an astronomical museum. It could even go so far as to be a heritage hosting facility like Eaton Hall, Estates of Sunnybrook, or Greydon Hall.

    Heck, it could even be redeveloped into a retreat of sorts where Science and Astronomy students can go to from the UofT, to stay, learn, and work at as part of their curriculum.

    All these ideas presented here by us are great, but something tells me that they or a FaceBook page won’t be enough to clear the haze of dollar signs from UofT’s board receiving this sale.

  4. Mr. Dunlap’s widow paid $28,000 for that land…

  5. Hamish > the St. George campus would indeed be way too bright at night for an observatory. I think the proposed new David Dunlap Institute for Astronomy would be more for offices and classrooms. U of T has partial shares in observatories in Hawaii and Chile (where light pollution isn’t an issue).

    There was an article in Saturday’s National Post about a push to have the DDO declared a UNESCO world heritage site:

  6. Is the surrounding park the one with the scale model of the solar system set in the ground? Or am I thinking of somewhere else?

  7. Myself I find *this* the most intriguing part of the story: ( from the NP article)
    ” Her bequest states that if the lands cease to be used for an observatory, the property reverts to her heirs.

    Five years ago, the university asked the courts to “discharge any and all conditions and covenants” on the donated lan d. The dispute, in which two heirs sided with the university and one contested, was settled out of court.”

    I think it’s time to rexamine the role of ‘other’ large landowners in the city- such as Universities and cemetaries- and their new role in land stewardship.