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Toronto wants to deck over the open rail corridor between Bathurst and Blue Jays for a downtown park.
Toronto wants to deck over the open rail corridor between Bathurst and Blue Jays for a downtown park.

john tory

Toronto must boldly invest in its future – starting with a new downtown park Add to ...

John Tory is the mayor of Toronto

It’s amazing what you can do with 21 acres.

In our rapidly growing city, an area approximately the size of four large city blocks can hold soaring condo towers and gleaming development.

But it can also create transformative green space in the heart of the downtown core.

Last month, the City unveiled its intention to pursue the air rights for a 21-acre section of the rail lands between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way.

The announcement sets the stage for an ambitious vision to deck over the rail lines and build a public park in one of the city’s highest-density areas.

The complex, long-term project begins with the act of preserving the last significant open space left downtown, preserving it for public space and preventing it from being developed for other purposes. Then, over time, the city can build a park that will serve generations of Toronto residents and their visitors.

But the 21-acre parcel also presents us with another important opportunity: the chance to think differently about how our city invests in its future.

Toronto is a global metropolis that was once again identified, recently, as one of the world’s most liveable cities. But it will take determination and big dreams to keep it that way.

The downtown population is projected to double in the next 25 years to almost 500,000 people. In the past five years alone, 50,000 new residents have moved in, about the population of North Bay.

At the same time, the area’s park deficit has been well documented, with significantly less public space than Etobicoke, North York or Scarborough.

There is universal acknowledgement that a bold new park in this part of town is both needed and desired.

But of course, the cost and construction challenges of such an ambitious and complex vision are substantial. Great cities are not built for free.

And so we will surely encounter hand-wringing over whether our vision for the future is compatible with the very real budget pressures facing us today.

But Toronto has entered a new phase of city-building, one that focuses on tangible solutions, hard work and finding ways to say yes rather than no.

We can no longer allow short-term thinking to justify long-term sacrifices to the sustainability of our city.

And so, in partnership with our federal and provincial partners, we are beginning to address a backlog of unfunded capital projects, from social-housing repairs to the repair, modernization and expansion of our transit, cycling and pedestrian networks, which will receive more than $840-million in federal funds in the next two years.

We have a council-approved transit-expansion plan, which compensates for decades of historic underinvestment. And we are pushing city divisions and agencies to analyze their expenses and modernize their approach so resources have a directly positive impact for the public. To me, building a great city and an efficient one are not conflicting ideals.

Still, it makes sense that I am asked frequently how we will pay for this visionary park.

For starters, I point to the existing parkland acquisition fund, paid into by developers as intensity increases, which currently holds almost $100-million.

The time has come to invest these funds as intended, in new parks and facilities that serve the changing demographics of our city.

Along with Section 37 funds and other development charges, this pool of resources provides more than $200-million as a substantial starting point from which to pursue this project.

Later this month, city staff will report to executive committee with an outline of how to advance the rail deck project, which will look at these and other potential funding sources along with an implementation strategy for the phasing, acquisition and construction of the park.

We will work in partnership with the current air rights holders and rail operators, consult the public and develop our plan with the guidance and input of city council.

It will take time to produce a concrete price tag and timeline but, already, Toronto has taken the important step of inviting other levels of government, the public and private sector into the work of making this vision real.

City building takes vision, hard work, collaboration and innovation.

Many of the things we love most about Toronto are here as a result of bold investment by past generations, and we must seize the moment to encourage similar thinking today.

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