The railway corridor that slices through downtown Toronto is wide and grim, a canyon that slashes the fabric of the city. But the space above the tracks is now full of dreams. Will it become a park? Or a new high-rise neighbourhood?
Or both? The developers who own the air rights say the city can split the difference. At a public meeting next week, they will unveil their idea to partner with the city and build as many as 6,000 homes, a sizable percentage at below-market pricing, and 4.5 hectares of parkland.
That is half the 8.5 hectaresthat Toronto’s government had imagined as Rail Deck Park. But it comes with a lot of housing (which the city needs) and truckloads of private capital to make it happen.
Does Toronto want to dream big? Or compromise and start building something?
“There’s a tremendous opportunity here to create a collective vision,” said architect Drew Sinclair of SvN, who is working with the development team. “The city and the owners had difficulty coming to terms on their misaligned objections: park versus development. Now there’s the possibility to deliver both.”
The story has changed in the past two years. In May of 2021, the developers, led by the little-known firms Craft and Kingsmen, won a major victory. Ontario’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal ruled that their development proposal was “good planning,” effectively giving them the right to build. This left the city on the back foot in its attempts to create a park; it would now have to buy the developers out at a higher price.
And the Rail Deck Park idea was already expensive. In 2017 the city estimated its cost at $1.7-billion for construction alone.
Which brings us to the present day. The developers have added financial backing from the regional pension fund of the Labourers’ International Union of North America and Fengate Asset Management. They’ve also staffed up for the moment with architects Sweeny & Co. and SvN, among the city’s most sophisticated design firms.
In short, they’re positioning themselves to actually build this massive and complex project. Choices need to be made to co-ordinate with planned rail construction, but the developers can’t build anything without the co-operation of the city and they want to play nice. “We 100 per cent believe that public and private objectives can be met here in an exciting way,” says Jim Ilkay of the development group.
For this they want a sizable contribution from the city: $765-million to help build the deck that would hold up the neighbourhood. The developers say this would be partly balanced by payments for city land. Expect haggling.
In physical terms, they’re rethinking last year’s badly flawed development scheme, designed by Moshe Safdie. That would have placed much of the public space up above a shopping mall.
The developers say their new scheme – which they wouldn’t show me yet – folds in some pieces of public land to create more gradual slopes, and eliminates much of the parking garage space that made the Safdie scheme so bulky and impenetrable.
Mr. Sinclair said it achieves many of the city’s design objectives, above all bringing the park space down near street level. Lynda Macdonald, a top city planning official who is overseeing the file, said the city is waiting for drawings to see if the claims bear out.
What does all this mean? It depends on your view of the public realm, and what sort of a city Toronto is. City planners and leaders have argued Rail Deck Park is a crucial asset to a dense downtown and the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. It would be Toronto’s Central Park or Millennium Park: a showcase public space where the region comes together.
The Rail Deck story has been framed as a morality play. The city government (hurray!) wants to built a beautiful public amenity (ooh!), while real-estate developers (boo!) want to build condos (hiss!).
The reality is more complicated. For one thing, the developers came first; they started acquiring air rights from the railways in 2013. For another, Rail Deck Park is wildly expensive. For a quarter century, Toronto’s political leadership has refused to make big new investments in public goods. Parks are often designed on the cheap and poorly maintained.
Will that change? Maybe. Joe Cressy, the city councillor who represents the rail corridor area, is still dreaming big. “To build a truly great city, you need to imagine its potential 50 years from now – and you need to be willing to invest to build it,” he said. “And on that corridor, what the future Toronto deserves is a grand central park.”
Maybe so. But would this penny-pinching, politically fractured city actually build one? Or would it do nothing here for 50 years, as the trains keep running and the city keeps growing?
There is a related question: Is it worth spending $2-billion on these particular 8.5 hectares? Compare the University Park proposal, which would turn four hectares of University Avenue into park space and cost far less.
Nobody dreams about compromise. But a compromise here – if it comes with the design choices that create a truly public space and a truly excellent neighbourhood – might be how a new piece of the city gets built.
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