Downtown Toronto’s rail-deck development is moving forward. This week, developers submitted a formal application to the City of Toronto to build 11 towers – with 5,750 homes, 11,000 square metres of retail space and a hotel – above the rail corridor.
This would come instead of the proposed Rail Deck Park – but could provide as much as 4.45 hectares of parks (11 acres). The project’s lead architect says the proposal is just a “starting point” for negotiations.
If that’s true, a six-year debate over the future of downtown Toronto could wind up in a good place.
Since winning a planning dispute with the city last year, the development team has radically altered its plans, now overseen by Dermot Sweeny and his firm Sweeny&Co Architects.
“We’ve been working to make sure that this development will accommodate a great park,” Mr. Sweeny said recently, “and it will engage with the park and make it a great place.”
The new design places the towers in a strip along Front Street, lining it with shops and a sidewalk. A park at the foot of Portland Street would cut south between two towers, with a mild slope up from the street that is in places fully accessible. Privately owned public space would fill two more spaces to the east – and if Toronto wants to make a deal, a much larger area could become park.
Mr. Sweeny’s clients are a partnership of CRAFT Development Corporation, the Kingsmen Group, Fengate Asset Management and LiUNA Pension Fund of Central and Eastern Canada. This is largely the same group that, in 2013, locked up the air rights over the tracks that cut through downtown Toronto. It obtained rights to the area from Bathurst Street to east of Spadina Avenue.
This stretch of air has been a legal and political battleground ever since. After the developers approached city hall with this idea, the municipal planning department decided to plan for a park, with a construction cost most recently estimated near $2-billion. Local councillor Joe Cressy and Mayor John Tory advocated forcefully for the park, albeit without ever fully explaining how it could be paid for.
Last year, the developers won. Ontario’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal approved a version of their project, which involved the prominent architect Moshe Safdie.
But as city planners pointed out, this project had serious design problems.
One: It lifted the project high up above the street. This meant stairs, escalators and elevators were needed to get people into the public spaces; this is an unacceptable condition in terms of accessibility and urban design.
Two: The architecture included a large shopping mall, which would have taken the street life and commercial activity indoors. As I wrote last year, this was terrible urbanism.
The new proposal solves most of those problems. The design team includes architect Peter McMillan, who had consulted on the city’s park proposal. The “deck” structure is now considerably thinner and the park space is now at a level modestly above the street. The design shows several routes from the street up into the park on modest slopes; the main passageway, at the foot of Portland Street, would be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
And the shopping mall has gone away. Instead, the developers are now proposing retail stores on Front Street. Mr. Sweeny argues – correctly – that this area of Front Street is inhospitable to pedestrians and far too wide a road.
The secret sauce here is that they’re asking to use public land: a strip about four metres wide along Front Street. That would allow them to make a gentler slope between street and park, and provide well-proportioned storefronts facing the street.
For this and other public land they are willing to pay the city. However, to build the full 4.45-hectare park, they want a gross contribution from the city of roughly $670-million. This is a large number.
On the other hand, the city’s own park proposal would cost three times as much for twice the park – and the city still has to buy out the developers to do it. This warrants a haggle.
Two issues remain.
One: Is this an actual project, and not just an attempt to squeeze money out of the city? It’s hard to say for sure, given the technical and financial complexities. However, there is reason to believe a rail-deck development like this one is feasible. Major development company Allied Properties REIT recently acquired a patch of air rights above the tracks for roughly $15-million.
The rail-deck partners and architects say they’re for real. “One hundred per cent, absolutely,” said Joseph Mancinelli, chair of the LiUNA Pension Fund, which is the newest partner in the project. “This will create a return, and a tremendous amount of work for our members.” LiUNA represents concrete trades. “It is a legacy project.”
Two: Can a deal be made here? Probably. The developers express an eagerness to collaborate with the city. But they also say they’re ready and willing to build just their towers and a small park, leaving the rest of the air over the rail corridor unbuilt.
Some Torontonians will paint this as a loss for the public realm. But I am skeptical that the city – which has been ruled by austerity for a generation now – will find the political and financial capital to build a Rail Deck Park by itself. A development and park is better than a pie in the sky. With the right design, it could even be great.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect dollar amount for air rights acquired by Allied Properties REIT.
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