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An illustration of the proposed University Park, looking south down University Avenue toward Queen Street West.Illustration by PUBLIC WORK

What ever happened to University Park?

In the fall of 2020, two local not-for-profits put forward a bold vision for a new public space in downtown Toronto. They’d hired the landscape architects Public Work, who imagined reshaping the city’s grand University Avenue and converting half into a park.

The idea would create 9.5 acres of new green space, linking the city’s major hospitals, the University of Toronto and City Hall. It would be a huge symbolic boost for Toronto’s public realm, especially in the wake of the pandemic. It is low-cost, high-impact and practical. It is brilliant.

But it seems to be stalled. A minor controversy last week at Toronto City Hall revealed that the park plan hasn’t progressed much in the past few years. And it’s clear that it needs a champion.

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The issue came up at city council’s planning and housing committee during discussion of a subway station on the new Ontario Line. Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, is planning a station at Queen Street West and University Avenue.

Local heritage and neighbourhood groups were unhappy that the Osgoode Hall site – which has housed the legal profession since 1832 – will be partially dug up. They are also angry that an above-ground station entrance is planned to stand permanently on the grounds, just inside the wrought-iron fence.

Some floated an alternative: Why not move the station entrance west 30 metres or so, into the lanes of University Avenue? That would put the station right in the planned University Park.

Makes sense! After all, an early version of the park idea was approved in the city’s downtown plan four years ago. The 2020 variation (supported by the Michael Young Family Foundation and non-profit Evergreen), garnered strong support at city hall. It seems like a sure thing.

But is it? Toronto’s chief planner, Gregg Lintern, told the committee that the park is not yet planned – in any form. The planning department confirmed this in an email: “As a first step, staff have been working with a consultant to study the impact of the underground infrastructure on a range of configurations for University Avenue,” a spokesperson said.

“No direction or decision… can be made without this thorough exploration, analysis and consultation.”

That’s almost exactly what the city’s head of transportation, Barbara Gray, said in December, 2017. Is this thing doable? Who knows? Shrug.

The project faces some political pushback from suburban councillors. They will surely claim – falsely – that this will have a major impact on traffic, and claim – falsely – that it serves downtown elites, rather than hospital patients and nurses on break.

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So University Park needs a champion. Consider how Mayor John Tory and former downtown councillor Joe Cressy came out strongly for the Rail Deck Park idea. That scheme for a downtown park got a lot of resources and attention, even though it was a multi-billion-dollar longshot.

University Park is vastly more practical. The avenue will be reconstructed for utility work in 2025. And thanks to a pandemic push from Mr. Cressy and Councillor Mike Layton, the street has already given up a lane of vehicle traffic in each direction for bike lanes. That means there is already enough room for a park; the space just needs to be shuffled around.

And now is the time to move. The province is procuring the construction of the Ontario Line. There’s little question that Osgoode Hall’s grounds will be partially dug up. But above ground, the station building can still shift. Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins confirmed that it remains technically possible to do this, though it will come at a cost.

Now is the time for Mr. Tory and Mr. Layton to lay down a marker: This is going to happen. By the time the Ontario Line is complete a decade from now, University Park should be ready to go.

Otherwise, it could – like too much of Toronto’s public realm – remain buried under asphalt.

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