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A row of restaurants on King Street east of Spadina in Toronto on Jan. 16, 2018.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Let’s make a deal. The city of Toronto is doing that, in the best way, in the downtown King-Spadina neighbourhood.

On Friday, Mayor John Tory and local councillor Joe Cressy announced the city’s plan for three different sites. The upshot will be a sizable half-acre new park; a public-private development of 652 apartments, 30 per cent of them affordable housing and an array of new and renovated public amenities.

“I think this is creative city-building at its best,” Mr. Cressy said in an interview. “Twelve city divisions came together to turn the fire hall and a surface parking lot into a revitalized district.”

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This is worth bragging about. Here, the city – led by development agency Create TO – has done something that public agencies rarely do: treat public land as a valuable asset, and make the most of it.

There are three moving parts. The first is the fire hall at 260 Adelaide St. W.

It is roughly 50 years old, a Brutalist behemoth, and the fire service says it needs to be replaced. To do so would cost tens of millions of dollars – and waste a downtown lot.

Instead, the city will pull roughly $100-million of land value out of the site. It will be redeveloped as a mixed-use tower with 652 homes, 30 per cent of them at 80-per-cent average market rent for 99 years. This is a significant quantity of affordable housing. Plus the city will get a new paramedic station and 10,000 square feet of community space.

Second: The fire hall is being shuffled two blocks south, into the base of the city building known as Metro Hall. This will, in turn, get renovated.

Third: On Richmond Street, a city-owned parking lot will turn into a half-acre park. This will be welcome in what is becoming one of Toronto’s densest neighbourhoods. Nearby, plans for the massive Rail Deck Park appear to have evaporated.

The new scheme makes obvious sense: A city agency takes up less space while the value of the land goes to build more useful things. Since the fire hall is not a publicly accessible building, there’s no meaningful loss to the public.

So why doesn’t this happen all the time? Basically, it’s complicated.

Separate public agencies at the city – as in every government – tend to work in silos. They have their own mandates. (Try asking the provincial transit agency Metrolinx why it’s not building apartments above its new Eglinton Crosstown LRT stations.)

But that’s a poor excuse.

Two caveats with this scheme: One, the new park shouldn’t have a parking garage underneath it. The plans currently say it will – but Mr. Cressy said he is committed to moving the parking into the basement of the new development.

Two: The design quality of the new project is in question. Too often Toronto, like most governments in Canada, spends far too little on – and has low standards for – its buildings and landscapes. Here, for the park, Mr. Cressy promises a high-quality “signature” project with a generous budget. “A signature park needs a signature vision,” he said.

It better. Two years ago Mr. Tory promised to improve the design quality of public projects. This idea vanished with the pandemic. Here would be a good place to pick it up. Having mined roughly $100-million from its own land, and delivered some affordable housing, the city should spend a few bucks on hiring the best designers available. Real estate savvy is valuable; making truly excellent public spaces, beautiful and durable, is beyond measure.

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