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

One of Toronto’s most exciting park projects – turning part of a downtown roadway into green space – has momentum.

On Tuesday, Mayor John Tory ­­­announced his commitment to the “University Park” plan, which would create almost nine acres of new green space by redesigning University Avenue in the city’s downtown.

Mr. Tory, who is running for re-election, announced he would prioritize three park projects. One is a three-acre park at the foot of Bathurst Street, repurposing a parking garage and building a deck across a section of Lake Ontario. Another is a set of incremental moves along the downtown rail corridor. The last is on University Avenue. As I wrote a few weeks ago, University Park is an obvious win – a visible public space with symbolic value that will serve a broad population. It’s relatively cheap and easy to build. It has just needed some political will.

Now Mr. Tory says he is stepping up. “It’ll be a historic project that is absolutely appropriate in terms of what and where it is,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “It will bring that street to life.”

“If I am back here” as mayor, he said, “I’m going to be extremely committed to getting this done.”

He pointed to a staff report which will come to council’s Executive Committee next week; it casts those three projects as priorities for the downtown area. In the Kremlinology of Toronto City Hall, this means they are things that the mayor wants to happen and has asked staff to deliver.

This year city hall will conduct a detailed assessment of the area’s underground utilities. They will work to co-ordinate the park with construction of a new Ontario Line subway station that will tear up the corner of Queen and University for the next decade.

By 2026, when he ends his next term as mayor – if he gets re-elected, as is almost certain – what will people be able to see? The Bathurst Quay Park under construction; and one phase of University Park “will be well along, and perhaps under construction,” the mayor said.

The idea has been kicking around for a few years. A version of it appeared in the city’s new plan for the downtown area, which was initially proposed in 2018. It was designed for the city by the landscape architects PUBLIC WORK. Two years later, a private foundation, the Michael Young Family Foundation, hired PUBLIC WORK to expand and revise the idea. They’ve pushed it forward with the help of the not-for-profit Evergreen.

Those advocates are making an important and selfless contribution to the city. University Park would serve an area that includes city hall, two courthouses, and the city’s cluster of major hospitals, which have patients from across the province.

And more than just providing new green space – about nine acres – it would transform existing places. The campus, Queen’s Park and University Avenue are highly visible and symbolic components in the city’s urban structure. But a highway runs through them. Until 2020, these roadways had four lanes of vehicle traffic in each direction; they still move at high speed. This makes them unpleasant and even dangerous to cross. “University Avenue is not a street that is presently alive with anything but car traffic,” the mayor said, accurately.

So if it’s such a great idea, what has taken so long? Mr. Tory said he has supported the idea since he heard about it from the Young Foundation. City staff “told me it absolutely could not be done,” he said. After pushing back, he said, he received a different answer.

This is plausible. Toronto is a big city; city hall now is a big machine running on few resources. And yet now it seems that Mr. Tory, who has defined himself as a low-key fiscal conservative, wants to deliver some big things. “As you get close to the end of a chapter in life,” he said, “you are seized with a sense of saying, we have to do better than this.”

In many respects – from how it treats its most vulnerable to how it creates new housing – Toronto does indeed need to do better. The fate of University Park could prove a bellwether for how the city, and its current mayor, are changing.

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