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An artist's rendering of a proposed development named ORCA, that calls for six residential towers, containing roughly 3,000 units, and one office tower, among other buildings.Courtesy of Safdie Architects

A provincial tribunal has struck a blow to Toronto’s plans to create a large Rail Deck Park in its downtown.

In a decision released Wednesday, the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, or LPAT, approved a request by a group of private developers to allow building on the site, which spans 8.5 hectares (21 acres) above the rail corridor west of Union Station.

The private companies, led by Craft Developments, began to purchase the air rights over these tracks between Blue Jays Way and Bathurst Street in 2013. They have been working since then on proposals to deck over the tracks and construct a mixed-use development above.

More recently, the city launched its plan to transform the same area into an 8.5-hectare park, dubbed Rail Deck Park. While the city has not completed a detailed design for the park, it is prominently featured in the parks and open-space strategy of the city’s current downtown plan.

The developers dub their current plan ORCA. It calls for six residential towers containing roughly 3,000 units and one office tower, along with a long retail building and, along the southern half of the site, public open space that sits on top of the deck structure and a parking garage.

Their current proposal is designed by the prominent Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, best known for Habitat 67 in Montreal, and landscape architects PWP.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Rail Deck Park between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way.

Last year, the city amended its official plan to designate the area above the tracks as parks and open space. It has referred to the ORCA proposal as “overdevelopment.” That city decision was initially upheld by the LPAT.

This week’s LPAT decision effectively overrules the previous one. It allows for development, though the precise details of any project would still undergo some city review.

The decision follows a nine-week hearing that concluded in March. Panel members wrote that the ORCA plan conforms with Ontario and city policies, largely rejecting the city’s arguments.

The decision is unusually critical of city staff who spoke at the hearing. The panel members cite a “combative approach” and a “regrettable tenor” in the testimony of city staff. “The direct evidence of the city’s witnesses was repeatedly and successfully challenged ... on almost all substantive points.” This included the city’s argument that the ORCA plan represents “overdevelopment.”

City Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents the area, said he was “deeply disappointed“ with the LPAT ruling. “While the city solicitor is reviewing the decision, I want to be clear that this will not stop my work to create new parkland and public spaces in our-fast growing city.”

Reached by e-mail, the developers said they were pleased by the decision. “Our focus will now be to collaborate with the city and the community,” said Robert Sabato, president of Craft-Kingsmen Rail Corp., “regarding the development of our lands.”

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