Toronto wants to build Rail Deck Park; Robert Sabato and Jim Ilkay want to build condos in the sky. The two developers, and their partners, have been skirmishing for years with the City of Toronto about some of the area above the railway tracks west of Union Station – territory that is, for now, thin air.
The developers have a coherent vision, and it presents Toronto with a real choice. Should the city deliver a smaller park through a public-private partnership? Or should it go all the way, and build something more ambitious – a 20-acre park budgeted at $1.7-billion? The good news for the city – and the bad news for these developers – is that Toronto appears to be going big.
I recently met Mr. Sabato and Mr. Ilkay at the offices of Mr. Sabato’s Craft Development in Etobicoke. The two developers, who are relatively unknown, began in 2013 to purchase the air rights (in other words, the right to build) over the rail corridor near Union. They say they want to build an eight-tower development they dub ORCA.
In the interim, the city has been advancing plans for the same air space. Creating that would mean expropriating, or buying out, the ORCA developers’ air rights.
Accordingly, observers have assumed that ORCA is a gimmick – that the developers simply want to squeeze as much money as possible out of the city. They have set a sale price for the air rights at $340-million.
“There is a perception that we are just some little guys from Etobicoke,” Mr. Sabato says.
But they told me that they actually want to build ORCA, constructing eight residential and office towers as high as 45 storeys while providing the base for a 12.8-acre park. “We are a serious group,” Mr. Ilkay said, “and we’ve advanced this project a long way.”
Maybe so. Craft Development is an established retail developer; Mr. Sabato’s partner Matthew Castelli’s Kingsmen Group is an established home builder. And Mr. Ilkay is a former executive with the major construction company EllisDon. They clearly can’t deliver such a mammoth project themselves, but “we know who to bring to the table,” Mr. Ilkay said. The point: They are putting forward a proposal that seems to make sense technically and commercially.
But is half a park the right thing for the city?
Rail Deck Park has the enthusiastic support of Mayor John Tory, and the area’s local councillor Joe Cressy, who told me the city absolutely should not cheap out. “You have to imagine the city you want, and then you go out and build it,” he said, “instead of the old Toronto practice where you nickel-and-dime things until they’re not worth doing.”
The ORCA group, by quietly buying some air rights from the railways that have long owned them, has complicated this dream. The city has outmanoeuvred them by changing the zoning to forbid development and lock the area down as parks and open space. The ORCAs have tried to appeal the planning decisions in two separate provincial actions, and have lost the first one. But they still own the air rights, and Mr. Ilkay and Mr. Sabato suggested that an expropriation process could reward them with a high valuation.
According to Mr. Cressy, this is nonsense. Right now, the city is expropriating a section of air rights between Spadina and Blue Jays Way – which ORCA does not yet have a firm agreement to purchase. Once this is done, Mr. Cressy says, it will establish a price for ORCA’s remaining air rights – “much, much lower than what the developers are asking for.”
The city is also working to co-ordinate with Metrolinx. The transit agency will soon rebuild the rail corridor itself as part of a GO Transit expansion. This, Mr. Cressy says, will include work that would benefit the park. The city’s initial budget of $1.6-billion “is based on the city doing all the work itself,” Mr. Cressy said. A city spokesperson confirmed that staff are “identifying areas of potential savings and cost-sharing through co-ordination with Metrolinx.”
All this will become clearer when city staff report to city council in the spring or early summer.
Mr. Sabato and Mr. Ilkay, along the way, have picked up some good ideas about parks. They think urban parks benefit from having staff on site, and from the presence of cafés and restaurants. They’re right. And the ORCAs argue that the downtown core is not (as city planners claim) desperately short on parks. Here, too, they are right. Today, Toronto city planning assumes that every citizen should have about the same amount of park space in their neighbourhood. And the city is cramming growth into downtown. Accordingly, the city is planning a number of tiny parks within new downtown developments. These generally won’t be good for much.
But those trends only make Rail Deck Park more important. The downtown doesn’t need a mini-park on every corner. It does need some parks that are big and full of amenities. Rail Deck presents the opportunity for a major park that could serve both locals and visitors – one that could help redefine Toronto’s image.
“This is the last time to build a central park in booming downtown Toronto,” Mr. Cressy says. “In a choice between building half a central park, and saving a few dollars, or building what the future city and its residents deserve, I choose the latter.”
The ORCA developers express doubt that city hall will actually take on the cost of the full park – which is partly funded now, but not fully.
“You’ve got to be realistic,” Mr. Ilkay argued.
Is Toronto ready to dream? We’ll see.