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A provincial planning tribunal ruled in favour of private developers' plans for the space above a rail corridor in downtown Toronto. Dubbed the ORCA project, the plan includes nine towers, along with elevated public space. The city had proposed a public park for the area.Handout

In the air above downtown Toronto, two grand ideas have been fighting it out. The space above a central rail corridor has been reimagined by the city as a future Rail Deck Park, and by private developers as a high-rise neighbourhood.

Now this dogfight between public and private seems to have a winner. Last week, a provincial planning tribunal ruled in favour of the­ private scheme – including nine towers along with elevated public space. Some form of this might now be built, though the details could very easily change.

This raises a whole new set of questions: If the scheme is built as designed, what kind of place would this be? And how should public and private interests stack up in a big-city downtown?

The City of Toronto doesn’t have great answers to those questions. But the vision the developers offer as an alternative is unacceptable.

Let’s begin with the city’s plan, which is to cover the entire 21-acre site, from Blue Jays Way west to Bathurst Street, with a park that would be a citywide attraction. It was most recently priced at $1.7-billion – enough to pay for the construction of 100 nice mid-size Toronto parks. This was never going to happen in the near term.

Then there is the new development proposal. The prominent architect Moshe Safdie is leading the conversation as the head architect for the developers’ ORCA scheme (the name is an acronym for “Over Rail Corridor Area”).

“This is an opportunity where you can transform a city,” Mr. Safdie said in an interview, just before the tribunal decision was announced. “It is very rare to have that chance.”

But that transformation would, in many ways, be for the worse.

Here is the promise of ORCA: It would cover a long stretch of sunken rail corridor, which presents “an extraordinary barrier between the city and the lake,” Mr. Safdie said. (Everyone agrees on this.) “By inhabiting that barrier, and creating this great park facility, you are mending the city.”

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Most of the ORCA towers would be linked by sky bridges.Handout

The southern edge of the site would be lined by public open space – all of it elevated multiple levels above the street, largely accessed by elevator and stairs.

Along the northern edge of the site would stand a group of towers, mostly residential and one office. These would be linked together by a multilevel shopping mall, which Mr. Safdie refers to as a “galleria.” Most of the towers would be linked as well by sky bridges, which would include amenities for the buildings.

Sky bridge urbanism is Mr. Safdie’s favourite mode these days. He started his career with the beautiful, sculptural (and insular) Habitat 67 in Montreal. Now his firm is best known for gigantic urban assemblages such as Marina Bay Sands in Singapore – collections of towers linked by airborne bridges and gardens.

The ORCA proposal delivers more of this. It begins with a serious obstacle: the truss structure that would support its deck is very thick, so as to contain a parking garage between its bones. The resulting level of the deck would be nine metres above ground, rising up several levels from there. These are the characteristics of a fortress, not a neighbourhood.

The main route east-west will be through the shopping mall, where Mr. Safdie envisions restaurants “spilling out” onto the adjacent green space. The landscape architects on the job, PWP, are excellent – they have imagined some compelling spaces, especially a central plaza lined by an arc of columnar oaks.

But when you look hard at the drawings, you realize it will take dozens of steps to get there from the street. And on the north side, facing Front Street, the complex would create a continuous wall more than 25 metres high. That‘s a long way up.

The vertical separation is a fatal flaw for parks: It marginalizes people with physical disabilities, and makes a space feel private.

Then there are the sky bridges. “You can create magical spaces by connecting buildings, and not just leaving them as isolated towers,” Mr. Safdie said. Would the residents of the towers actually leave their complex to go into the city? Of course, Mr. Safdie said. But the architecture, at every turn, says no. That’s a lot of stairs to climb down.

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On the north side, facing Front Street, the complex would create a continuous wall more than 25 metres high.Handout

Will ORCA actually be constructed? It‘s hard to say. Mr. Safdie’s clients are little-known developers led by a company called CRAFT. They acquired the “air rights,” the rights to build above the tracks, beginning in 2013. They swear, as does Mr. Safdie, that they are serious about building.

But this would be roughly a $5-billion project, with the most complex construction in Canadian history. They will need partners. Mr. Safdie could very easily be replaced along the way.

Amid all the uncertainty, the key lesson for big cities is this: Defend the public realm. At the provincial tribunal, city planners argued that the ORCA plan was bad in part because it is discontinuous with the rest of the city. On this, they are right. In a healthy big city, private development faces the public realm, at ground level, with good manners.

And yet this basic rule is routinely broken in downtown Toronto, where too much of the city has been internalized and commercialized. This began with the consumerist Limbo of the underground PATH system, which is still growing with new bridges and tunnels. It sucks people and commercial activity away from the street, all with the blessing of city planning.

The trend continues with The Well, a major development next to the ORCA site that is defined by private streets. And the pattern would continue with Union Park, a massive office and residential complex connected by “winter gardens,” a.k.a. office lobbies and a shopping mall. The giant developers who produce multibillion-dollar projects love space that they can design, control and police. And city planners like neatness.

But it’s not what a city is made of. If we believe the public realm is so precious, it may be time to forget about billion-dollar parks. Instead, improve and maintain the ones we have, and defend the streets – the bones of good urbanism, without which a city can dissolve into the sky.

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