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marcus gee

Everyone agrees that building a big new park over the rail lands in downtown Toronto is an inspired idea. The question is how to pay for it.

City hall is considering a change to the city's official plan that would designate the area as public space. That would prevent developers from building condos, malls or office towers there. The trouble is that the city would be stuck with the vast bill – at least $1.05-billion, according to the city's preliminary estimate – to build a park on an enormous roof, or deck, above the rail lines. Why not work with developers instead? Why not let them build on the site but insist they set aside space for public squares, playgrounds and parkland?

As it happens, one group of developers has approached the city with just such a plan. Led by Craft Development Corp., they have in mind an ambitious mixed-use project that would include residential, office and retail buildings as well as six to eight acres of park and public space. They say they have commissioned engineering studies, hired an architect to produce drawings and approached the city to lay out their plans, although they are not ready to unveil them publicly yet.

Jennifer Keesmaat, the city's chief planner says, she is not interested. She knows about the proposal but has no confirmation that the developers have secured the necessary air rights over the tracks. Even if they had, she told me, no project could proceed without the city's say-so. If the developers challenge the city through legal channels on its plan for a "rail-deck park," as it has been called since Mayor John Tory announced it last month, "I could not be more confident that they would not be successful." At the Ontario Municipal Board, which referees development disputes, "this will be a no brainer."

She argues that with space for new parks in downtown vanishingly scarce, decking over the rail lands is Toronto's last chance to create a grand, signature park in the heart of the city.

As condo towers sprout left and right, the number of people living downtown is expected to double over the next quarter century, reaching almost half a million. Providing more space for all those people to stroll and play and walk their dogs only makes sense.

The 21 acres the park would cover – the equivalent of four large city blocks – is the minimum Toronto needs for its soaring downtown population, Ms. Keesmaat says. "Why would we make it even smaller by putting condos on it? That is flabbergasting in its small-mindedness."

So instead of working with developers to create the park, the city intends to soak them for the cost. A city report released on Thursday says that "staff will identify options to enhance growth-oriented revenues so that local development activity can fund a significant portion of the rail-deck park project." In other words, fees and charges developers pay when they put up a building would rise, inevitably affecting the cost of housing in a city where it is already painfully expensive. City hall would also pass the hat to "corporate sponsors, foundations and other philanthropic organizations."

These are less funding plans than funding hopes. With so many pressing needs, from transit to housing, it seems rash to add another project to the long list that must be paid for … somehow.

It would be wiser to work with developers to get this project done. Private interests can often help create great public spaces.

At New York's Hudson Yards, the vast real estate development taking shape on the west side of Manhattan, the developers are putting in more than five acres of gardens and plazas, linking up to the popular High Line park. Only this week, they unveiled plans for a centrepiece. Called Vessel, it will consist of "154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs" that visitors can climb and explore.

One of the Hudson Yards developers, Oxford Properties, once proposed a rail-deck park of its own as part of a plan to build a Toronto casino. City council voted down the casino, but Oxford says it now wants to build a bigger convention centre in the area. That project could include green space over the rail yards that would dovetail with the city's park plans, Oxford chief executive Blake Hutcheson says.

On Toronto's developing waterfront, new condos and office buildings are already mixed in with creative public spaces such as Sherbourne Common, Sugar Beach and the wave decks. The virtue of that mix is that, with lots of people working and living nearby, the spaces are sure to be active and vital. While the rail-deck park could never hope to equal the leafy expanses of Central Park, it might mimic the vitality of busy urban spaces like Rockefeller Centre.

It is great that Mr. Tory and Ms. Keesmaat are seizing this chance to create a dramatic new public space in a downtown that sorely needs it. They are right to think big. But they should open their minds to letting developers help the vision take form.