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Toronto Toronto announces plans for new downtown park above active railway

Toronto wants to deck over the open rail corridor between Bathurst and Blue Jays for a downtown park servicing the condominium-heavy neighbourhood, along the lines of Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s Hudson Yards.

Taking a page from Chicago's play book, Toronto plans to build a large-scale downtown park above the railway corridor between Bathurst Street and the Rogers Centre.

The Rail Deck Park, spanning 21 acres (8.5 hectares), would harness the open space above the active railway in a bid to connect downtown with the waterfront and counter high-rise development in the densely populated area. The project was announced Wednesday by Mayor John Tory and Councillor Joe Cressy.

The proposed park will be modelled after the likes of Chicago's Millennium Park or the under-construction Hudson Yards in Manhattan, both of which "decked" over active rail corridors. Mr. Tory told reporters that early discussions with the site's owners – Canadian National Railway Co., Toronto Terminals Railway and regional transportation agency Metrolinx – have been positive.

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According to a release from the city, the Rail Deck Park initiative is part of the city's TOcore project, created in response to the "rapid growth and intensification of Toronto's downtown that is placing pressure on physical and social infrastructure."

"With the density and development happening in major cities, the only way to create new significant central parks and public spaces is by being more creative," Mr. Cressy said.

A 2011 report by the city showed that approximately 830,000 people travel to downtown Toronto every day, with the current number likely to be much higher. In addition, the neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to the proposed park, King-Spadina and CityPlace, have seen their population grow from 1,000 to just under 40,000 in 20 years. An additional 30,000 people are expected to call the area home after planned development of new residential, retail and office space comes to fruition.

The downtown population alone is expected to double to 475,000 in the next 25 years, growing at a rate four times that of all of Toronto, according to Cherise Burda, executive director of the City Building Institute at Ryerson University. Since 2005, a total of 23.1 hectares of parkland have been added downtown, where 66 per cent of households with children live in high-rise communities.

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"Downtown Toronto is increasingly becoming a vertical city where people are living without backyards, so we need more public space and more amenities to accommodate this incredible growth," Ms. Burda said. "People in downtown Toronto use their parks more than anyone else in the city of Toronto."

The planned park will complement an already proposed $25-million addition of public space being built under the Gardiner Expressway.

Such creative planning "really speaks to the fact that there isn't a lot of space available and population growth and development is completely outpacing parks," Ms. Burda said.

A report on the proposed rail park will go to the mayor's executive committee on Sept. 22. It will include an implementation strategy, as well as plans for consultations with the public, in hopes of securing the formal authority to proceed, with funding help from provincial, federal and private donors.

Though the costs and timeline for the project have yet to be determined, the park is expected to take four to five years to build. Millennium Park cost more than $33-million an acre to build, while Hudson Park cost $77-million an acre. The city hopes to promote the project as a cost-effective investment in an area where parkland is hard to acquire, as the competitive downtown real estate market pushes land prices to anywhere between $50-million and $60-million an acre.

"As we grow, we need to focus on building more neighbourhoods, not just more condo towers," Mr. Cressy said. "If you're truly going to grow the city with a focus on livability, then it requires big, bold and, at times, expensive thinking. And that's the type of investment for the future that you need to do."

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