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The Globe and Mail

Toronto’s Underpass Park aims to turn neglected space into community hub

Summer Campers with the Wellesley Community Centre climb a play structure at the newly opened Underpass park in Toronto, August 02, 2012.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Political harmony can occasionally be found in unexpected places – in Toronto on Thursday it happened under the Gardiner Expressway.

The official opening of Underpass Park, a unique community space complete with basketball courts, play structures and a public art piece carved out beneath a highway off ramp, was attended by Mayor Rob Ford, along with representatives of three levels of government.

"The opening of Underpass Park is an excellent example of how we turn neglected space into a community hub that improves the quality, uniqueness and beauty of our communities," the Mayor said, before joining some local children on a jungle gym, as they chanted "Go Mayor, go mayor."

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According to John Campbell, president and CEO of Waterfront Toronto, the agency responsible for Underpass Park and the redevelopment of the surrounding area, it was the mayor's first official visit to one of their events. Relationships between City Hall and Waterfront Toronto have had moments of tension as Mr. Ford's brother, councillor Doug Ford, has publicly questioned some of the redevelopment plans.

"We're thrilled he's here," Mr. Campbell said of the mayor's presence. "He's the mayor, he should take credit for this stuff, his team's helped us do this."

The park is the first of its kind to be built beneath an underpass in Toronto, and Mr. Campbell said it is an example of his agency's "novel approach to smart, sustainable city building."

In addition to the mayor, the park's ribbon cutting was attended by Member of Parliament Peter Van Loan, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, city councillor Norm Kelly, and provincial MPP Soo Wong, of Scarborough-Agincourt.

Located beneath the Eastern Avenue and Richmond/Adelaide overpasses in the West Don Lands, Underpass Park is at the centre of development in preparation for the 2015 PanAm Games.

The athletes village will be located nearby, and the presence of federal, provincial and local politicians seemed to indicate a renewed commitment to the Waterfront Toronto's vision and timeline.

Mr. Van Loan made a joke at the expense of Waterfront Toronto, which was given long-term jurisdiction over the city lakefront lands as a way to mitigate cross jurisdictional issues and disputes. He said they came up with a way of dealing with intergovernmental bickering over the waterfront by "creating yet another level of government."

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Underpass Park is indicative of the support the Conservative government has given to municipal infrastructure projects, he added, noting that the federal coffers offered up $9-million of the project's $9.5-million budget.

Constructed in two phases, the first completed sections of the park sit between St. Lawrence Street and Bayview Avenue. Visitors can access the completed portions of the park from River Street, south of King Street. Phase two of Underpass Park, located west of St. Lawrence Street to Eastern Avenue, is expected to open in spring 2013. The completed project covers a total of 1.05 hectares, or 2.7 acres.

"This park is a lynchpin," said architect and urban planner Ken Greenberg. "It's actually things like this that are the glue, that hold it all together and make it a real place."

The design of the space is simple and welcoming. There are basketball courts and a skate park, which was in use "even before the fences came down," according to Mr. Campbell.

And on the underside of the actual off ramp, Toronto artist Paul Raff has installed a public art piece called Mirage, which uses mirrored stainless steel panels suspended from the overpass to reflect and bounce light within the space.

"It's about how it reflects and transforms the place," said Mr. Raff, who attended the opening with his young daughter. "I'm happy now that I'm seeing mothers with strollers and children roaming through the place."

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David Leinster, a landscape architect with The Planning Partnership who conceptualized Underpass Park along with urban design firm Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, said the space was meant to make the neighbourhood feel more accessible, to lighten the area beneath the highway and draw people from one side to the other.

"It's amazing seeing it come to realization," he said. "This area has been so under-serviced, it's in a real transition into a mixed use community."

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