The proposed Rail Deck Park could be our last big downtown park, and it's an opportunity we should seize.
Downtown Toronto has a parks problem. Neighbourhoods in the core have the lowest levels of parkland relative to population in the city. And with growth only increasing, this situation is going to get a whole lot worse if we don’t do something big. City Staff estimate that the population of downtown could nearly double to 475,000 people by 2041.
So we have thousands and thousands of new residents moving downtown with less and less land available to create new parks to serve those residents. And we certainly can’t create any new land, right?
Well, maybe we can.
Yesterday Mayor John Tory announced that the City is pursuing the idea of building a park over the rail corridor between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way, creating a new 8.5 hectare (21 acre) park in the heart of downtown and at the edge of some of the fastest-growing neighbourhoods in the city. For perspective, that’s like building a new Christie Pits Park.
It’s a big, ambitious, wild, kind-of-crazy idea. And it’s desperately needed.
Decking over the rail corridor to build a park is the only real opportunity left in downtown Toronto to create a new park of any substantial size.
As I wrote on my blog a few months ago, the challenges of finding new parkland in the downtown are huge. If you can even find a piece of land suitable for a new park (and that’s a big if), it’s unlikely the owner would sell to the City, which is obligated to offer only fair market value, when he or she knows that a real estate developer would pay much more. We are seeing that story play out with the parking lot identified in King-Spadina as a potential park site. The City is likely going to have to use its powers of expropriation if it wants to acquire the land.
Simply put, all the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Hell, even the medium-hanging fruit is gone.
And there are still many questions that need to be answered about the Rail Deck Park. How nicely will the railways play regarding the air rights that are needed to build over the corridor? Will councillors in non-downtown wards support the idea? How long will it take? And, likely the first one out of everyone’s mouth: how much is this sucker going to cost?
All good questions. Estimates from other parks built over rail corridors that the City supplied put the cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The high hundreds of millions. Make no mistake: this is going to be a costly park to build.
Toronto does have a mechanism to pay for new parks by harnassing the incredible development in our city. Section 42 of the Planning Act gives the City the power to essentially extract money from new developments to buy parkland. Just between 2012 and 2014, the three downtown wards (20, 27, and 28) pulled in $128 million dollars in park levies. This mechanism won’t be enough to pay for the Rail Deck Park on its own, but it’s a good source of dedicated park funding that’s tied to our city’s super-charged growth.
It’s also important to remember that while this new park would sit downtown, it has the potential to become a new signature site for the entire city to enjoy. Think Central Park in New York. Or Millenium Park in Chicago. Or even High Park in Toronto. Those parks are beloved and treasured by more than just those who live around their edges. Similarly, the Rail Deck Park must be for the whole city—not just for those living in the condos overlooking the tracks.
Some have criticized the proposal by saying that at this stage it’s merely an idea. A twinkle in our eye. That is true. But all ambitious projects start out that way. The High Line in New York was the eye-twinkle of two residents who fought New York City Hall—which wanted to tear the elevated rail structure down—and captured the imagination of the city in the process. And we all know how that story turned out. You’d practically be arrested if you went to New York and decided not to visit the High Line now.
I really believe that now is the right time to push an idea as big as decking over the rail corridor to make a new park. With projects like the Bentway (formerly the Under Gardiner), the drive to create a new park in King-Spadina, and Park People’s Green Line idea, we’re seeing a new, creative—and strong—focus on public space in our city that we simply haven’t seen before.
I’m excited. I’m pumped. Dare I say, I’m hopeful?
Jake Tobin Garrett is a former Torontoist contributor. He is the Manager of Policy and Research at Park People.