Joe Cressy: Why Toronto Should Invest in Rail Deck Park
The Ward 20 councillor argues for addressing the downtown parks deficiency with a signature project.
A central park over the rail corridor in downtown Toronto. It’s an idea whose time has come. Now, all we need is a little creativity, political will, and a commitment from City Council to invest significant money to make it happen. Let’s get it done.
Last month, I joined Mayor Tory to announce our intention to deck the rail corridor between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way to build a new 8.5-hectare signature park. That’s the size of Christie Pits Park. Or, put another way, 16 full-size football fields. This will be a new central park for all of Toronto—a destination for residents and visitors from across our city.
On September 22, Toronto’s Executive Committee will debate City staff recommendations to proceed with Rail Deck Park and allocate $2.4 million to do the necessary planning, design, and structural work to get it started. The project is well worth the investment.
Now, why is a new signature park in downtown Toronto needed? Well, it starts with liveability. Public spaces—parks and community facilities—make our neighbourhoods liveable. For residents and families in downtown, parkland is not only critical, it is desperately needed.
Over the next 25 years, the population of downtown Toronto is expected to double to nearly 500,000 people. And in the local neighbourhood where Rail Deck Park will be located, the population has already grown from 945 people in 1996 to nearly 40,000 residents today. The numbers are astounding. Unfortunately, the development of new parkland has not kept pace with this growth. In fact, downtown Toronto already suffers from parkland deficiency, and without action, it will only get worse in the future.
The reality for many downtown residents, especially those living in condo towers, is that the park becomes your backyard. The local community centre becomes your play room. It’s these public spaces that make our neighbourhoods liveable.
However, Rail Deck Park will be more than a neighbourhood park. It will serve downtown residents, the nearly 350,000 people who work downtown every weekday, and millions of tourists. It will be a new central destination for all of Toronto.
Decking the rail corridor—literally building a structure in the air for a park—will not be easy. But it is possible. Cities around the world have proven that it can be done— Millennium Park in Chicago, Federation Square in Melbourne, and Hudson Yards in New York have already shown us the way. In each case, a little creativity and political will made it happen.
As our city continues to grow, we have to be more creative about how we build public spaces and parks. There simply is not 8.5 hectares of land waiting to be bought or assembled in downtown Toronto. The only way we can create new signature public spaces is by thinking outside the box. Decking the rail corridor, just like building the Bentway under the Gardiner, is the type of new thinking we need.
Since the Rail Deck Park plan was announced last month, the overwhelming responsive I’ve heard has been positive, but also understandably skeptical. How much will it cost? Will it happen in my lifetime? Will City Council really vote to spend significant money for a park in downtown?
Let’s be clear, building this park will require a significant investment, but in the context of the cost of land in downtown Toronto, it is an effective use of public funds. The City of Toronto collects funds from developers to acquire parkland. These funds—under Section 42 of the Planning Act—can only be spent on one thing: buying parkland. In downtown Toronto the going cost of one acre of land is in the $50-$70 million range. By purchasing the air rights over the rail corridor and building above it, we can reduce that per-acre cost.
Other sources of funding will certainly be required. Development Charges, capital budget prioritization, and other levels of government, to name a few. But in Toronto, growth must pay for growth. Downtown Toronto currently has 40 per cent of the entire City’s residential development and 43 per cent of the City’s non-residential development. It’s time to invest funds derived from growth in the city’s growth areas.
That’s not to say this will be cheap. Anything but. But for too long, big public space ideas in Toronto have fallen on the floor of a nickel-and-diming City Hall. In this case, Mayor Tory and I have teamed up to make this project a reality. Together, we intend to build the political support at City Hall and within the other levels of government to make it happen.
Rail Deck Park won’t happen overnight. It will take years. But, it is exactly the type of big thinking Toronto is ready for. Let’s get it done.
Joe Cressy is the City Councillor for Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina. A version of this op-ed will appear in print in the Annex Gleaner.