Toronto may get a glorious 21 acre downtown park.

rail deck park
Public Domain City of Toronto

In Toronto, the Mayor John Tory and Councillor Joe Cressy just announced the creation of a 21 acre park, to be built over the existing rail corridor that separates Toronto from its waterfront. On the south edge of the corridor is a wall of condos, where the developers paid millions into a fund to create parks, while tens of thousands of residents moved in to the park-deficient district. Tory is quoted in a press release:

"Great cities have great parks. As Toronto grows, we need to take bold action to create public space and make sure we build a city that makes future generations proud,” said Mayor Tory. “This is our last chance to secure a piece of land that could transform the way we experience our city.”

Councillor Cressy discusses the growth and the need for more parks:

“More and more families are choosing to call downtown home, and they need somewhere to play with their kids, enjoy the outdoors and relax with friends," said Councillor Cressy. "Turning this underutilized part of our city into a beautiful and sustainable public space is truly a win-win."

reserved playgroundReserved lands in Toronto/Public Domain

That is all true, and this is fitting and appropriate; these lands, south of Front Street, were “reserved for a public pleasure ground.”

Howard drawingJohn Howard drawing/Public Domain

In 1852 the City Surveyor John Howard laid out a beautiful park there, complete with “pleasure drives, walks and shrubbery, for the recreation of the citizens.

waterfront toronto in the sixties© Chuckman Collection

But Toronto was always more about making money than recreation, so the railways stole it all and if they didn’t have enough, then they filled in the harbor to make more. It’s a city where they don’t like spending money on frills like pretty walkways.

site with bridgeLloyd Alter/ site of park with pedestrian bridge/CC BY 2.0

That’s why this announcement was such a surprise. My first reaction was that it will never happen in my lifetime; the railways are notoriously difficult to deal with, they held up construction of a simple pedestrian bridge for years. They own the air rights, now worth billions. The last time anyone proposed building on top of the tracks, it was a multi-billion buck scheme focused around a casino. This is for….a park? For downtown?

There was no funding for the project mentioned in the press release, in a city where Mayor Tory and the suburban councillors refuse to raise taxes and are cutting back on everything, even transit funding.

Toronto parkCity of Toronto/Public Domain

But in Spacing, John Lorinc describes how there has already been some serious thinking about how to pull this off.

The air rights, above the 27-foot level, belong to CN Rail, Toronto Terminals Railway and Metrolinx; city officials have determined that they can be acquired. But with developers actively exploring the possibility of privately buying air rights over the corridor, Cressy says council’s key move, when a staff report surfaces in September, will be to approve an official plan amendment designating the entire space above the tracks as open space.

raildeck nowCity of toronto/ Raildeck Park now/Public Domain

The OPA would vaporize those air rights, and no doubt the railways will fight it (more years). But it should be park land, it was promised as park land, and it’s right that it gets taken back. Lorinc concludes:

The Rail Deck Park proposal is a smart and far-sighted response to one of the increasingly severe symptoms of Toronto’s addiction to extreme intensification. As such, it holds out a glimmer of hope that those impersonal glass towers brimming with 600 sq.-ft shoebox units may someday evolve into stable communities, with all the broader social, economic and health benefits associated with such urban neighbourhoods.

This is Toronto, where every dream becomes a compromise. Perhaps this time things will be different.

Toronto may get a glorious 21 acre downtown park.
Stolen 150 years ago by the railways, it may be restored to its originally proposed use.

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