Spotlight: City Council Approves 21 Acre Rail Deck Park Downtown - Now How Does it Become Reality?

Rail Deck Park Conceptual Rendering - Bird's Eye View

Rail Deck Park Conceptual Rendering - Bird's Eye View

Since the 2016 proposal for a 21 acre park overtop the downtown rail-deck, Toronto has rallied in support to develop more green space in the downtown core. Finally, after months in review, the final proposal was presented on November 28th, and the city council approved the plan, with a 36-to-4 vote on December 5th.

Potentially one of the most ambitious planning schemes yet, even when compared to the 18 acre Corktown park and the near-completed Bentway, the Rail Deck Park has the opportunity to completely transform Toronto’s downtown core.

To recap the proposed plan, the Rail Deck Park will span overtop the existing railway corridor between Blue Jays Way and Bathurst.

 
Rail Deck Park Study Area

Rail Deck Park Study Area

 

Not only would the park provide more green space for downtown residents currently gridlocked in concrete, it would ultimately offer a space for the whole city to enjoy. This project embodies a vision to grow our city in ways aside from real estate and office towers; it’s a chance to reclaim an under-utilized part of the city and provide it with a social purpose. As Toronto grows and densifies, with more people living and working in the core, it’s important for us to develop public spaces that promote a diverse and well rounded city.

A before and after shot of Rail Deck Park (courtesy of PUBLIC WORK)

A before and after shot of Rail Deck Park (courtesy of PUBLIC WORK)

At this point, only 5% of the project has been planned, and that 5% has produced an estimated cost of $1.7 Billion to complete the project. Being so early-on in the process, that amount is almost guaranteed to drastically increase. The magnitude of the project can be better understood when compared to the Bentway. While it’s another creative project to transform space, the entire project has been supported by the $25 million donation from philanthropists Wilmot and Judy Matthews.

The difference though, is that the Rail Deck Park isn’t about revitalizing an existing plot, it’s about building a 21 acre platform in the air, above the railroad, from scratch. Needless to say, it’s on a different scale.

The substantial funding required to accomplish this has some agitated. GTA groups and councillors state that resources should be spread across the city equally, especially considering the work required at many of the existing parks in Toronto.

At this point, there is little response from the city as to where the funds will come from. One suggested solution, is to award higher density allowance to developers in the area, in exchange for additional development fees that will go to the park.  This is an interesting idea, and it applies the cost to surrounding areas that will use it most. However, the reality is that those charges will undoubtedly be passed on to the end-user, perpetuating housing affordability problems, and there simply isn't enough developable land left to raise a significant portion of the cost

 

So what are other funding options?

A possibility that quickly came to mind was the Infrastructure Bank. While a relatively new model, the mandate for the bank includes:

  • Green infrastructure ($6 Billion in the next 4 years, and $20 Billion over 10 years)

  • Social Infrastructure ($20 Billion over 10 years)

  • Public Transit Infrastructure

It’s obvious that the Rail Deck Park project fits within their outlined objectives, as well as meets their spending criteria. A key issue however, is the infrastructure bank only invests in revenue generating projects - a potentially huge conflict with the fundamental purpose of the park.

A key role for the rail deck park should be that it’s for the public and for the benefit of Torontonians. The Rail Deck Park has the opportunity to be a cultural centre for the city promoting the convergence of all the diversity Toronto has to offer. Too much private involvement could stifle creativity. With that being said, I definitely believe a happy balance could be achieved.

Ways to monetize the park while maintaining its duty to the public, could be vendor/corporate events including farmers markets, arts and crafts bazaars, concerts and festivals that can rent the space for their event.

Another possibility, is to follow in the steps of the Millennium Park in Chicago. At the time, corporations and wealthy citizens offered $235 Million - nearly half the total cost - to fund the project.

The Rail Deck Park’s scale and central location presents an opportunity for the businesses and corporations downtown to get involved in a transformative project.

The purpose here is to create more public green space and simultaneously promote cultural and creative engagement between the members of our city. The reality is that there are many areas across the city that are underserved and in need of redevelopment and new infrastructure. It’s also true that the funding issues are the city are real, and the city has to decide where they put their money.

For the project to have the most success, a balance is going to have to be struck between all parties of the city; the private, public and philanthropic groups have a chance to come together to truly have an everlasting impact on the quality of our city.