Mayor John Tory is pitching a new approach to building a signature Rail Deck Park that he says would deliver more park sooner to downtown residents and tourists, by moving ahead on the city’s acquisition of air rights along the rail corridor.
He is backing a report from the deputy city manager that recommends council give city staff the authority to expropriate air space above the train tracks so that park construction can be timed to coincide with Metrolinx’s GO electrification and expansion in that area in 2022.
It would also mean that the first four acres of the city’s Rail Deck Park would run contiguously into another three-acre, privately owned publicly accessible park — part of a $3.5-billion mixed-use development by Oxford Properties. That project, north of Rogers Centre and the CN Tower, includes a three-acre park accessible at grade with two acres atop the rail corridor.
That would put it immediately across the street from the eastern end of Rail Deck Park, according to a report obtained by the Star that goes before the city’s executive committee next Thursday.
It recommends negotiations continue with the developer owners of the air rights. But if those fail, the city would move to expropriate the rights over a three-acre parcel between Spadina Avenue and Blue Jays Way, south of Front Street West.
Obtaining those air rights would be “the most tangible evidence we’ve had so far that we will be able to move ahead with this process,” Tory said.
“At the end of it you’re going to own some of the real estate/air rights necessary to proceed with the first phase of the park,” he said. “If you don’t have the real estate it doesn’t mean much.”
Discussion of the Rail Deck Park always envisioned it as a phased project, said Coun. Joe Cressy (Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York). But construction was initially expected to begin west of Spadina Avenue.
Because of the negotiations over air rights, city officials have been reluctant to assign a timeline to the first phase of the park. But aligning it with the Metrolinx project means construction could start in 2022, he said.
The completed park would be about 23 acres near major attractions such as Ripley’s Aquarium, the Rogers Centre and Fort York, and has been estimated to cost up to $1.7 billion.
Both Tory and Cressy said the city’s Parkland Acquisition Reserve would help pay for the project. Cressy said there is about $211 million in that fund that can only be used for park development, most of it paid for by downtown development.
The city has been negotiating for the air rights to the park with Craft Acquisitions, which applied to build condos in that space. It was appealing the city’s 2018 refusal of its development application. But the province’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal has already ruled that protecting the space over the rail corridor as parkland represents good planning policy. Craft’s appeal of their development application has not yet been heard at the tribunal.
Neither Tory nor Cressy would speculate on the worth of the air rights. But Cressy said it would be significantly less than the cost of an acre of land downtown that goes for between $70 million and $100 million. He said the final cost of the first phase of the Rail Deck Park will be reported back to the city in the third quarter of this year.
Rail Deck Park would provide a back yard for one of the fastest growing neighbourhoods in North America and one of the city’s most underserved communities in terms of recreational space, according to Tory. He called it an opportunity to create an iconic park similar to Chicago’s Millenium Park or New York’s High Line that would be a destination for residents across the city and from all over the world.
“It will be a big city attraction so people will come here year-round to participate in activities because it’s such an extraordinary park in an extraordinary location and it will become an extraordinary tourist attraction,” he said.
Cressy called it a bold, creative project that Toronto needs and is ready to embrace.
“In downtown Toronto, not only are parks necessary, they’re desperately needed. You have to plan for the next 100 years,” he said.
When Oxford Properties announced its Union Park development last year, it said construction on its development could begin as soon as 2023.
Files from Jennifer Pagliaro
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski