rail-deck-park-toronto-3 Rendering: City of Toronto

If building a 21-acre park on a gigantic deck across a busy downtown rail corridor sounds expensive, it is. But Toronto’s chief planner says the high cost of real estate in the city makes doing so “cost competitive” with creating a similarly sized park elsewhere downtown.

“It’s actually not [expensive] in comparison to land values,” says Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, referring to a recently announced proposal for an elevated park above Toronto’s Union Station Rail Corridor.

“Imagine if we were to assemble this land at $50 million an acre,” Keesmaat tells BuzzBuzzNews, suggesting the cost would run over $1 billion for the acreage. One acre of land downtown cost $15 to 16 million a decade ago, she says. Today, it has ballooned to $50 to $60 million.

rail-deck-park-toronto-before Image: City of Toronto

There are several sources Toronto could tap to pay for a the proposed Rail Deck Park, Keesmaat highlights. “The good thing is, unlike a lot of other infrastructure projects that we have where we don’t have a funding source, there’s a variety of funding sources that we do have for parks in the city,” says Keesmaat. “We’re like five steps ahead of where we normally are,” she explains.

If built, the proposed park would run parallel to Front Street from Blue Jays Way by the Rogers Centre to Bathurst Street to the west. Ballparking the cost of such a project is a challenge, says Keesmaat, who highlights how the timeline complicates matters. “Are we talking about 2016 dollars or are we talking about 2026 dollars?” she says. “It’s difficult to talk about these numbers in the abstract.”

Some of the channels the City could use to potentially pay for it are clearer. Specifically, Keesmaat highlights sections 37 and 42 of the Planning Act, through which the municipality can get money from developers to put towards park space. There is a development levy for parks in particular as well. “We also do have the authority at the City to put in special [development] charges,” Keesmaat adds.

Councillor Joe Cressy, who was on hand when Mayor John Tory announced the Rail Deck Park plans last week, says provincial and federal money could also be part of the funding equation, CBC reports. “Far too often in the past these great projects get tied up in a quick discussion of nickel and diming them and they don’t get done,” Cressy said. “We know it will not be cheap, that’s clear, and it’s going to take years,” the Ward 20 councillor tells CBC.

rail-deck-park-toronto-2 Image: City of Toronto

Keesmaat says the Rail Deck Park, which would rise at least 27 feet above the tracks (that’s the point where air rights the City needs to secure from CN and CP begin), could benefit from private donations. “This is the kind of park that is redefining of a city in many ways,” says Keesmaat, who notes it “might catch the imaginations of some philanthropists.”

It wouldn’t be the first time public space in Toronto has been supported this way. Last November, Judy and Wilmont Matthews, a wealthy Toronto couple, pledged $25 million to create what has come to be called The Bentway. That project will transform 1.75 kilometres beneath the Gardiner Expressway into an “urban trail.”

The Rail Deck Park would be on a much larger scale both in size and budget. While no official number has been released — the City is preparing a report for September 22nd that will contain more details — Chicago’s roughly 24-acre Millennium Park, completed in 2004, cost $475 million. Already, comparisons have been drawn between the two: they are similar in size and both bridge train tracks.

In addition to obtaining air rights, the City needs to have the space zoned as a park before it can move forward with the ambitious plan, which Keesmaat calls “a fiscally prudent approach” given the cost of prime real estate.

45-141-bay-street Rendering: Ivanhoé Cambridge

A one-acre park set to bridge a portion of the corridor further to the east could provide some insight as to how to approach the Rail Deck Park proposal. This much smaller park is part of an office and transit development at 45-141 Bay Street from builder Ivanhoé Cambridge and Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency for the GTA.

The project, currently working its way through the City’s approvals process, should be finished in the next four to five years — in time for the city to learn lessons from it. “That’ll be a really important case study in terms of the complexity and cost,” says Keesmaat.

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