Rendering: City of Toronto

In August 2016, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced an ambitious plan to create a 21-acre park in the core of the city above the Union Station Rail Corridor. At a news conference near the proposed site, the mayor made the case for the Rail Deck Park project, flanked by Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, Ward 20 City Councillor Joe Cressy and Trinity-Spadina Member of Parliament Adam Vaughan, among others.

Although prominent leaders at several levels of government appeared with the mayor for the announcement, the park’s long term political viability remains unclear.

Tory did not provide an approximate cost during the August news conference, but since then it’s emerged that the park would cost at least an estimated $1.05 billion to build if the green space is to span from Blue Jays Way to Bathurst Street, as the mayor proposed. According to the Toronto Star, that estimate does not include the unknown cost of purchasing the air rights over the rail lands. To complicate matters further, last October, The Globe and Mail reported that the developer that had, years earlier, entered into an agreement of purchase and sale for the air rights over the rail corridor is set on developing the land and will not “roll over without a fight.”

A November Forum Research poll of Toronto residents found that 51 per cent of respondents supported the proposed park, even with the billion dollar price tag, while 38 per cent disapproved of the proposal. Using public funds to pay for the park’s construction received less support from Torontonians, with 46 per cent of respondents disagreeing that public money should be spent on the park.

City councillors representing Toronto’s outer suburbs have raised concerns over the potential impact that funding the Rail Deck Park would have on funding priorities in their own wards. At the 2016 Ford Fest in Etobicoke, former city councillor Doug Ford characterized the proposed park as a way to funnel public money downtown while ignoring the suburbs.

But for those who believe that the dearth of green space in Toronto’s core needs to be addressed, it’s difficult to overstate how important it is that the Rail Deck Park succeed.

“The rail corridor is the last opportunity to secure space for a major park in the Downtown area,” reads the conclusion of a city report published in September.

Rail Deck Park will be among the topics that are front and centre at the Urban Land Institute Toronto’s upcoming Electric Cities Symposium, set to be held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre over two days on April 24th and 25th. While the symposium will address a wide range of real estate, land development and city planning topics, the panel discussion centred on Rail Deck Park is receiving top billing from the event’s organizers (full disclosure: the author is a member of the ULI Toronto communications committee).

The discussion, scheduled for April 25th at noon, is titled From High-Line to Millennium Park: How Major Parks Transform the Urban Experience and will be moderated by Keesmaat, who has been an ardent supporter of the park proposal. The panel itself will include international figures involved in the execution and ongoing management of similar major public realm projects in New York City, Boston, Chicago and Amsterdam.

Mayor Tory will take the stage ahead of the discussion to provide opening remarks.

Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston, will appear on the panel to share his experience with the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a 17-acre linear park that spans several neighbourhoods in the core of the city.

As executive director, Brackenbury heads the private nonprofit that maintains, programs and improves the Greenway. Approximately 40 per cent of the Conservancy’s budget comes from the state government while the organization is responsible for fundraising the rest.

Boston Rose Kennedy Greenway 2

An aerial view of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. Photo: Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

It’s easy to see parallels between the issues that Boston faced and the public space and infrastructure challenges Toronto is currently grappling with in its downtown core and waterfront. Boston’s Greenway is situated on land created by the Big Dig, the massive infrastructure project that saw the elevated John F. Fitzgerald Expressway demolished and replaced by the O’Neill Tunnel to make up the Central Artery into downtown Boston.

Brackenbury, who joined the Conservancy in 2009 as chief operating officer, describes the former expressway as “an old rusting structure that kept people from the waterfront and divided neighbourhoods.”

The Greenway is about the width of a six-lane highway and spans 1.5 miles, winding through several central Boston neighbourhoods, including the Financial District, Chinatown and the North End.

According to Brackenbury, the Greenway was not met with immediate acclaim when it opened in 2008. Part of the initial sour reception can be chalked up to bad timing, with the park opening as the 2008 Financial Crisis was unfolding. However, Brackenbury says the criticism also stemmed from the controversy surrounding the Big Dig itself, which was considerably over-budget and finished far past the original proposed completion date. Negative feedback aimed at the Greenway’s design also played a role in shaping early public perception.

Thankfully public opinion has taken a major swing in the Greenway’s favour since it opened. Brackenbury says it’s partly a result of the passage of time that has allowed people to form an opinion of the Greenway that’s separate from their opinion on the Big Dig.

The Conservancy has also “brought the place alive,” in Brackenbury’s words. Over 400 free programs are now run in the Greenway annually and its Mobile Eats food vending program has earned widespread acclaim from local media. It’s also become a hub for public art, hosting temporary exhibitions of contemporary work in collaboration with major artists. Brackenbury adds that his team is currently evaluating proposals for Boston’s first beer garden to be held in the space this summer.

Boston Rose Kennedy Greenway

The Rings Fountain in Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway. Photo: Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

The public has since embraced the space. Trackable attendance, which Brackenbury says includes metrics such as event attendance, food purchases within the park and other countable actions, has gone from fewer than 100,000 in 2009 to nearly 1.4 million in 2016.

Despite the positive shift in public opinion, Brackenbury says funding the Greenway has continued to be “a significant ongoing topic of conversation” in city politics and is a year-to-year challenge. While it’s comparable to other signature parks in cities like New York and Houston, the space is expensive to maintain on a per acre basis when compared with other Boston public parks. Brackenbury says he plans on raising the issue of maintaining funding during the panel discussion at the ULI symposium.

And though Brackenbury admits that, when it comes to the Rail Deck Park proposal, he isn’t versed in the dynamics of Toronto’s own city council and the unique concerns of the residents they represent, he is able to provide some food for thought for those fretting over the potential cost of a signature park.

For one, he says signature parks are great economic drivers, pointing to Millennium Park, which instantly became one of the most visited attractions in Chicago, driving up surrounding property values and returning money “in spades.”

But beyond the economic argument, Brackenbury says a signature park represents an opportunity to create a great civic space that can become a point of pride for residents.

“Parks are a pretty inexpensive way to deliver substantial quality of life,” he says. “And signature parks are a terrific way to help pull disparate parts of the population together in a single place that they all can feel connected to.”

Later this month, Brackenbury will be joined on stage at the ULI Electric Cities Symposium by Daniel Jongtien, an architect with Amsterdam’s Benthem Crouwel Architects, Matt Neilson, the deputy commissioner at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events at Chicago’s Millennium Park and Jamie Torres Spring, senior principal at HR&A Advisors, a real estate consultancy that played an integral role in the transformation of Manhattan’s High Line.

In the panel moderated by Jennifer Keesmaat, all four participants will offer up knowledge gained from their experiences planning, executing, maintaining and improving major public realm projects. Their insights surely will be considered vital in guiding the discussion surrounding Toronto’s own Rail Deck Park.

To purchase tickets to the ULI Electric Cities Symposium, visit the ULI Toronto website or call 1 800 321 5011.

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