Like many other advocates for more green space in Toronto, I was initially thrilled to hear about the proposed Rail Deck park. Amongst other public officials, our mayor is quick to sell the park as a legacy project for our current council. Selling it as a much needed green space in the rising density and concrete jungle of the downtown core, and a worthwhile investment (acknowledging the hefty $1.05 billion initial estimate). But the factors around this proposal that point to its feasibility merit a second look, first and foremost because most people think the park has already been given a green light. Far from it. In fact, council is currently engaged in lengthy deliberation on the matter.
For those not aware of the project, the city of Toronto recently tabled a proposal to cover the rail corridor from Bathurst Street to Blue Jays Way with a park spanning 21 acres. This would be the largest park in the downtown core and would hide the unfortunate eyesore that is the rail corridor. So is this park likely to happen? With the mayor’s executive committee voting unanimously to start consulting work to address the concept of this park, the answer is seemingly a yes. But a quick look at some facts and figures may deflate one’s hopes.
The truth about infrastructure projects in our city is that they suffer from a chronic lack of funding. The 2016 Toronto Budget plan shows more than $22 billion (City of Toronto, 2016) in unfunded capital projects; this city is overturning every couch cushion to find spare change. The report warns of a potential increase in property tax to fund infrastructure projects including worrying backlogs in Toronto Community Housing repairs and revitalization. Add the uncertainty about funding the Rail Deck park to the list behind the Downtown Relief Line from Pape to St. Andrew stations and the Lower Don Flood Protection project and the cases pile up. The City of Toronto is living the classic university student life; can’t have fun without money.
Not to dampen your hopes even more, but the city also doesn’t own the air rights over the rail corridor; an essential piece to this expensive puzzle. Air rights are the rights that classify, well, the air above a property. The owner of a property in Ontario typically has the right to the space above and below the property - both of which can be sold for projects like these that require either space.
Now to be fair, a lot of the air rights over the concerned space are owned by Canadian National (CN) Rail and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. The city has ensured reporters and Torontonians that talks are going smoothly to sell the rights to the city, but more work needs to be done to ensure the park’s legality. What the City has yet to mention the fact that another consortium of developers already own rights over the proposed park space.
In an interview given to the Toronto Star, Matthew Castelli, a developer who admits he is part of the consortium, claims the City is fully aware of other owners. “They’ve got evidence of it. They’re fully aware,” says Castelli. He declined to provide the terms of his group’s ownership of the air rights. With other actors involved and the project hinging on the rights to this land, the city has more obstacles to overcome.
So let’s move past the naive excitement this proposal has stirred. One thing is sure; this project is far from finalized. Funding and air rights, two factors crucial to the project’s development, both remain uncertain. Still, the promise of what would be Toronto’s biggest downtown green space keeps me searching for positive news. This project has united councillors across the classic Old Toronto/Postwar suburb divide, and with preliminary results of council deliberation due for early to mid-October, new events could give a fresh perspective on a promising infrastructure project.
(Source: Executive Committee. 2016 Executive Committee Recommended Operating Budget & 2016‐2025 Capital Budget & Plan. N.p.: City of Toronto, 12 Feb. 2016. PDF.)