Toronto

Toronto to get expert advice on Rail Deck Park at urban planning conference

City's chief planner says project has potential to 'completely transform' downtown core

Downtown tracks for rail deck park

The park would cover these tracks. The idea to cover the rail corridor is not a new one. In fact, it dates back decades. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

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Toronto will get some expert advice on how to turn its Rail Deck Park vision into reality this week.

Mayor John Tory is set to introduce a Tuesday panel discussion at the Electric Cities Symposium featuring experts from Boston, New York, Chicago and Amsterdam who have experience in turning industrial land into iconic public parks.

Tory unveiled plans for the 8.5-hectare Rail Deck Park last summer and city staff are currently working on a more detailed design. One day, it could span the downtown rail corridor west of Union Station, from Blue Jays Way all the way to Bathurst Street.

"This is going to completely transform how we experience the core of the city," said Toronto's Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who will moderate the panel.

"Most of us can't even conceptualize what it will be like to no longer have this massive barrier right in the heart of a very dense part of the city."

Deck

Boston's Jesse Brackenbury says Toronto would enjoy many benefits from building the park, but it should plan for the maintenance costs as well. (Jennifer Keesmaat/Twitter)

Keesmaat says with the Rail Deck project so far in the future, she's interested in hearing about the challenges other planners faced along the way.

Mind the maintenance costs, Boston expert says

Jesse Brackenbury, who will be part of Tuesday's talk, heads the organization responsible for taking care of Boston's Greenway, the 2.4-kilometre long string of parks built above a buried freeway, where spring flowers are blooming over the land once home to the "big dig."

Brackenbury, a self-described "parkie" who grew up playing in Manhattan's famous Central Park, says this city has plenty to think about.

There are small details, he says, like making sure there's space to store everything needed to maintain the park. There's also programming to consider (the Greenway has over 400 free events every year) and there's the money question.

"Despite the fact that everybody loves the park … there's an ongoing conversation about the sustainability of the public funds for it," he told CBC Toronto.

Aerial Sculpture

Boston's Greenway, built atop a busy underground freeway, features public art and more than 400 events every year. (Steven Senne/The Associated Press)

While the park has been a huge asset for Boston and driven up the price of properties near it, the constant rattle from the highway below poses some unique maintenance issues.

"It's expensive to take care of," Brackenbury said.

He recommends the city look at establishing a business improvement district, so some of the money generated by people visiting the area goes back into the park.

That said, he's also got this advice for Toronto: "go for it."

Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents the ward where the park would be built, said this represents the "last chance" to build a signature park downtown — a key ingredient in fostering a sense of neighbourhood among the highrises that keep going up in the area.

"The land isn't there to simply build a ginormous new park," he said.

"We need to find those underutilized spaces. That's what other great cities have done, and that's what Toronto needs to do."

Cressy says he's hoping Toronto will be able to improve on the work of other cities with similar parks, while avoiding the problems they've encountered.

More details coming this fall

City staff are set to present a more detailed report on Rail Deck Park by the fall, which could include an updated cost estimate — the initial pricetag was just over $1 billion.

Both Keesmaat and Cressy admit it's expensive, but point out the city already has $350 million it's raised from developers that's earmarked to building park space.

Keesmaat said the city should hold off putting a price on the project until there's a clearer picture of the design and how long that will take.

"It will never be cheaper to do than right now," she said.

Cressy echoed the desire to see the park get built.

"We needed a park of this type yesterday," he said.

"If we could build it tomorrow I'd be out there today with a hammer and a ladder."

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