Private donations for Don River Valley Park could be 'blueprint' for future parks, mayor says

Philanthropist Andy Chisholm is investing in a public park for the first time, and he couldn't be prouder.

Philanthropists donate $3.5 million to help city develop park in Don Valley

Andy Chisholm is one of six major private-sector donors who raised $3.5 million for the Don River Valley Park. (Chris Glover/CBC)

Mayor John Tory introduced six donors Tuesday who have given a combined $3.5 million to help the city develop the first phase of Don River Valley Park — a move the Toronto's mayor says could be a "big blueprint" for developing parks in the future.

Philanthropist Andy Chisholm — along with his wife Laurie — is investing in a public park for the first time, and he couldn't be prouder.

"My wife has always been a strong advocate, with myself, of these natural spaces and this felt like a good way to invest in that," Chisholm said. 

The other major investments come from Frances and Tim Price, the Jackman Family, Judy and Wilmot Matthews, Senator Michael Meighen and his wife Kelly, and Trans Canada Trails.

CBC Toronto was the first to report Toronto's mayor would make Tuesday's announcement.

The private money will help convert the largely untapped stretch of urban valley between Corktown Common and the Evergreen Brick Works into a seven-kilometre network of hiking and cycling trails.

The Don River Valley Park project aims to create a green space spanning from Evergreen Brick Works to the mouth of the Don River. (CBC)

The private donation drive could mark a shift in the way Toronto's wealthiest families donate. 

Traditionally, hospitals and cultural and educational institutions have received the lion's share of private money. 

'We need to take the momentum'

"I would like to believe that this can be a great success and that off the back of that there will be many other groups of people that might come together," said Chisholm.

"I wouldn't want to add pressure. I simply want to point them to the opportunity where... public space, is something that can be meaningful and can make a great advance for the city and be something to be really proud of." 

The donations raised by Chisholm and the others came together over the course of the last couple years, he said. 

"There's always a sense of impatience or urgency coming from the business community one would like to impart, but the realities are the realities. Having said that, we need to take the momentum and make this a real thing."

The Don River Valley Park will be larger than High Park and the second largest park in the city, behind Rouge Park, which covers about 5,000 hectares. (Evergreen Brick Works)

Toronto's mayor wanted to make the announcement now because he said the fundraising effort had achieved a good portion of its $5 million dollar goal for the park. The mayor's office says the city has already spent $18 million since 2012 to develop the park.

Tory said he brought together the 12 richest families two weeks ago at City Hall to push them to consider parks like the Don River Valley Park and Rail Deck Park, a proposal to build a park high above the railway lands between Bathurst Street and the Rogers Centre.

When Tory unveiled the Rail Deck proposal this summer, the pricetag was estimated at more than $1 billion. 

"I expect this to be a big blueprint," Tory said.

He said he's confident wealthy potential donors "will respond and they'll do what other cities have done where there are lots of people who have wealth and they just haven't perhaps thought of the city and this kind a project where they should donate their money." 

Evergreen Brick Works in the Don River Valley has helped lead the fundraising campaign. 

Evergreen CEO, Geoff Cape, said the $3.5 million raised is already being used for design competitions and open houses. 

Mayor John Tory and Evergreen CEO Geoff Cape discuss the features the new Don Valley River Park will have.

"It's the catalyst. It's the idea that the citizens, the community of Toronto, is making a statement about why this is an important park and their putting their money where their mouth is," said Cape, who also believes this could be a turning point in the target of philanthropic dollars in Toronto. 

It's not the first urban public park that's been realized thanks to private donations in Toronto. The Bentway, to be built under the Gardiner Expressway, is being funded in part by Judy Matthews and her husband Wil, who also donated to the Don River Valley Park. 

"But what we haven't been really good at yet is investing in public space, the commons and other cities have been incredible," Cape said. 

He pointed to the High Line park in New York City that relied heavily on private donations.