Toronto

Public-private partnership an option to finance Rail Deck Park, U.S. designer says

A public-private partnership could be just one option for funding the construction, operation and maintenance of Toronto's Rail Deck Park, says a man who helped design New York City's High Line Park.

A designer who helped create High Line Park in New York says P3s helped build that project

Rail Deck Park could cost more than $1-billion, and that doesn't take into account the "air rights" that railway companies claim they have over the space above the tracks, where the park will go. (Jennifer Keesmaat/Twitter)

A public-private partnership could be just one option for funding the construction, operation and maintenance of Toronto's Rail Deck Park, says a man who works on design and planning for New York City's High Line Park.

"What we are seeing is there's a real need for public open space and the need is more urgent than cities can act," said Adam Ganser, vice president of planning and design for Friends of the High Line. 

Closed in 1980, the High Line elevated freight train track used to carry goods from Manhattan's largest industrial district. After sitting derelict for decades it's now a vibrant 2.3-kilometre-long urban public park that's a popular destination for visitors and locals.

"Particularly in urban areas you are seeing a reliance on public-private partnerships to get them done," Ganser said.

The debate about how to pay for public amenities in Toronto intensified this past summer when Mayor John Tory unveiled the proposal for Rail Deck Park — a 8.4-hectare green space that would be built over the waterfront rail corridor from Bathurst Street to Blue Jays Way.

So far, there's no plan to meet the pricetag, which could be as much as $1.05 billion, even without factoring the cost of air rights over the railway corridor.  Last month, city council unanimously approved $2.4 million for design work.

A view of the tracks as they look now, facing east from Bathurst Street. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

Ganser says $190 million US has been spent so far on the High Line project. He expects costs to be as high as $225 million US when the park is complete. 

Much of the project was funded by the City of New York. In addition, "development rights were purchased from the city and that money was earmarked for the capital project," said Ganser. He describes the funds as "basically a development fee per square foot that was put into the construction of the High Line."

But while the park is owned by the city of New York, it's maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy which also oversees public programs offered in the park.

High Line Park is a vibrant 2.3-kilometre-long urban public park that's a popular destination for visitors and locals in New York City. (TimeOut New York)

While city, state and federal money helped fund construction, Friends of the High Line privately raises 98 per cent of the park's annual operating budget. A fundraiser held in the spring brought in $3.6 million US, which was a record for the group.

This kind of public-private partnership, or P3 for short, has been used in a number of large park mega-projects similar to Rail Deck Park.

Ganser said there are private-public partnership parks of the same scale in the U.S. that are comparable to what Toronto has proposed. Klyde Warren Park in Dallas was built over over an eight-lane freeway. The Rose Kennedy Greenway is the park Boston created when it buried its equivalent of the Gardiner Expressway during a construction project dubbed "The Big Dig." Both are private-public partnership parks.

"You see this in a lot of cities in the United States," said Ganser. " There are pros and cons around it. There's an argument that you want cities through the tax system to be taking care of the public assets."

Some critics have called the underwriting of America's urban parks the privatization of public space. But this kind of partnership isn't just used in the U.S. 

Ganser pointed to the Toronto's Bentway urban park under the Gardiner Expressway as an example of a P3 park.

Summertime in the proposed $25-million Under Gardiner park, as imagined by an artist. (undergardiner.com)

The Bentway, formerly known as Project: Under Gardiner, will use public land running from the foot of Spadina Avenue past Garrison Common and Fort York to Strachan Avenue.  When the public park opens next year it will be run by the Bentway Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization. 

But Gail Dexter Lord thinks P3 funding is just part of the funding solution. The co-president of Lord Cultural Resources helped set up the Bentway Conservatory and suggests that those who live near amenities like parks, museums and libraries should recogize that these improve their neighbourhoods and pay accordingly.

"Seventy-thousand people live along The Bentway. So this is a wonderful benefit and they deserve it and goodness knows they need it," said Lord. "But there should be a mechanism for those who are owners certainly, because the Bentway is going to increase the value of their properties, that they can contribute to it."

Lord, an expert on planning and cultural institutions, said that this type of funding should extend beyond parks to other public facilities that enhances a neighbourhood's desirability and, therefore, its resale value. 

Those fees could help offset the cost of building and maintaining such projects as Rail Deck Park, she said.

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