Concerns About the Rail Deck Park

I love the idea of the Rail Deck Park, a plan to deck over the railway corridor from Blue Jays Way to Bathurst and build a park on it. At 21 acres it would be the largest new park to open in Toronto since Downsview Park in 1999 and a vital infusion of green space in the already under-parked and ever intensifying Downtown Toronto. But when you look into its impact on other parks, how to pay for it, and how the idea originated, the lustre on the Rail Deck Park starts to fade.

The moment of inception for capital projects is usually not hard to trace; a report identifying a need, a milestone reached and the need to make a decision, etc. Not so with Rail Deck. One day it was nothing, the next day John Tory announced it; a fait accompli. But before work started on the park proposal there was the condo proposal.

A private development group made an agreement with the private owners of the site where the park is to be; the city does not own the place where the park is supposed to go. The purchase agreement is conditional on getting zoning and planning approvals to build a number of buildings along the site and the development group did just that.

Development applications, particularly for projects the size of the one proposed for the site by the private developers, can take years to prepare and there is often informal communication between the applicant and city staff to ensure minor issues are addressed before submission.

What an incredible coincidence that at the same time a development group is preparing an application for submission to the city that John Tory’s office is also working on a plan to build a park on the very same site.

When John Tory made his announcement the only details he could provide was a cost estimate based on a passingly similar project in Chicago, a picture, and a promise that staff would compile a preliminary report to be considered later. There is no evidence that John Tory’s office did any substantive research into the proposal, besides creating talking points and visuals to accompany Tory at his press conference prior to his announcement. If Tory’s office worked a week on the proposal I would be surprised.

John Tory has a personal political interest in ensuring for his legacy that the development proposal does not proceed. Tory has the means to whip council to deny the necessary zoning changes to ensure the purchase agreement cannot be completed.

If (when) the planning submission is denied as John Tory is “hoping” for it will be interesting to see the OMB appeal, even more interesting if it ends up as an early test case in a post-reform OMB or Local Planning Appeals Body.

More than a year later the “early estimated cost” for the park is $1.05 billion and staff are hardly confident in that number, indicating the estimate doesn’t include “the cost to buy the air rights over the rail corridor, fees for any track relocation or contingency costs”. So how will the city pay for it?

Toronto maintains several buckets of funds to develop and renovate parks at the ward, district, and city-wide levels. The funds are derived from community benefit agreements with developers as part of the provincially mandated development process.

As of April 3, 2017 the city had $180 million of uncommitted funds available for parkland acquisition and projected taking in another $200 million over the next five years. 100% of Toronto’s parkland acquisition funds would be needed as well as 100% of all future funds for the next 20 years would be needed to pay for the current estimate.

This is already having an impact on other new parks. A proposal for a desperately needed new park at 229 Richmond St. W. has stalled because of the uncertainty over whether there will be any funds left for other new parks in the city. Meanwhile suburban councillors are crying foul at the prospect of virtually the whole city’s parkland acquisition funds being used on one park downtown.  There is also little discussion of other new parks across the city because all of the oxygen has been sucked out of the room.

While the private development group proposes eight towers, about 60% of the site would become public parkland; with no cost to the city. Seven of the eight towers would be condominiums injecting a desperately needed supply of housing for Toronto’s rapidly growing population.

I think there is no question that everyone would prefer the Rail Deck Park be built. But needing to sacrifice other parks, no way to pay for it, and with a history shrouded in mystery and intrigue the Rail Deck Park leaves much to be concerned about.