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Planning for Downtown Toronto Rail Deck Park passes major hurdle

Group of young students propose ideas for Toronto’s Rail Deck Park
WATCH ABOVE: A group of eight- and nine-year-old students from Orde Park Public School appeared before City of Toronto’s Executive Committee on Thursday to make some suggestions on what they would like to be included at Rail Deck Park, a proposed greenspace over the Union Station Rail Corridor. (Jan. 23)

Toronto city council has voted in favour of moving onto the next steps necessary to secure a portion of the area needed to build a massive park over existing train tracks in the city’s downtown core.

The park was first proposed 2016 and after council direction, planning has been underway ever since. If ultimately approved, Rail Deck Park will see infrastructure built over the active rail corridor in front of Front Street between Bathurst Street and Blue Jays Way.

The massive undertaking would change the face of downtown Toronto. Along with adding much-needed greenspace for current concrete-bound residents, it’s also touted as becoming a major tourist destination.

READ MORE: Students pitch ideas for proposed Rail Deck Park to Toronto mayor, councillors

Before construction can begin, the City of Toronto first needs to gain ownership of the space above the tracks. Currently the majority of air rights over the tracks, between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue, is owned by Craft-Kingsmen Rail Corporation.

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On Wednesday, city council focused on a three-acre section of air rights between Blue Jays Way and Spadina Avenue. That area, which represents the first phase of the park project, is owned by CN and Toronto Terminals Railway. Council voted in favour of seeking an agreement to either buy those air rights for fair market value, and failing that to expropriate the land.

The City has been in negotiations to purchase the remaining air rights from Craft-Kingsmen Corporation. But those discussions have been at an impasse over a disagreement between the City and the developers over the price.

“We would like to take one more try at negotiating first because that’s always the preferable way to proceed with projects like this,” said Mayor John Tory ahead of Wednesday’s council meeting.

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Tory said while the developers may want to build condos in the region, the City has different priorities.

“At the end of the day, they’re in the business of building condos,” said Tory.

“I’m in the business of seeing that we try to build a truly remarkable park.”

Craft-Kingsmen sent a letter to the City Tuesday evening, offering several options to come to an agreement with the City. Among those options was an offer to lease their air rights to the City for $25 million a year or to sell those rights to the City for $340 million.

READ MORE: City report puts price tag for Toronto’s proposed Rail Deck Park at $1.6B

Craft-Kingsman’s offer follows a contentious appearance of their lawyer at last week’s executive committee meeting.

Ira Kagan expressed frustration at city hall’s slow progress in approving plans for the park, which he said was costing his clients potential revenues.

He also said Craft-Kingsmen was always open to selling the air rights to the City, which several members of council disputed.

“It’s fascinating to me that only when we mention that we’re prepared to proceed ahead with an expropriation,” said Tory.

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“Now all of a sudden we have all kinds of proposals from them.”

READ MORE: Proposed Rail Deck Park clears first hurdle at Toronto city council

Coun. Joe Cressy, whose riding encompasses the future footprint of the park, wouldn’t say how much the city may be willing to offer the company for the air rights.

“When it comes to the negotiation of financial figures, that’s something that’s done in confidence,” he said.

“We’ve spent the last three years with our vision for a new ‘Central Park’ for all of Toronto and we haven’t been able to come to a resolution on the negotiated price.”

Cressy said if an agreement can’t be made, the City will pay fair market value for the air rights.

He said with the City committing to this step, construction on the rail deck park can begin by 2022.