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Has COVID-19 changed Toronto’s priorities for Rail Deck Park? Not exactly

Renewed debate surrounding cost of Toronto’s Rail Deck Park
WATCH ABOVE: Toronto’s pandemic response has put a pause on plans to construct a downtown park over the Union Station Rail Corridor. Two groups have recently been questioning the validity of the project in the face of the city’s potentially-crippling financial woes. Matthew Bingley reports.

Two groups are publicly pointing to Toronto’s precarious fiscal situation as a reason not to proceed with the city’s Rail Deck Park.

The coronavirus pandemic has stalled progress on the city-led project which will see the construction of about 20-acres of green space over the Union Station Rail Corridor. In January, City Council voted to proceed with plans to acquire the air rights of about three acres between Spadina Avenue and Blue Jays Way.

But due to the provincial emergency order, a city spokesperson said the timelines for expropriation hearings have been suspended.

Read more: Planning for Downtown Toronto Rail Deck Park passes major hurdle

In late May, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) published a study that inflated the projected cost of the Rail Deck Park, from the city’s estimated $1.7 billion, to $3.8 billion.

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Its Ontario Director Jasmine Pickel said the study looked at the costs the city left out of its estimates, including consulting and engineering fees. “Essentially what we found is the city excluded a number of relevant cost factors,” she said.

“I’m not against parks,” said Pickel.“I think if they want to build this park, they need to be fully transparent with Torontonians about how much it’s going to cost.” Pickel also questioned why the city would be in favour of a single park when priorities such as housing and transit still need funding.

Mayor John Tory brushed aside criticism for the park and the CTF’s inflated price tag. “The cost estimate I tend to rely on for the moment, just because it’s the only one we had done by our public service, is a lot less than these other reports are suggesting,” said Tory.

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

Tory said the park will provide a long-term benefit to downtown residents, with the added benefit of drawing tourists. While expensive, he pointed to developer fees that have already been collected by the city for existing condo towers which were built without including park space.

“We collected money from those developers and have it available for that purpose, and so this was going to help address the parkland efficiency for all those tens of thousands who now live downtown,” said Tory.

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On the prospect of cancelling the park due to the pandemic, Tory said such a move would be similar to cancelling the city’s transit expansion. “In my view, we should proceed ahead with this, it’s a long-term decision,” he said.

Recently, targeted ads produced by a second critic, a group calling itself Priorities Matter Toronto, have been appearing citing the CTF’s inflated numbers. Calling it a “luxury park,” the group has spent more than $5,500 on Facebook ads arguing the money would be better spent in priority areas like transit or affordable housing.

Group of young students propose ideas for Toronto’s Rail Deck Park
Group of young students propose ideas for Toronto’s Rail Deck Park

Priorities Matter Toronto identifies on its website as a “grassroots organization” advocating for the responsible use of tax dollars. Repeated requests for comment from the group went unanswered.

The website’s domain is managed by Tester Digital, whose past clients include Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, the Ontario PCs, and the BC Liberals. Its president Dean Tester also didn’t respond to repeated emails requesting information.

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Pickel denied that the Canadian Taxpayers Federation had any connection with Priorities Matter Toronto, but applauded its efforts to rally against the rail deck park.

Read more: Cost of the pandemic on Toronto could reach $1.5 billion dollars in best-case scenario

“There are certainly organizations out there that want to build a lot of condo towers on that same piece of land,” said Mayor Tory, “and they are in the midst of a negotiation with us with respect to the purchase of some of the air rights.”

Tory stopped short of directly pointing the finger at who may be behind some of the online efforts. But he said it is in the interest of developers to scupper plans for a park so that the only remaining option for the land is to build condo towers.

The city has also been embroiled in a standoff over the remaining air rights needed for the park. A major portion of them are currently owned by the development firm Craft-Kingsmen Rail Corp. In the winter the developers floated several options to the city, including renting the air rights or selling them outright.

Global News also contacted the company several times asking whether it was involved in any of the online campaigns. It didn’t respond by the time of publication.

Regardless of where the opposition to the park is coming from, Coun. Joe Cressy, whose ward the park would be built in, said the rail deck park needs to proceed.

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Toronto will begin issuing tickets with automated speed cameras
Toronto will begin issuing tickets with automated speed cameras

“Parks are not a luxury, parks are an essential component of a livable city, and anyone who would tell you otherwise clearly has different intentions and motivations,” he said.

Cressy said the pandemic and incidents during it involving parkland like at Trinity Bellwoods Park, has highlighted the need for downtown greenspace for condo dwellers. He acknowledged that COVID-19 has likely scuttled plans to begin construction in 2021, but said staff continue to work on preparations.

“When it opens we will all look back and say ‘thank goodness we did that and didn’t build nine condos there instead,’” said Cressy “and I’m patient — we’ll get there.”