Future of $1.05B Rail Deck Park up for debate at packed meeting

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Future of $1.05B Rail Deck Park up for debate at packed meeting

City councillors and the public packed into council chambers Monday evening to debate the future of the proposed Rail Deck Park, a green space that would stretch from just west of the Air Canada Centre to Bathurst Street.

The 21-acre (8.5-hectare) park was proposed somewhat unexpectedly last August and championed by former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat and Mayor John Tory as a legacy project.

But Monday's meeting revealed a stark downtown-suburban split on whether the project should go ahead as planned, or a developer's alternate vision should prevail.

Local councillors and the mayor have staunchly defended the park, with a preliminary price tag of at least $1.05 billion. But some on council have voiced concerns that it would compromise valuable opportunities for housing.

At Monday's meeting, acting chief planner Gregg Lintern presented city staff's plan. It's the modern iteration of an idea that dates back decades, Tory said during a brief address to the packed room. 

"It will be built," the mayor said assertively. 

There is, however, an alternative plan put forth by a developer that would give the city eight acres of land while the other 13 would be used for high density and mixed-use developments. 

That plan is backed by Coun. Jim Karygiannis, who represents Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt. He says the mayor's favoured proposal is unfair to residents who don't live close to where the park would be situated.

Karygiannis believes they shouldn't have to pay such a considerable price tag.

"One billion dollars, it can go a long way in the other ways it's needed," the Ward 39 councillor told CBC Toronto. "Let's not have a billion dollars so that people north of Front Street can walk their dogs."

Plus, he told CBC Toronto, the city already has the Centre Island Park and High Park. City staff said during a presentation that there are 8.4-square metres of parkland per person downtown.

"We need development, we need houses and having development above the rail deck is the most important thing that we could do," he added. 

The developer's proposed division of the land would compromise supporters' ultimate vision for the greenspace, said Coun. Joe Cressy. 

"This park will not be a downtown park. It will be our city's 'Central Park,'" Cressy said during his time to speak, telling the crowd the plan would be beneficial for people across the city.

However, city staff explained the majority of the area is owned by private interests, and the city would have to buy them out before building the park.

"It's ludicrous to spend a billion dollars on a rail deck park," Karygiannis said. 

Below are several artistic renderings of the proposed green space: