Rail deck park could grow eastward
Convention centre owner hopes to revive 2013 green-space plan
A21-acre park proposed over the railway lands downtown may just be the beginning.
After the city pitched to build a massive new public space from Bathurst St. to Blue Jays Way by decking over the rail corridor, the Star has learned there are talks underway that could see that plan extended to Simcoe St., just west of Union Station — creating a continuous block of more than 30 acres, what would be one of the largest rail decks in the world.
The Oxford Properties Group, which owns the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and much of the prime real estate along Front St. from Blue Jays Way to Simcoe St., once made a pitch to deck over the adjacent11-acre stretch of the rail corridor, a project that would have in- cluded a 5.5-acre park. That proposal hinged on a controversial casino which council killed in 2013; with it, the dream of the deck and park also appeared dead.
But the city’s intentions to build its own public park on a deck to the west of that block could help revive Oxford’s plans. Combined, they would rival over-rail developments elsewhere, such as Manhattan’s yet-to-be-completed Hudson Yards.
Decking over the rail corridor would bridge Front St. and the downtown’s most popular attractions — the Rogers Centre, CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium along with the convention centre, which Oxford is looking to revitalize and expand to attract larger events.
“We’re still very ambitious to come forward with a new convention centre on that site and working towards that end,” Oxford president and CEO Blake Hutcheson told the Star Thursday.
If plans to redevelop the convention centre site proceed, the deck and park space “would be an integral part of our conversation and our ambition,” he said.
As the city’s proposal draws public praise following an announcement by Mayor John Tory on Wednesday, the city’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, noted on Twitter that Oxford’s original proposal “planted the seed for the larger vision.”
Though Hutcheson said they aren’t ready to make any announcements, Keesmaat told the Star that extending the deck plan east is “not just theoretical.”
“There is something in the works that’s very exciting for that portion of the corridor as well . . . But I can’t speak to it publicly at this time,” she said. “The notion of extending all the way through is absolutely the larger vision, that’s absolutely the objective. “Think how magical that would be.” There is still much to be worked out.
City staff will present a preliminary report on their 21-acre proposal to executive committee in September and to council in October. Much of the talk will focus on two unknowns: How the city will pay for it and an attempt to rezone the area over the rail corridor as open space to protect the site for a future park and prevent developers from moving in.
The city will also need to purchase the air rights over the rail corridor, owned by both CN Rail and Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR), to deck over the recessed rails. Those plans must also permit the infrastructure needed to electrify GO Rail service, a provincial project already underway.
Keesmaat also said that because the section east of Blue Jays Way is at a higher grade and the corridor narrows, it would be more expensive to build the deck structure there.
Timing is another unknown, with city officials acknowledging the socalled Rail Deck Park can’t be built in short order.
Hutcheson, who said the developer fully supports the city’s plans while noting they will certainly increase property values, said Oxford is eager to move forward with its own vision. “That means a matter of years, not decades,” he said. The CEO, who served as a member of Tory’s transition advisory council when he took office in 2014, said Oxford is discussing future plans with both the city and the province. The Star earlier reported that Tory has raised the issue of a new convention centre with Premier Kathleen Wynne.
The original $3-billion “Oxford Place” proposal included the casino within a hotel, office and residential towers and an expanded convention centre.
In May 2013, council voted 40-4 against having a new casino downtown.
“When the casino died a natural death, that was totally fine from our perspective,” Hutcheson said, explaining they believed the casino seemed like the least expensive way to build the “badly needed” convention centre revitalization buy leveraging private money.
But redesigned, Hutcheson said the 11-acre area could still contain a 5.5acre park if decked over, pushing the possible public-realm space over the rail corridor to more than 25 acres.
Local Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) Councillor Joe Cressy acknowledged the city’s proposal could just be the beginning.
“If you want to dream big, if this is successful, absolutely it could be expanded,” he said, though noted that could be a 10-years-from-now conversation.
Over time, Hutcheson said a newly created block east of Blue Jays Way could be “one of the most exciting and natural next development nodes in the city of Toronto,” what he said could one day include a hotel, office and residential towers alongside the convention centre.
Hutcheson, who noted Oxford is a partner in the Hudson Yards project, said both the city and their own deck plans are technically feasible.
“We’ve proven it,” he said of the New York project.
The developer never got far enough to purchase the air rights over the 11-acre section of the railway lands, also owned by TTR.
TTR did sell air rights just east of Union Station to developer Ivanhoe Cambridge for the construction of a one-acre elevated park. That project is currently in the planning phase, but moving ahead as part of the Bay Park Centre development. The park will span two office towers on Bay St. The project includes the relocation and development of a new GO Bus terminal.
Keesmaat estimated that project will be complete within the next four to five years.
In 2012, developer Oxford Properties pitched a casino development that included a 5.5-acre park over the rail corridor. It was quashed in 2013.