Rail deck park could grow east­ward

Con­ven­tion cen­tre owner hopes to re­vive 2013 green-space plan

Toronto Star - - GTA & BUSINESS - JEN­NIFER PAGLIARO CITY HALL BU­REAU

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.

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