Creating a new downtown park on city-owned land

If you stand at the corner of Bathurst and Front Street you can still see the old development proposal sign for a mixed-use development that never came to be. And if Councillor Mike Layton’s proposal is approved—and we at Park People think it should—this currently vacant, somewhat triangular 2.3 acre piece of city-owned land will actually become a new park instead.

A staff report going to City Council next week seeks approval to re-designate the land to Open Space, preserving its future as a park. This would remove the ability of the land to be developed into residential or commercial. Before the site became a park, an existing agreement will see a temporary open-air shipping container market set up on the site for two to three years.

The site has a somewhat complex history. It was originally supposed to be part of the Front Street extension, but when that plan was abandoned in 2008 it was declared surplus by the City. In 2011, Council voted to move the property to Build Toronto, which is the development arm of the City that seeks to create value through real estate development.

A year later Build proposed a mixed-use development with three towers on a podium and a small park—the development sign that is there today—which was not supported by City Planning for a number of reasons. Build has said that because of the environmental remediation required, a development that conforms with the planning policies for the site is not financially feasible. City staff note that this same issue makes other mixed-use developments on the site challenging.

And so: a park.

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This site is located within the extremely high-growth South Niagara neighbourhood—which is underserved by parkland. In fact, if you stand there today you can watch a new development going up right across the street. The park would also plug into the existing and future public space network in the area, connecting with the extension of the West Toronto Railpath and acting as a green link into the future Rail Deck Park, which would be to the immediate southeast. Its street frontage on Bathurst makes it a highly visible public space and the rail corridor along its southern edge means the park will have a unique view of the Fort York neighbourhood.

While the site is contaminated, as it’s a former location of a lead smelter, cleaning it up (which is estimated to cost at least $4 million) is still much cheaper than purchasing an equivalent-sized piece of land in the area—if you could even find a 2-acre site. Land prices in downtown can range from $30 to $60 million an acre, meaning a 2-acre park could cost as much as $120 million—and that’s just to buy the land, never mind actually design and build the park.

In this super-charged real estate market, it doesn’t just make sense, but becomes a necessity to seize opportunities like already City-owned land to create new public space. It is financially prudent.

For these reasons, we support the staff recommendation and Mike Layton’s proposal to create a new park in this area from this piece of city-owned land. If you do too, please make sure to let your local councillor and the mayor know before April 26.

Click here to sign Councillor Layton’s petition.

Sometimes a street is a park that just doesn’t know it yet

This Land is Parkland is the park blog of Park People’s manager of policy and research, Jake Tobin Garrett. Read more here.

I pass by Phoebe Street in downtown Toronto often on my way to work. It travels east off of busy Spadina Street and into a calm, quiet residential area with a school. Despite its width there are few cars that travel its length due to a barrier installed to reduce traffic because the school’s playground faces the street.

The whole thing seems like a half-done project to me. Why leave all that asphalt there after going through the trouble of basically barricading the street?

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I can’t help but think of the mini-parks in my old neighbourhood in Vancouver’s West End. There are nine of them now, but the first started in 1973 as a traffic calming initiative. The idea was that a half block of a street would be transformed into a green space with gardens, benches and a pathway to allow pedestrians and cyclists through, but not cars.

Vancouver Mini Park Elements

They are one of my favourite features of the West End, a dense tower neighbourhood with big leafy trees. And I’m not alone. A recent city survey found that the mini-parks were near the top of the list of what people loved about the West End’s streets and that 93% indicated they visited a mini-park several times per week.

The area of Toronto where Phoebe Street is has some of the lowest levels of parkland in the city relative to population and is just north of an area City staff recently said needed new parkland. Not only that, but it would benefit the nearby schoolyard by increasing green space and could actually create a green corridor to help link Spadina through to Grange Park.

So let’s finish what we started and use Vancouver’s mini-parks as a model to turn this part of the street into a park.

Mini-park image from the 2012 West End Community Profile

Zooming out on Green Line connections

Intro: The Green Line is a vision to create a 5km linear park and trail to connect communities through the Dupont hydro corridor. Read more about the project here and sign up as a supporter.

Zooming out on Green Line connections

One of the exciting things about the Green Line is how it can connect multiple communities from Davenport Village in the west to the Annex in the east. The Green Line runs through three City wards, nearby three others, and passes within or near approximately 11 resident association areas.

But if you zoom out from the Green Line you begin to see a number of other connections that thread out to other areas of the city.

In the west, there is the West Toronto Railpath, an off-road cycling and walking trail that ends just north of Dupont Street and travels down to College Street. While the Green Line doesn’t immediately connect with the rail path now, its a future possibility with the bike lanes on Davenport acting as the go-between. Currently, the City is working on plans for the second phase of the railpath, which will extend it down to King West. Once there, it will connect in with the planned Fort York Pedestrian Bridgeover the rail corridor, allowing people to travel down to the waterfront and access the great parks around Fort York.

There are also potential opportunities for public space improvements and connections to the Green Line with the recently announced Metrolinx project in theDavenport Diamond Overpass. This will elevate the GO tracks between Bloor and Dupont Street just west of Lansdowne, opening up space underneath for improvements. Right now a citizen’s committee is working with Metrolinx on what those could be.

Another connection is found in green space. The Green line starts at the bottom of Earlscourt Park at Davenport and Lansdowne, with the park acting as a green connection up to St. Clair Avenue West. From there, the Prospect Cemetery stretches all the way up to Eglinton, offering a large green northern connection to the Green Line.

In the east, the Green Line connects to the Shaw Street Bikeway, which travels south to King West, passing by a number of great parks along the way like Christie Pits, Fred Hamilton, Trinity Bellwoods and Stanley Park. It also acts as one connection to the Davenport Road bike lanes which roughly follow the route of the Green Line in the north.

When you put all these together, the Green Line acts as a needed off-street east-west connection to several already established or planned north-south routes that connect to both the downtown core, waterfront, and neighbourhoods to the north. Can you think of any others?

Bridging the divided city through a connected park system

This Land is Parkland is the park blog of Park People’s manager of policy and research, Jake Tobin Garrett. Read more here.

Lately there has been a lot of ink devoted to Toronto as a divided city and what to do about it. There have been great suggestions about reforming our political system for more locally-based decision making and building much needed transportation connections.

But for me—surprise—it’s our park system that is the most able to bridge divides and forge a city identity, representing both the diversity of our city and its interconnectedness. Each park is a great representation of local community, but it’s all tied together into a larger system.

The trick for a city as big and diverse as Toronto, I think, is figuring out how to nurture a sense of local place while at the same time plugging that into an understanding of connection at a larger, citywide scale. As the Toronto Star’s Divided City series has pointed out, part of the solution to the divided city must be a recognition of the need for local agency. Diversity our strength is our city motto, and so we should reflect that in our politics, policies, and planning. But how to forge unity from difference?

This reminded me of something that Thomas Bender wrote in a book about New York called The Unfinished City. He argues that in order to forge a metropolitan identity out of “a plurality of local publics” a city “requires an image of itself.” In his mind, these images are rooted in infrastructure, transportation and the environment, because they reveal our interdependence but have local impacts. Certainly transportation has been a part of the conversation here in Toronto, but it has tended to be one of division as we squabble over technology and who gets a fair share of the transit pie.

For me, parks and open spaces are the perfect image of the city as both a regional and local being. And our system of ravines and hydro corridors are the large scale pieces that stitch those local elements together. Just zoom out on Google Maps a bit and this system is revealed—the ravines travelling north-south and connecting the northern parts of the city to the waterfront (see title image), and the hydro corridors travelling roughly east-west (see below).

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If we want to reveal interdependence and a sense of shared identity as a city, then what better way than to celebrate the life-giving properties of our shared watersheds and the energy-giving properties of our hydro corridors as public space? These spaces are both intensely local and just as intensely regional in their scale.

Each of the parks along these systems have their own local character, but by presenting them as a larger connected system and building that narrative, these green corridors can become the visual representation of a city brought together through its local places.

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We have a few projects in Toronto that begin to fill in this image and create a larger identity from these connections, such as the North Scarborough Green Loop (pictured above), which was championed by a local resident and uses existing trails through parks, on-street connections, and part of the Finch hydro corridor. Also the master plan for a revitalized Lower Don Trail, and the overall trail system that is slowly being tied together through some of our hydro corridors and ravines.

It’s the Pan Am Path, though, that best expresses the idea, using the diversity in our neighbourhood parks by plugging them into a cross-city vision. It’s a plan that is both local and citywide in its scale. Its appeal is in that narrative of connections and its celebration of Toronto’s neighbourhoods in all corners of the city. And it does this by using what we already have largely in place.

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So if we truly want to bring the city together by celebrating what makes Toronto so great—our diversity—then what better way than articulating a vision of a cross-city network of local parks? The bones of this system are already here; we just need to build on the connections.

images: ravine map from Toronto’s Official Plan, hydro map from this Google Map someone made (I added in the Green Line hydro corridor above Dupont Street, though), Green Loop map from here, and Pan Am map from the Pan Am website.

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