Despite grumbling from some suburban councillors about potentially spending hundreds of millions of dollars on green space downtown and not in their own wards, Toronto City Council unanimously approved $2.4-million to study Mayor John Tory's proposal for a "rail-deck park."
In rhetoric reminiscent of the Rob Ford era, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said parks in his ward in the city's northwest have been allowed to languish while council contemplates spending $1-billion or more on a megaproject to benefit wealthy downtown condo owners.
"We have roads deteriorating, we've got grass coming out of curbs … our parks don't get cut. It is a disaster in some parts of this city," Mr. Mammoliti said. "And yet we can try to find $1.5-billion to $2-billion or even $3-billion to build a brand new park for a lot of dogs that belong to the rich."
But even Mr. Mammoliti fell in line after council supported his motion to have city staff report on the "deficiencies in parks in the suburbs" and on "a mechanism to fund parks" that are ready to be built in other parts of the city.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Tory called the suburbs-versus-downtown rhetoric counterproductive. He argued that the rail-deck park would be a draw for tourists and people across the city, citing Chicago's Millennium Park and the Toronto Islands as examples. It would also, he said, make Toronto's downtown, where parks are at premium and the population is skyrocketing, more livable.
"I am not going to get dragged into .… these kinds of false choices that people present when they say, well you can either be in favour of downtown or the suburbs," Mr. Tory said. "My job as the mayor is to build a complete livable city."
The money approved on Wednesday will see city staff report back next year on the feasibility and costs of obtaining air rights to the site of the proposed park, which would be built on top of a platform spanning the rail corridor south of Front Street West from Bathurst Street to Blue Jays Way.
Staff will also study design concepts and ways to fund the expensive park, including potential new charges imposed on developers who are already required to hand over cash to the city for parkland.
The vote came as private sector developers who claim an interest in the site talked up a competing proposal that would see the rail-deck platform lined with condominiums, offices and stores.
Their plan includes a park less than half the size of Mr. Tory's concept but, they say, at much less cost to the city. The developer, Craft Developments, has declined to reveal whether an agreement it has with the railways to purchase air rights for the site is conditional on zoning. But the developer has threatened to take the city to the Ontario Municipal Board over the move to rezone the area as solely parkland.
The area's city councillor, Joe Cressy, said the city's version of the rail-deck project was Toronto's last chance to deliver a large and much-needed park to the rapidly growing population downtown. In 1996, just 946 people lived in the neighbourhood around the proposed park, he said. Now, nearly 50,000 call the nearby condo towers home.
"I believe that rail deck park will be a new Central Park for all of Toronto," Mr. Cressy told council. "Not just downtown, but the city as a whole."