Above the streets, Toronto's Rail Deck Park concept has captured the city's imagination, with the project immediately hailed as "Toronto's Central Park." So far, it exists as an idea, but not as a place. Below the streets, the much larger lower Don River valley has the opposite problem. It already exists as a defining element of the urban topography. However, the mostly overlooked 200-hectare (490 acre) space still lacks much of the excitement and imagination—and the perceived "place"—that the proposed Rail Deck Park already possesses in abundance. That's now changing.
Earlier today, Mayor John Tory was joined by Evergreen Canada CEO Geoff Cape to celebrate ongoing philanthropic investment and announce the next general steps in developing the lower Don River valley as a 'super park.' First announced last year, Evergreen's campaign to revitalize the area—which stretches from Corktown Commons past the Brick Works to Pottery Road—is taking shape via a partnership with the City of Toronto and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA). Working to re-integrate the green space that surrounds the river as a vital part of the urban fabric, Evergreen's project is collecting private funding to revitalize the ravine space through a series of projects that will advance the priorities set out in 2013's Lower Don Trail Master Plan.
Expected in the Spring of 2017, the re-openining of the Lower Don Trail will represent a major milestone in the area's redevelopment. Along with the greater connectivity made possible by enhanced trail conditions, the project includes a new Pottery Road Bridge and Belleville Underpass, and a collection of scenic observation points. Throughout nearby streets and in the valley itself, improvements to wayfinding and signage are also planned, facilitating ease of use while bringing a "hidden" and somewhat disjointed area back into the public consciousness.
Together with a series accessible new entry points, the Master Plan—prepared for the City and the TRCA by DTAH—calls for the reclamation of former green spaces throughout the valley, including the former snow dump site north of the Bloor Viaduct. Naturalized ecological conditions throughout the valley would offer improved flood protection, providing a degree of mitigation against the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, a "nature-inspired" public art program is set to launch in 2017, aiming to strengthen the cultural presence of the Don Valley, which—according to the Master Plan—already serves as a de facto backyard to some 250,000 Torontonians.
The existing—and evolving—plans for the area have taken shape through a series of studies and public consultations which have informed much of the vision for the park. As outlined in a preliminary 'People's Plan' prepared for Evergreen by Ryerson University's Ecological Design Lab following a 2015 design charette, public investment for the area should also include the redevelopment of Bayview as a "complete street," though the ongoing repaving of the street between Gerrard and Moore is already set to bring a slightly more pedestrian and cycle-friendly environment to the street, providing an improved connection to the Lower Don Trail.
In addition, the report recommends the removal of the Bayview-Bloor connection to the DVP, including the removal of cumbersome cloverleaf intersections. Finally, it also recommends the realignment of all rail lines to east side of the Don River. Owned by Metrolinx, the Richmond Hill GO rails could be moved east, limiting the disruptive impact of rail infrastructure on the landscape while consolidating the transportation infrastructure east of the river. According to the report, Metrolinx is currently engaged in talks regarding the potential realignment, though the removal of highway infrastructure at the Bayview-Bloor DVP connection has yet to be seriously considered by the City.
Meanwhile, as private sector donations continue to be collected, City Staff are now studying the feasibility formally designating the space as a City of Toronto park. According to the City's Press Release, the ongoing analysis is also looking at how best to "implement the Lower Don Trails Master Plan," including a City-led design study for public art in the Don Landing. So far, however, much of the impetus has come from private parties and the non-profit sector.
As with the "Bentway" project underneath the Gardiner Expressway, the significant private investment—which includes contributions from "Frances and Tim Price... Andy Chisholm and Laurie Thomson, the Jackman Family, Judy and Wilmot Matthews, Kelly and Senator Michael Meighen and Trans Canada Trails"—evidences growing philantrophic engagement with urban infrastructure improvements.
Although the generous private investment is welcome, the City's perceived lack of leadership has simultaneously been critiqued. As quoted by the CBC, Ward 27 Councillor Krystin Wong-Tam is arguing for greater public sector engagement. With the land already owned by the City of Toronto and partially developed as a public green space, Wong-Tam sees few barriers to greater City engagement. "You don't need to buy air rights, you don't need to acquire the land... All you have to do is curate it, build greater connectivity with better access and let people enjoy it."
Amidst Toronto's rapid Downtown population growth, the lack of public park space has become a pressing issue, arguably making projects like Rail Deck Park and the Don River Valley Park necessary to sustain urban quality of life. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, and the future of the lower Don River valley continues to take shape. In the meantime, you can share your thoughts by leaving a comment in the space below, or in our associated Forum thread.