Lingering between hope and anticipation, the ambitious vision for Toronto's 21-acre 'Rail Deck Park' is either about to take a major step backward, a major step forward, or some combination of both. In a new submission made to the City of Toronto, an Official Plan Amendment calls for the north end of the rail corridor to be redeveloped with eight high-rise towers, while just over half of the lot—some 12.8 acres—would devoted to a new public park on the south half of the site.

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.Th ORCA Project, image via submission to the City of Toronto

Proposed by a consortium so far identified only as P.I.T.S. Developments Inc., the development provisionally known as the mixed-use 'ORCA Project' enters the planning process as the City continues to advance plans for the 21-acre park—spanning from Blue Jays Way to Bathurst—which Mayor John Tory announced in August. If that makes for somewhat confusing reading, it's because the contested ownership of air rights above the rail corridor creates an unusually complicated planning context. Almost a year after the vision for Rail Deck Park was revealed, the question remains: who owns the space?

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.Looking east, image via submission to the City of Toronto

Following the short-lived jubilation that accompanied Tory's initial announcement of a project billed as "Toronto's Central Park," the optimistic vision was quickly tempered by legal complexity. While the City initially revealed that the air rights were held by CN Rail and Toronto Terminals Railway (TRR), a group of developers contested the claims, with a group led by Etobicoke-based Craft Development Corp, claiming ownership.

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.The site, image via submission to the City of Toronto

In Ontario, the ownership of air is subject to myriad legal conditions, belying simple answers. According to the Toronto Star, "rights can be stratified, or parsed, and sold-off for a price," with the resulting tiers of ownership likened to an elaborate wedding cake. Ownership can also be conditional on zoning, adding another layer of complexity to the equation. What's more, sites can be subject to dozens of title agreements. This means that determining the ownership of the Rail Deck lands requires what's legally known as a "title search"—a process that has yet to be completed.  

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.A more detailed east-west view of the site, which includes Linear Park North, image via submission to the City of Toronto

All of this informs the context of the new submission, which was officially filed with the City on May 23rd. According to the submission—prepared by R.E Millward + Associates Ltd.—the "site is created through the acquisition of TTR and CN USRC Development Rights over, within and beneath the active rail corridor by P.I.T.S. Developments Inc. through agreements with the railways CN and TTR."

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.Massing model of the ORCA Project, looking south, image via submission to the City of Toronto

The length of Front Street between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue, the site is on the western fringe of Toronto's Financial District. Master-planned by Toronto-based architects Sweeny &Co., the proposal envisions seven residential towers alongside a single commercial office building located near the east end of the site. Stretching from the office tower to encompass the seven residential buildings to its west, a massive four-storey podium—configured as a 150,000 ft² "retail galleria"—spans across nearly the entirety of the site, with numerous north-south passageways enabling a relatively permeable pedestrian experience. 

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.Looking east from the park, image via submission to the City of Toronto

While the elongated office tower—which would feature taller floorplates—is envisioned at a height of 38 storeys, the slimmer residential buildings range in height from 27 to 59 storeys. Immediately west of the 860,000 ft² office component, the 59 storey residential tower would be the site's tallest, with heights tapering to 46 storeys for both the two towers to its west, and 41 storeys for each of the trio of mid-block buildings, before transitioning down to 27 storeys for the final residential tower. 

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.The site plan, click for a closer view, image via submission to the City of Toronto

Over the south half of the site, the decked 12.8-acre park would sit atop a two-storey parking structure, which would be invisible from street-level. In total, the proposal would introduce some 3.9 million square feet of Gross Floor Area (GFA) over the tracks. Approximately 2,750 residential units are envisioned, along with over 650,000 ft² of retail space, and more than 1,200 "underground" vehicle parking spots beneath the deck. Finally, space for a new GO Station exiting onto Spadina and Front streets is also included in the plans.

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.The GO Station, image via submission to the City of Toronto

As it stands, the vision presented by the P.I.T.S. consortium remains just that, with the architectural expression likely to take shape as planning continues. So far, the renderings likely indicate a general massing strategy, more so than an aesthetic direction. More information is expected from the developer in the coming week, including the idea behind the name, the ORCA Project.

ORCA Project, Toronto, by P.I.T.S Development, Sweeny &Co.Looking north from Dan Leckie Way, image via submission to the City of Toronto

In the immediate future, the expected Fall publication of the City's new Rail Deck Park report may clarify the site's legal context. From there, whatever is proposed—whether a publicly or privately led redevelopment—will enter a planning and funding process, fraught with additional complexities. For now, of course, the rail corridor remains a rail corridor. And whatever happens, it's a fairly safe bet to wager it'll stay that way for some time yet.

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We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, and the plans continue to take shape. In the meantime, make sure to check out our newly established dataBase file for the ORCA Project, linked below. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment in the space provided on this page, or visit the associated Forum thread to get in on the conversation there.