Q&A: Chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who wants build a “Central Park” for downtown

Q&A: Chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who wants build a “Central Park” for downtown

Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Keesmaat

Last week, Toronto’s chief city planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, joined mayor John Tory to announce plans for a new large-scale downtown park, built on top of the railway corridor south of Front Street, between Bathurst Street and the Rogers Centre. Keesmaat has described the proposed green space as “Toronto’s Central Park.” Unsurprisingly, the project has already attracted some criticism—and, given a presumed price tag in the half-billion neighbourhood, it will likely face more before council has its first vote on the idea next month. We spoke with Keesmaat about the how Rail Deck Park will be funded, why even 905ers should be excited, and whether the (kind of dullsville) name could be in for a change.

For people who missed last week’s press conference: pitch me on the potential amazingness of this park project.
There are really three big amazingnesses, if you will. The first is the way it heals a gap in the fabric of the city. By covering the rail corridor, it takes away a barrier from north to south. The second is the way it stitches together our fastest growing neighbourhoods: CityPlace, Liberty Village, King and Spadina. And then the third is the way it provides desperately needed recreational and amenity space for the families that live in the surrounding condos.

One in three Torontonians works in the downtown core, so they will be able to access this space as part of their everyday workday. We’re talking about the equivalent of sixteen football fields, so there can be active spaces and passive spaces. We’re very conscious of using the word “park,” not “square” or “event space.” We want a green space in the heart of the city, because that’s what’s missing.

You have the mayor in your corner. How did you get his support?
Well, like all good plans, this came out of a due diligence process. We didn’t just pull out our sketch pads one day and say, “Hey, what if we did this?” We began three years ago with an analysis of growth in the downtown core. From the day the mayor took office, we’ve been briefing him on our findings. One of the things we learned through our research is that there’s a baby boom going on in our condo neighbourhoods. Families want to stay downtown, but they typically leave by the time their first child turns six. We found out there are three key reasons why: they don’t have access to schools and day care, they don’t have access to green space and they don’t have access to recreation facilities. If we put the right amenities in place, living in the core becomes a very desirable lifestyle choice.

Sounds like massive-scale parks are the new white picket fences.
It’s really a shift. This park will become the front yards and the backyards of our urban neighbourhoods. And a park’s power to bring together cultures is, from my perspective, a critical part of the democratic project. I have a really beautiful story from earlier this summer. I was at the park with my kids in midtown and there was a little boy who fell off that thing that the kids spin on. He was crying, and I went over and picked him up, and I was looking around for his parents, and his father came running up to me. I handed him back, and we struck up a conversation, and it turned out that this family were Syrian refugees. Holding this child was this incredibly emotional experience for me. It’s like this global conflict was manifesting itself in a park in my neighbourhood. How cool is that?

A rendering of what Rail Deck Park could look like, if built as envisioned.

It all sounds very kumbaya, but there are also a lot of obstacles, like rezoning the land in question, securing air rights and figuring out funding. What do you see as your most significant challenge?
Let me say first that in terms of the things we face every day in city planning, this one’s a breeze. The engineering is very straightforward. We have areas by Blue Jays Way where we’ve already built over the rail corridor, so we have the technical expertise. The challenge is going to be getting the funding in place—but we have some sources of funding that already exist: Section 37, Section 42, and then our development charge. The political leadership, well, we’ll see about that in September, when council votes, but the mayor and the local councillor, Joe Cressy, have made it very clear that this is a priority for them.

What about the suburban councillors? Giorgio Mammoliti has already come out in opposition. It’s possible that most of the former Team Ford members will see this as a gift to downtown pinkos. What do you say to that?
I think it’s always best to use data. One in three residents from all wards of the city work downtown, so this is really an amenity for the entire city. Aside from that, we’ve reached a moment where we need to compare ourselves to great international cities like Chicago and New York. We know that our competitors are investing in public space and in the public realm. There’s an economic imperative to create a spectacular downtown environment. It’s a benefit to the entire city. You really can transform the identity of your city through a park. Millennium Park has become a key defining aspect of Chicago, and that’s definitely not just for the people who happen to live near it.

Millennium Park was funded partly by private donors. Is that also the plan here?
Absolutely. My hope is that there are philanthropists in Toronto who really believe in the future of this city, to the extent that they would like their name associated with this kind of idea.

Any idea of how far into the future we’re talking?
I often hear two things that are contradictory. The first is that we don’t get anything done in Toronto, and the other is that, wow, the city’s changing so quickly. If you don’t think we build transit in this city, go ride the UP Express—because guess what, it’s up and running. Last month city council allocated money and support to advancing Under Gardiner. Construction begins this summer. To the naysayers, I say get on board.

Rail Deck Park isn’t exactly the jazziest name. Are you working on other options?
I think in the short term we’ll stick with the working title, which is a clear description. I have to tell you that I did spend my long weekend brainstorming names. One of the hashtags I’ve started using is #legacypark. The notion of legacy is very powerful, and that’s what this is about: thinking about my kids and my kids’ kids and beyond. I love the notion of legacy being part of the name. I Googled it and I don’t see a “Legacy Park” of any significance anywhere, so we’ll see.

Would you consider selling naming rights to a philanthropist? The “So and So” Legacy Park, perhaps?
That might be a possibility. I’m not extremely keen on naming something after one family, because I think it’s so important the entire city feel ownership over the park, so that’s probably not the direction I would go in. But maybe there’s an amount of money that would be worth it.

So cough up a quarter of a billion dollars and we’ll talk?