Transforming rail yards into real estate

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The transformation of cities does not happen overnight. Nor does it happen without the long-term perspective and creative will to take what is seemingly unusable and convert it into opportunity.

Take for instance the Hudson Yards project on Manhattan’s west side. It is currently the largest real estate development in the U.S. – the project will create 17 million square feet of commercial, residential, and retail development over a total of 28 acres with 5,000 new residences and 100 new shops. Nothing of this scale has occurred since Rockefeller Center was built in the 1930’s.

The best part: most of it is being built over an existing and fully operational train yard.

Take a look around Toronto and you’ll find exposed rail yards covering an enormous swath of land. Bounded by the DVP, Strachan Ave., the Gardiner, and Front St., exists a significant opportunity to unlock new mixed-use land in arguably some of the most valuable real estate in the city.

Architect and planner Cal Brook of Brook McIlroy Inc.’s has an interesting vision called the “Green Gardiner”, one of the proposals offered to city hall during their recent campaign to figure out what to do with the aging expressway. His plan calls for moving the eastern portion of the roadway over the rail lines (while keeping them operational) and transforming the Gardiner into a 1-km-long public park. His plan frees up Lake Shore Blvd. to become a more engaging and picturesque waterfront boulevard – something Toronto has wanted for a long time. This, in turn, frees up a large chunk of city-owned land for mixed-use development. This is a creatively bold vision with a transformative effect on the city. More importantly, it demonstrates the ability to turn 20th century thinking into 21st century planning as the world becomes increasingly more urbanized.

According to the United Nations, more than half the world’s population lives in cities and that number is expected to rise to 66 per cent by 2050. This ongoing shift requires diligent planning to ensure cities continuously move in the right direction. Suburban sprawl with the car at its centre is no longer the singular answer to growth and prosperity. People want to be in close proximity of where they live, work, and play. The world is changing and Toronto needs to build up to keep up.

Imagine the possibilities if the exposed rail lines just west of the Rogers Centre – bounded by Spadina, Bathurst, Front and Cityplace – had a platform built over it while the lines were kept fully operational. A new park perhaps? An affordable housing complex? What about a commercial centre? Or maybe a combination of all three. The point is, there are many instances across the city where prime real estate is being underused.

Developing over rail yards is a daunting task to say the least. It includes huge financial commitments, brave political wrangling, and a vastly complex engineering challenge. But doing something bold to transform the livability of a city for generations to come is a challenge worth embracing.

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