What does ‘park acquisition’ mean when we’re building parks in the air?

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A few weeks ago a rendering of a park in the sky from Metrolinx and developer Ivanhoe Cambridge made the rounds in Toronto. It would be built as the pedestrian connection for two proposed towers that flank the rail corridor.

The Ivanhoe Cambridge proposal is not the first time that a ‘park in the sky’ has been proposed for Toronto, though.

A few days ago I was looking through old parks and open space plans for the Fort York neighbourhood and saw that the spot where we’re now getting a pedestrian and cycling bridge was originally proposed as a “land bridge” that would connect new parks below Stanley Park with new parkland south of the rail corridor and Coronation Park.

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That plan says that the crossing over the rail corridor “should be developed as a broad land bridge to extend the sense of landscape continuity…” and provide space for cyclists, pedestrians, and possibly emergency vehicles.

It’s a compelling idea, but the land bridge raises an interesting question: where could the money have come from?

In Toronto, every residential development must either dedicate 5% of its land as parkland or pay the city an equivalent amount in cash. This money is then used for park development and acquisition of new parkland. Ontario’s Planning Act Section 42 (15) states that this money can be “spent only for the acquisition of land to be used for park or other public recreational purposes.”

So, what about a land bridge? You’re not acquiring land, but you are building more of it and linking parks together. Is that an appropriate and allowable use? What about building a park island, like they’re proposing in New York? Would that count? Or how about “acquiring” street space like they did in Seattle, where park acquisition funds were used to build Bell Street Park?

Anyway, redefining what acquisition means or clarifying what it could mean is an interesting question to think about as we begin to look at more outside-of-the-box ways to create new parks or link them together.

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Seattle’s new park tax district would raise $54 million per year

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Toronto’s parks face a maintenance backlog of $295 million in 2014. That number is expected to grow to some $360 million by 2018. That’s a lot of broken benches, crumbling pathways, and cracked tennis courts. While money for buying and building new parks can come from levies on development, maintenance funding cannot.

Seattle is also facing a big maintenance backlog—in the ballpark of $270 million. So what’s their solution?

The mayor, Ed Murray, is supporting a proposal for a new metropolitan park district that will levy a—hold onto your hats—property tax. This proposal is different than a “park improvement district,” which some cities have created to fund specific parks by levying a tax on businesses and sometimes residential properties in the immediate vicinity of the park.

Seattle’s park district would mirror the boundaries of the City of Seattle and would start with a levy of 42 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. So a house assessed at $400,000 would pay $14 more a month, or about 50 cents a day. This would raise $54 million per year.

$54 million! Per year!

The bulk of this money would go for maintenance and upkeep, but some would be set aside for programming for disadvantaged populations, funding for park partnerships to activate the city’s downtown parks, creating new parks on city-owned land, and increasing hours for and improving community centres. But who wants any of those things, right?

The creation of the park district creates an on-going, stable, and dedicated revenue source for the city’s parks. Many politicians stammer when asked about property taxes, but the reality is, especially for Canadian cities, it’s the major revenue tool they’ve been given.

Could Toronto use something like this? To put into context: $54 million represents a full third of the $168 million in the 2014 capital budget for Parks, Forestry and Recreation and $7.5 million more than the city is spending on the state of good repair backlog for parks and recreation in 2014.

I think Seattle mayor Ed Murray sums up the need for increased parks funding best here:

“We understand that a safe, active, and accessible parks system is an essential part of a healthy, vibrant, thriving city. By providing sustainable funding for much-needed repairs and improvements at our parks, we have an opportunity to be more than grateful beneficiaries of a previous legacy–we can create our own legacy for future generations.”