Introducing the King High Line: New rail-to-trail project proposed for Toronto’s west end

  All images courtesy of the Friends of the King High Line.

New rail-to-trail plan brings vision to Toronto’s downtown-west 

Story by Corey Horowitz and Tammy Thorne

The King High Line is a prospective linear park project on the southwest edge of downtown Toronto, initiated by Urbancorp developers and First Capital Realty. It aims to improve connections between neighbourhoods -- just as the West Toronto Railpath has done further north. Indeed, the two projects would compliment each other quite nicely, as phase 2 of the railpath is in the planning stages now.

The King High Line website features a promotional video and some preliminary renderings of how the elevated rail corridor could look as a re-purposed space for pedestrians and cyclists.

                The above map shows the path of the King High Line in orange across the rail corridor, bridging existing north-south roads. The West Toronto Railpath Phase 2 route is shown near the top left.

The idea has been contemplated over the last six months, and has received strong community support and some media attention, though it is currently still in the visioning stage. Land-use consulting firm Urban Strategies is handling the conceptual vision and design process.

Think New York City High Line  – the linear park that is a mere 2.3 km long but has had the effect of rejuvenating and integrating Manhattan neighbourhoods from the Meatpacking District to Chelsea, and has received international acclaim. New York's urban rail-to-trail conversion has also been credited with spurring billions in development activity.

The King High Line (KHL) path and parkland intend to be functional year-round and include a 450-metre bridge elevated above King St. West and the rail line.

 A rendered section of the proposed King High Line pictured atop the underpass. 

The location of the project is strategic for multiple reasons. As Michel Trocmé, partner at Urban Strategies says, “The area has a growing concentration of residential and employment density, but there is a significant connectivity gap in the urban fabric affecting ease of travel through the West Queen West, Liberty Village and Parkdale neighbourhoods.” The KHL would be well positioned to help address this gap by providing an accessible link from King to Liberty Streets between Dufferin and Shaw. It would also compliment several existing and planned bridges across the rail line, and respond to demand for more direct north-south connections to adjacent parts of the city. Residents and employees in Liberty Village have become so frustrated with the current gridlock and lack of adequate transit that they took initiative on their own crowdsource-funded private bus.

Nearby, recently completed infrastructure projects include the Strachan Avenue Overpass to the east and the Fort York Pedestrian/Cycling Bridge to the south. Construction of the King-Liberty Pedestrian/Cyclist Link is slated for 2016. This is separate from the KHL and will add a short bridge spanning the rail corridor between the west ends of Douro Street and Western Battery Road, just southwest of the King and Shaw Street intersection. In order for this bridge to be fully accessible to all users, stairs and an elevator have been recommended for each end. The revitalization of Ontario Place has also been approved for construction in 2016, including the Pedestrian Land Bridge connecting it to the CNE grounds.

The future Phase 2 of the much-loved West Toronto Railpath is set to commence in 2016 as well. The design for the KHL will accommodate the railpath plan with a direct access connection. Scott Torrance, a landscape architect and prime consultant for the phase 1 design of the West Toronto Railpath says these ideas can make the city a better place for everyone: "Not only are we creating access and connecting neighbourhoods, projects like the railpath and high line provide a connection to nature in the city." Torrance adds, "The NYC High Line really shows the fantastic impact projects like this can have on neighbourhoods. This neighbourhood [Liberty Village] is already booming and vibrant -- but it's not connected well at all, currently, to the rest of the city." Torrance says the high line project is only "going to help" in the phase 2 railpath expansion.

Another related project is the Toronto Green Line proposal to convert underutilized space, in this case a hydro corridor, to public use for recreation and active transportation. Public-private partnerships could be key in bringing these projects to fruition, as much of the land around the Green Line, for example, is privately owned.

There is potential to set an innovative precedent for public-private partnerships with the King High Line, and perhaps inform future infrastructure investment. Consider the value of a pleasant and continuous route connecting cyclists and pedestrians to our amazing waterfront, and in the process creating partnerships to maintain these paths through the winter.

   A rendering envisions a network of uninterrupted linkages through the neighbourhood.

One interesting focal point going forward is to explore features allowing for comfortable year-round functioning. Trocmé states that “We are exploring ways to make the bridge truly [functional] year-round for cyclists and walkers by considering such features as heated surfaces, possibly a removable cover and at the very least dedicated snow removal."

Certainly the City of Toronto could do more to accommodate trail users in the winter. Thankfully, a small portion of the Martin Goodman Trail does get cleared in the winter; but railpath users have been calling in recent years for maintenance of the well-used route. [dandyhorse would love to see the same machinery that's used to clear Sherbourne Street's separated bike lane and sidewalks utilized on key off-road connecting trails -- like the West Toronto Railpath. We applaud the innovative thinking of the King High Line group in this design proposal. Public-private partnerships could provide a solution to the maintenance issue -- if the City isn't willing or able to do the work, developers could collaborate with community organizations to get it done. Just look at the crafty crowdsourced bus in Liberty Village.]

The overall vision of the KHL embodies sensible ideas of active transport and connectivity for the area, as well as attention to place-making practices. In a neighbourhood under-served by public/green space relative to a growing population, there is value added through performance of some recreational and leisure functions as a linear park. The hope is that it will connect with and enhance on-street infrastructure (bike lanes) too. Unlike its New York City name-sake, Toronto's version would allow for cyclists to use the path in addition to pedestrians, just as the West Toronto Railpath does. The discussion of any delineation between cycling and pedestrian right-of-ways will be reserved for the next stage of development. Despite marked conceptual differences, New York’s High Line has still provided an element of inspiration for Toronto. The KHL website and social media activity look to convey the spirit of a local, grassroots initiative including an online petition to declare yourself a “Friend of the King High Line” (which dandyhorse has done). This community-based approach was utilized in the NY proposal, and in their case it garnered significant financial support from a range of local organizations and private interests.

  Aerial view of the path showing pedestrian and cyclist usage.

Both Urbancorp and First Capital Realty do have stakes in the community, with offices in Liberty Village, and the King’s Club condominium development now selling nearby. As it stands, the two have committed $1.2-1.5 million towards funding pedestrian and cycling on-ramps at either side of the rail line that will provide access to the path. The planning for these structures is currently underway. The details of the project's overall cost, funding mechanisms and timeline are still to be determined. One of the goals of the Friends of the King High Line campaign is to generate support and gain approval from the City in the next phase. The project would seem a suitable candidate for funds under Section 37 of the Planning Act as a community benefit, but would need to be tied to a larger development.

The project does appear to be eligible for the Ontario Municipal Cycling Infrastructure Program, which allocates $10 million over three years for municipal infrastructure (cost-shared at up to 50 per cent with the province), to be launched at the end of 2014. The program aims to help achieve Ontario’s Cycling Strategy vision, and defines relevant infrastructure as including off-road multi-use paths, separated cycling facilities, and enhancements as part of reconstruction/resurfacing projects, among others. The KHL seems to be tailored to the program objectives emphasizing innovation in cycling infrastructure and improved connections for local cycling networks. It also looks to be compatible with some of the priorities of Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, such as addressing automobile related congestion and encouraging active transportation.

Another piece of the puzzle may be Metrolinx. The regional, multi-modal transportation authority for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area includes a cycling strategy as part of The Big Move plan. Ross Parry, a spokesperson for the King High Line and principal at Enterprise Canada, believes there is potential to collaborate with Metrolinx in the event that they are seeking a signature project for their cycling strategy. Metrolinx has already expressed openness to incorporating phase 2 of the West Toronto Railpath into their plans, which will be impacted by the expansion of the Georgetown South project to increase rail capacity in relation to the Go Transit Union-Pearson Express link.

The CPR line continues to represent a hard edge bordering the neighbourhoods of Liberty Village, Parkdale and West Queen West. It is a barrier to north-south connectivity that can also impede easy access to the waterfront. The Gardiner Expressway, and generally poor scaling for pedestrians are major factors as well. Such challenges to walkability and active transport imposed by previous development patterns and auto-centric infrastructure are daunting. As is often the case, progress will need to occur incrementally. With an eye towards the larger picture, the King High Line is poised to be a step -- or, a gently sloping heated-and-covered-path -- in the right direction.

Below: Additional renderings of the proposed design courtesy of the Friends of the King High Line. 


Related on the dandyBLOG:

The Green Line

Reading line: Cyclists and authors promote Green Line initiative

2014 Toronto Bike Awards

Connecting Parkdale to the Waterfront

A new cyclist's review of the West Toronto Railpath

Bike Spotting on the West Toronto Railpath

Railpath expansion coming soon

Railpath Extension Design recap: Final public meeting June 23

Bike Spotting: What's it like riding in the King Street West Underpass


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