To see the area Chris William’s believes could be Toronto’s own version of the famous New York City High Line park, you have to leave the trails at Evergreen Brickworks behind.
Step through tangled trees and bushes, over a fallen fence, and there they are — the unused CP Don Branch train tracks, which run south from the Thorncliffe Park area before meeting the Don River.
“So you’re walking the rails through the woods, and you’re in downtown Toronto, surrounded by some pretty big oak trees. And it’s spectacular,” Williams told CBC Toronto.
An east-end resident, he’s been working with a group of neighbours to pitch a vision for a three- or four-kilometre walking trail that both draws in tourists and serves as a “connecting backbone” for various features of the Don River Valley Park.
Crossing Bayview Avenue, it would also take people over Half Mile Bridge, with views of the Don Valley and the city skyline.
But as Williams and his group promote their idea, which they call the Wonscotonach Trail — the Anishnaabemowin name for the Don River — they’re also battling another plan.
Metrolinx, which has owned the Don Branch tracks since 2008, is moving to build a train storage site farther south as part of a $26.8-billion plan to expand GO service.
“The layover is needed because of the congestion that’s going on in Union Station,” said Metrolinx spokesperson Matt Llewellyn. “We’re going to need somewhere to park the trains.”
But for the residents’ group, who call themselves the “humbugs” — an abbreviation of the Half Mile Bridge gang — any construction is a step in the wrong direction for the Don Valley.
“We think that Metrolinx has a stupid idea. And so we say humbug to it. We have a better idea. And we want Toronto to have a choice to understand what’s going on,” said Williams.
Door still open for partial trail
To shine more light on the Wonscotonach Trail, Williams and his group have turned to social media, created artist renderings, and built a website where people can vote on which project they like better.
With help from Toronto-Danforth MP Julie Dabrusin, they have also submitted a request for a federal environmental impact assessment looking at the cumulative environmental impact of several transit projects in the Don Valley area.
A decision on the request is expected in late June.
Metrolinx, meanwhile, points out that it’s already adjusted the layover site plan based on community concerns so that the trains are tucked alongside the DVP, farther from environmentally sensitive areas.
“We reduced the footprint by about 23 per cent, and we changed the original three-track configuration to make the trains line up linearly,” said Llewellyn.
“We really did hear the community’s concerns regarding that. We know how much of a cherished and beloved space this is.”
Though the storage site is expected to be built later this year or in 2022, it doesn’t mean a trail could never come to be, he added.
The layover is located near the Prince Edward Viaduct, while the section of track north of it — including the area near the Brickworks and Half Mile Bridge — is as of yet not spoken for.
“Our planning team is reviewing any of the potential uses for that section, which could include a potential trail option,” said Llewellyn.
“We haven’t closed the door to the idea.”
He says when the time comes to decide on uses for the northern section of tracks, there will be a consultation process for Torontonians to give their two cents.
Metrolinx plan will bar access to historic sites, group says
On the Wonscontonach website, Williams and his group lay out several concerns with the train storage site unrelated to the trail — including that it will house greenhouse gas emitting diesel trains, will be vulnerable to floods, and will be rendered unnecessary by the rise of telecommuting and lessened demand for GO services.
Williams says though he would work with Metrolinx on a trail that uses only a portion of the tracks, he believes the layover project would ruin a key aspect of the concept: access to sites important to Toronto’s pre-colonial history.
Near where the layover site is set to be built near the Don River “is the 11,000-year-old Wendat trail that crossed Toronto and is now Davenport,” he said.
“And near there, of course, is the 4,000-year-old Withrow site, which is Canada’s first archaeological dig.”
Evergreen, the non-profit that transformed the Brick Works and worked with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the city to create the Don River Valley Park, says it also has “concerns” with the Metrolinx plan.
“We have been sharing our feedback with Metrolinx,” wrote an Evergreen spokesperson in a statement.
“We encourage Metrolinx to consider options such as releasing unused lines for public walkways or allowing for crossings to improve access.”
For now, curious Torontonians continue to walk along the Don Branch tracks, often ending up at the fenced-off entrance to Half Mile Bridge and peering through the chain links at the view beyond.
“A lot of people say that Riverdale Park has the best view of Toronto at sunset. It’s a pretty good one. But the view from the bridge is special,” says Chris Williams
Pointing out that the High Line in New York generates hundreds of millions of tourism dollars every year, he argues this is the city’s chance to build something similar.
“Investing in tourism infrastructure versus a parking lot for trains is just a good business decision,” he said.
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