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Rail bridge to be Canada’s first elevated park

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by Mary Baxter

This summer, a former St. Thomas, Ont. rail bridge will gain new life as Canada’s first elevated park.
The St. Thomas elevated park, shown in this rendering, was inspired by High Line Park in New York City. The Manhattan elevated park occupies 1.5 kilometres of a former spur of the New York Central Railroad.
The St. Thomas elevated park, shown in this rendering, was inspired by High Line Park in New York City. The Manhattan elevated park occupies 1.5 kilometres of a former spur of the New York Central Railroad. - Photo: A+LINK ARCHITECTURE WITH YOUR URBANIST, LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT

Its owner, On Track St. Thomas, a non-profit group of local railway heritage aficionados, is spearheading the venture. The goal is to not only generate tourism interest in what was once Canada's Railway City, but also to supply the community with recreational space that will eventually link to a network of trails in the city and adjacent Elgin County.

"It's a landmark for us," says Ed van der Maarel, one of the group's board directors and principal architect of the London-based firm a+LiNK. He grew up on a farm near the bridge and remembers travelling under it daily.

Completed in 1930 and built to house two tracks, the 30-foot-wide-by-855-foot-long Michigan Central Railroad bridge crosses the Kettle Creek valley 90 feet below.

Van der Maarel says the bridge is in surprisingly good condition and notes a 2012 structural assessment found only minor problems, such as some concrete deterioration on some of the piers.

The High Line Park in New York City helped inspire the St. Thomas elevated park, van der Maarel says. The Manhattan elevated park occupies 1.5 kilometres of a former spur of the New York Central Railroad.

"We're really out there in the vanguard of some pretty new thinking, and I think to some extent we might be creating new rules as we go along,"

Serge Lavoie
On Track St. Thomas

To tackle the Michigan Central Railroad bridge transformation, On Track will use eight-foot-by-16-foot modules that will include wooden deck and railing. Groups and businesses can sponsor an entire module or a tree, planter or bench, he says.

To install the modules, the bridge's crushed stone ballast would first be removed so the new structure could be bolted directly to the steel.

"That's mainly for wind uplift," van der Maarel says.

The group is still determining the approach to installing the modules.

"We've designed them so the deck is actually keyed in and then we can bolt them together. So we can have groups that can do this offsite and then we bring them to the site and just bolt them together," he says.

Who will do the work is also under debate.

"We're hoping that home builders will get involved, possibly high school carpentry or college carpentry classes," he says. "Some of the fundraising is coming from individual house builders and developers, so they might get involved with gifts in kind for labour as well."

A local construction management company has expressed interest in becoming involved and may be able to help provide management of health and safety construction labour requirements, van der Maarel says.

The group has raised about half of the $250,000 needed to complete the first phase, which involves building out the park over half of the bridge, removing a small bridge to the east and introducing a wheelchair accessible ramp.

The second phase completes the bridge park and western approach access.

The group is targeting Aug. 27 for the first phase's grand opening and 2018 for completing phase two.

One unusual aspect of the project involves safety, which became a community-wide concern following two deaths by falls in 2015.

The project's management plan, developed by U.S. design firm Peter J. Smith & Company, Inc., calls for creating a buffer between inner and outer railings along the bridge edges to prevent people from getting too close.

Van der Maarel says the interior railing height will reach 56 inches — 14 inches higher than standard. The interior railing comprises small wire mesh to prevent climbers from gaining a toehold.

Plantings will occupy the three-foot buffer zone, he says.

The guardrail strategy protects people from accidents but won't completely mitigate suicide attempts, say van der Maarel and Serge Lavoie, On Track's president. A recent study of the Bloor viaduct's "luminous veil" suicide barrier, however, suggests while more comprehensive measures do deter use of a specific structure for such attempts, ultimately they don't reduce an area's suicide rates.

"I think it's a broader issue than just having a bridge," says van der Maarel.

The group has contacted its local chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association and local police for advice. And on the association's advice, On Track is considering other safety precautions, such as establishing an emergency phone system at either end.

"But one of our problems is that we don't have power up on the bridge so we're going to have to do something about generating our own power up there," says Lavoie.

Another challenge the group faces is how provincial regulations classify the structure in terms of building standards.

"It doesn't appear to fall under MTO (Ministry of Transportation) regulations; it doesn't seem to fall under the building code," Lavoie says. "So what we're trying to do and the discussions we've had so far (with the city) is that we're trying to build above anything that might be written in code in terms of safety," and apply code standards to other aspects of construction.

Transforming railway corridors into trails generally falls into "a bit of a grey area" concerning regulations, he says.

"It becomes even more difficult when it's a non-municipal player like us" putting together a free public park on privately owned land.

"So we're really out there in the vanguard of some pretty new thinking, and I think to some extent we might be creating new rules as we go along," Lavoie says.

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