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The Little Airport That Could: Waging War Over Toronto's Waterfront
Kevin Ali: "Whether you like it or not, Billy Bishop Airport has become a de facto gateway to the city"

First they pooh-poohed the bridge.  Next they protested the tunnel.  Now they are petitioning the runway.  Welcome to YTZ, Toronto Island’s controversial little airport. 

Throughout the years, few Toronto institutions have divided its citizens so successfully as the island airport.  It has been both championed and met with absolute derision.  The only certainty about Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport is that everyone has an opinion.

Last month, Robert Deluce, President and CEO of Porter Airlines, announced that his company had placed a conditional order for up to 30 Bombardier CS100 jets.  This is a bold move given the airport’s current ban on jets. 

For Porter to take to the skies with its new purchase, it has to first appeal to Ottawa, the Toronto Port Authority, and the city – all of whom must approve any changes to airport operations.  If approved, the airport would extend the runway – and with it, Porter’s reach throughout North America.  

Opponents of the plan have wasted little time organizing.  NoJetsTO was born to ostensibly preserve the Toronto waterfront as a public space for all.  And while it is unclear who the members of NoJetsTO actually are, you can bet that their members consist of the same people who protested past proposals for the bridge, tunnel, and even the very existence of Porter Airlines in the first place.  It seems that you cannot sneeze on the island without someone starting a petition. 

And while bringing jets to the island admittedly amounts to something more than a sneeze, this is not what Porter Airlines is immediately proposing (though I am sure they would if they could).  What NoJetsTO and other opponents to the plan were trying to block was a feasibility study to assess the validity of the plan itself.  This was a move that made little sense, given that more information on something so hotly debated could only be a good thing for all parties involved.  (City councillors voted in favour of going ahead with the feasibility study, 29 votes to 15).

Instead of the inevitable bickering that surrounds every proposed change to the airport, a more useful approach may be for both camps to exchange ideas in an open dialogue.  It is in nobody’s best interest to spoil the waterfront, after all.  And if we do get the waterfront right, the whole city will stand to benefit. 

Yes, adding jets to the island will certainly be a boon to Porter Airline’s business.  But what about the waterfront residents?  As one of the few major cities to have an airport a stone’s throw from its downtown core, Toronto is in a unique position.  It is not so unlikely to predict that increased traffic drawn through the city’s waterfront would bolster the area’s business.  This in turn would make the area more attractive, drawing in even more visitors.  In the same way that living on a major transit line tends to increase property values, so too could living walking distance from a mid-sized airport.

The citywide benefits are also not insignificant.  A bustling downtown airport would mean less stress on Toronto Pearson International Airport.  Less stress on Pearson would mean less stress on our overly congested highways – eliminating some of the trips between the core and the region’s major airport.  An extension of this benefit would be time savings for business travellers, shaving potentially hours off their journey.  This could be material to the city winning over major conferences that provide a boost to the local economy. 

Of course, there is a balancing act here.  Billy Bishop airport should not be grown indiscriminately, and there needs to be careful attention paid to noise abatement.  Porter Airlines claims that Bombardier’s CS100 jets will be quieter than the Dash 8 turboprops the airline currently operates.  Given that the CS100 has not yet flown a test flight, this is a claim that remains to be seen.  But that is the whole point of conducting a feasibility study.

In the coming years, Toronto’s central waterfront, extending from Bathurst to Lower Jarvis, will undergo a major metamorphosis.  It will transform into a tree-lined boulevard with a water’s edge promenade and boardwalk, granite paving surfaces, cedar and ipe wood decking and benches, brushed stainless steel railings, and timber and aluminum light poles.  In short, it aims to become the Champs-Élysées of North America.

Instead of taking up arms against airport plans that may or may not come to fruition, we should focus our energy on more immediate issues.  Eyesores like the Canada Malting silos or the Loblaws Warehouse (at the northeast corner of Bathurst and Lake Shore Blvd W) are a blight to the face of the waterfront.  Redeveloping this land into a use that is complementary to the vision for the area is a priority that surely both sides can agree on.

Whether you like it or not, Billy Bishop Airport and its surrounding area has become a de facto gateway to the city. It represents the first impression many visitors will receive when they arrive in Toronto.  Instead of the knee-jerk reaction that occurs with every proposed change to airport operations, we should objectively look at the broader effect it will have on the neighbourhood, the citizens, and the economy. 

The island airport will eventually settle at some optimal size.  I am not quite sure what that is, but I suspect we have not yet reached it.


Kevin Ali is a Toronto-based real estate broker and the founder of Fresh Space. Follow him on Twitter @FreshSpaceCo.

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