Could Downsview — one of the city’s last remaining blank canvases — be Toronto’s next ‘it’ neighbourhood?
Bombardier’s impending departure from Downsview has some urbanists calling for it to become a live-work-play destination.
The entrance to Downsview Park, near Keele St. and Sheppard Ave. W. Toronto’s secondary plan for Downsview, the visioning document that guides the area’s land use, suggests that there could be 42,000 more residents and jobs within easy reach of the new Downsview Park station. (BERNARD WEIL /TORONTO STAR)
It should be an urban paradise — a green expanse punctuated by neighbourhoods of modern, urban townhomes wound along leafy, walkable streets interspersed with bike paths, all offset with open, celebratory public spaces and sheltering woodlands.
That’s the vision. It is portrayed in a video by Canada Lands Co., the federal agency that owns and manages the former military property at Downsview. It is also enshrined in the city’s secondary plan for the area.
On paper, the 232-hectare, federally owned Downsview Park, near Sheppard Ave. W. and Keele St., is a civic jewel. It attracts 236,000 visitors a year to concerts and cultural events. According to the Canada Lands website, about 1,400 sports teams play at the 485,000 sq. ft. Hangar sports complex.
By the time Canada Lands’ plan is fully realized, the government’s property manager says 119 hectares — an area about two-thirds the size of High Park — will be parkland. Residential, employment and recreational zones, new roads and an expanded urban farm are also on the books.
But Downsview Park and its immediate surroundings have so far fallen short, say some politicians and planners. While downtown Toronto has thrived, Downsview, a decommissioned military base, has failed to flourish and achieve its potential.
The criticism is surfacing since the news broke in January that the area’s other major landholder and key employer, Bombardier, plans to sell its 152 hectares that adjoin Downsview Park and move to another location, possibly near Pearson.
Critics of the federal park point to desolate expanses of grass with few trees and the cluster of low-slung buildings, leased to various sports and recreation venues, a circus school and a flea market. They look like what they are — worn, repurposed military facilities.
The first residential development on the federal site, Stanley Greene near Keele St. and Wilson Ave., will be animated by a four-acre city-built park. The modern-cubed homes are occupied but the streets are barren and, as recently as last week, a giant mound of mud overlooked the site.
There are bright spots, notably the palatial new Downsview Park subway station — a 12-minute walk from Stanley Greene, according to city officials — and the William Baker Woodlot, a refuge from the traffic near Keele St. and Sheppard Ave. W.
Bombardier’s industrial site to the east of Downsview Park includes an airplane manufacturing plant and a 2.1-km runway. The company has been building and testing its Q400 turboprops there for more than 20 years. Its Global 5000, 6000 and 7000 business jets are also built there. The latter model is in full production and could be in service by the end of the year, according to Olivier Marcil, vice-president, external relations.
Bombardier plans to sell its 152 hectares that adjoin Downsview Park and move to another location, possibly near Pearson. The Bombardier property is being sold as-is. A new owner would be buying land zoned for employment. (BERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STAR)
Bombardier says it is only using about a tenth of its Downsview land. “Bombardier needs access to a runway, but does not need to operate a full airport, including a fire department and everything else that is required to do so,” said Louis Bouchard, director of aerospace.
“Toronto possesses a highly skilled workforce, fed in part by an aerospace hub that has been centred at Downsview, including a new Centennial College campus. It is important for Bombardier to maintain ties with this hub,” he said.
The Bombardier property is being sold as-is. A new owner would be buying land zoned for employment. There are rumours that residential developers are among the interested parties. But changing that employment designation would be a lengthy, uncertain process, according to the city.
Some urbanists believe that Bombardier’s move could be the opening Toronto needs to build a sustainable, mixed-use community connecting the commercial, residential and recreational uses that are already on the books or in the ground.
But amid the talk of opportunity, there are also fears. Could condo towers move in to the Bombardier land? How will the loss of about 3,500 jobs impact the economically challenged area? (Bombardier says its employee numbers won’t necessarily change with a move. The jobs are tied to its operational requirements, not the location.)
“People are so anxious,” said the area’s city councillor, Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre). “The runway has, for decades, meant that we’d have to put in height restrictions on every possible building in Downsview and surroundings. With the runway gone, the sky is the limit. They’re afraid of 80-storey buildings all over the place. It’s one thing to create a fashionable, livable Manhattan but quite another to create a jungle city where all you see is highrises and no sunlight peeping through.”
She wants the jobs to stay. But if they don’t, Augimeri would like the Bombardier parcel to become an extension of the existing Downsview Park, Toronto’s version of Manhattan’s Central Park.
Downsview is 17 subway stops from Union Station. Central Park is 16 stops from New York’s South Ferry Loop. Both can both be travelled in about half an hour.
From the new $280-million Downsview Park subway stop (the cost includes the tunnels to the south), TTC riders can get a clear view of the CN Tower. The soaring station sits near the city’s highest elevation and is located near five TTC bus routes that stop on Sheppard Ave. W.
Steps away there is also a new GO stop that has 450 daily users, according to Metrolinx. About 80 per cent of those riders connect with the subway. A TTC spokesperson said ridership numbers aren’t yet available for the stations on the six-stop extension to York Region that opened in December.
Toronto’s secondary plan for Downsview, the visioning document that guides the area’s land use, suggests that there could be 42,000 more residents and jobs within easy reach of Downsview Park station. The density to feed that investment is already materializing, says Al Rezoski, Toronto manager of community planning. There are a number of manufacturers nearby and a hotel at Chesswood Dr. and Sheppard Ave. W., he said. As well there’s employment related to the Hangar, sports and the hockey arena. In September, the Centennial aerospace campus will open with still more riders, he said.
That subway is one more opportunity for Downsview to import some of downtown Toronto’s success at a time when the city faces a housing affordability crisis, says urban planner and author Ken Greenberg.
“You can do housing that is inherently more affordable (at Downsview) simply because the land is not so valuable,” he said, noting that most of Toronto’s ambition and growth is being crowded into three downtown wards near the lake.
“What we really need desperately in the inner suburbs is some significant growth,” said Greenberg.
He calls Downsview Park, “a mess … non-planning at its best.”
It’s a stark landscape with islands of activity that appear to be “nibbling … at the edges of something without any larger concept or plan,” said Greenberg. The whole endeavour lacks context on one of the city’s last remaining blank canvases and now, he argues, is the time to look at what can be achieved in 10 or 20 years.
“Not only do we know how to do mixed-use but we know now that employment thrives not in industrial parks or office parks but in mixed-use settings,” he said. “(Downsview) should have at its heart a great public space — go back to the idea of the park and really do something special with it. It should be designed comprehensively, not piecemeal the way that seems to be happening.”
Looking west on Thomas Mulholland Dr., the Stanley Greene housing development is well underway near the southwest area of Downsview Park. (BERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STAR)
It has been tried. In 2000, famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was named as the winner of an international design competition for a landmark park at Downsview. But his vision of an artificial lake, basketball courts, wooded areas and community gardens was only partially realized, said former Scarborough councillor David Soknacki, who chaired the park board for five years, starting in 2006, when the Canadian military handed over Downsview to Crown entity Parc Downsview Park. The government transferred responsibility of the property to its land management company Canada Lands in 2014.
That failure to deliver on what Ottawa once touted as Canada’s first urban national park has, unfortunately, remained in the public consciousness, said Soknacki. He attributes the area’s stalled progress to its federal rather than local stewardship.
“They don’t see it in terms of vision or potential, they see it terms of minimizing any drain on the federal taxpayer,” he said.
Under the management of Canada Lands, Downsview “becomes one property across a series of national properties.” It is subject to a series of small, local decisions but no big ones, said Soknacki, who dropped out of the 2014 mayor’s race.
Bombardier’s departure is a significant loss to the local economy. That workforce has bought homes and supported area businesses, said Soknacki.
There remains a vibrant “small business entrepreneurial ecosystem,” in Downsview, he says, but it will be difficult to attract a large industrial manufacturer. A newer tech-based economy is more likely for the area. But attracting those companies takes time.
“It’s not something that you turn a spigot and come on in,” he said.
But Soknacki thinks the Bombardier runway closure could work in Downsview’s favour, not just on the Bombardier lands, but the surrounding area. “That place has been stunted because of the airport zoning on it,” he said. Release that zoning in favour of midrise and then start negotiating with developers to bring in more height and more dollars for community development, he suggested.
Changing zoning isn’t simple or quick though. Airport height restrictions are embedded in the area’s zoning bylaws and the employment designation of the Bombardier land is prescribed in the city’s Official Plan, said Joe Nanos, Toronto’s director of community planning in North York. If a developer wanted to use the Bombardier parcel to build condos, it would need that use changed through a process called a municipal comprehensive review that takes a broad look at employment lands across the city.
The latest review likely won’t be finished for about two years. At that point, council can call for another review, he said. Even then, it wouldn’t be just Bombardier’s buyer asking for a new designation. There would likely be applications for rezoning from across the city.
“So we would have to look at it from a comprehensive, citywide implication,” said Nanos, who stressed that the kind of density often associated with vibrancy can be achieved with more midrise development.
Meantime the secondary plan for Downsview that was only approved in 2013 is still fresh and has yet to be realized. Secondary plans are generally built out in 20 to 25 years and the area will look very different in five years with new, denser development, said Nanos.
Toronto Mayor John Tory says he is focused on keeping employment at Downsview.
“If that isn’t possible because of decisions made by corporations to move their employment somewhere else, even in the GTA, then I’ll be trying to look for somebody else that can go and have jobs on that land. That is employment land and I hope it will continue to be,” he told reporters on March 23.
“I don’t accept the notion that every single piece of land without exception … should just be allocated because we decide we’re going to have condo towers and apartment buildings everywhere. We need places for people to work,” said Tory.