Editorial: Tangling with the Island Airport Expansion

Recently, West 8 and LANDinc unveiled their design for a new park and trail along the eastern edge of Ontario Place—the first stage of revitalization for the shuttered site. Conceptual renderings include a meandering path, wooded areas, a playful rocky scramble, and soft hills by the water’s edge, with prime views of the lake and city skyline.

The new Ontario Place Park’s 270-degree views will also offer a sweeping vista onto Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport—the site of contentious debate over the future of Toronto’s waterfront. Porter Airlines, whose hub is at the Toronto Island airport, recently asked to expand its water-facing runways 200 metres on each end to accommodate the operation of 30 new jets, due for delivery in 2016. The short-range turbo props that Porter currently operates carry 70 passengers; the proposed long-range jets carry 110 passengers. In 2012, 2.3 million passengers moved through the airport; with the extended runway and jets, along with potentially more frequent landings and takeoffs, the airport could conceivably double its capacity to serve from 4.3 to 4.8 million passengers yearly.

Concerns about the proposal have centred on pollution and noise impacts for Toronto Island residents, as well as for the Bathurst Quay community on the shoreside. A Toronto Public Health assessment notes that the airport, even in its current form, contributes to air quality and noise-related health concerns. Apartments, parks, and a school and community centre are located as little as 0.5 kilometres from the airport—and more residential uses will potentially occupy the nearby Canada Malting Lands and Ontario Place sites. Moreover, a greater number of travellers would add to an already stressed downtown traffic situation, particularly as more luggage-laden leisure passengers join the laptop-and-jacket business passengers that currently form the majority of airport users.

Of grave concern in the long term is the potential shift from the central waterfront’s carefully cultivated mix of leisure and residential uses towards a new focus on airport uses and logistics. In the airport’s immediate vicinity, H2O Park, the Toronto Music Garden, Ireland Park, Coronation Park, and the soon-to-be-realized Ontario Place Park form green beads on what is close to becoming a continuous recreational pathway along the waterfront. The water-flanking Queen’s Quay roadway, which terminates nearby, is currently being revitalized as a modern boulevard including a two-lane road, a separated streetcar corridor, bicycle lanes, and a pedestrian promenade. Are these carefully designed public amenities to become anterooms en route to the island airport, rather than the vibrant cultural parks and tourist draws they were intended to be?

To its credit, the Toronto Port Authority has requested a $100-million loan from federal coffers to support restructuring of groundside areas, in the event that jets are permitted. That expense—like the costs for the current pedestrian tunnel to the airport, due to open next winter—would ultimately be borne by airport passengers. But no current master plan has yet been tabled. Given the limited open space in the area, it will be challenging to accommodate private cars, taxis, and parking for a doubled passenger load. A study by transportation planners BA Group, commissioned by the City of Toronto, concludes that the only way to significantly increase road capacity and improve vehicular traffic to the airport would involve extending an adjacent street, Dan Leckie Way, over Lake Ontario to connect to the airport’s main access road. This drastic option would significantly disrupt the continuity of the waterfront.

Toronto has made a major investment into developing its waterfront as a densely populated, vibrant area that provides strong connections to the lakefront. That vision is just now coming to fruition. The network of spectacular waterfront parks that is currently emerging has not only attracted private development projects, but will leave a legacy of public infrastructure that will serve the city for decades to come. City Council would be wise to protect this vision against the incompatible expansion of the island airport.

Elsa Lam  [email protected]