If Toronto wants to be a big league city, downtowners should embrace an expanded island airport
Let’s just call it Black November, or perhaps Crack November: that interminable nightmare of a month that began with the news that police had recovered a now-infamous video and culminated with an unhinged mayor literally running amok in chambers as council stripped him of his powers. The first test of the sober new structure at city hall—with deputy mayor Norm Kelly in charge—will be early in the New Year, when council will debate the second most important decision it has faced since its term began three years ago.
The issue is whether to grant Porter Airlines approval for its proposed expansion of Billy Bishop Airport. The plan calls for an extension of the runway at either end by up to 200 metres, as well as an exemption to the current ban on commercial jets. The airport, where Porter holds some 85 per cent of all landing slots, now handles just over 2 million passengers annually. City staff estimate the proposed changes could more than double that, to as many as 4.4 million.
The loudest group opposing the expansion is No Jets T.O., a coalition of citizens led by a marketing manager and waterfront resident named Anshul Kapoor. Kapoor’s high-profile supporters include Margaret Atwood, former chief city planner Paul Bedford and former mayor John Sewell. In December, No Jets T.O. hosted a panel discussion in which former mayors David Miller and David Crombie also spoke out against the expansion.
No Jets T.O. claims expansion will result in every imaginable calamity: an increase in gridlock, pollution and bird strikes, as well as reduced property values and an end to pleasure boating (with the added warning that jet tailwinds could overturn sailboats). They even suggest that jets will jeopardize the investment we’ve made in the Union Pearson rail link (slated to begin operation in 2015) by diverting passengers away from Pearson. But the number of people flying out of Pearson has increased by roughly 1.5 million every year since 2009, for a total of about 35 million in 2012. The Union Pearson Express will never lack for passengers.
Most of No Jets T.O.’s objections were raised in the myopic bridge debate we heard back in 2003, and all of them turned out to be wrong. The additional traffic down to Bathurst Quay has been messy but manageable, and certainly can’t be blamed on the airport alone. The Lake Ontario breeze keeps the air downtown clearer than in emissions-choked areas to the north. Downtown property values have nearly doubled in the last decade. And boats still crowd the water. I have laid back on a rig in the inner harbour more than once with Porter’s planes flying overhead. It’s exhilarating to have human flight machines as part of the experience.
Beyond these hoary arguments against, two key developments have taken place since 2003 that make this debate different from the original Porter dust-up. The first is the technological leap underway in the aviation industry. Bombardier’s new CS100 jetliner, which Porter hopes to fly out of Billy Bishop, will be the first aircraft powered by next-generation jet engines that produce significantly less noise and emissions than any other jet in production. Last September, I witnessed the CS100’s maiden flight in Montreal—an aviation milestone done up with lots of PR pizzazz—and the muted shoooshh it made on takeoff was an awe-inducing moment for everyone there.
The Toronto Port Authority, which owns and regulates the airport, has set out criteria for approving the proposal: the jets must meet current noise limits, land on Billy Bishop’s short runway (even with extensions, its main strip will be less than half the length of Pearson’s shortest) and have no negative impact on air and water quality. The CS100 is still being tested, but if it can meet these criteria—in other words, if new technology can open up new possibilities within existing constraints, which is what new technology tends to do—Torontonians should stop kvetching and be early adopters for a change.
The second development may leave us without a choice. The lower downtown is experiencing what urbanists call hyperdensity: human residency and commercial activity on a scale similar to Manhattan or Tokyo. This is something Toronto has never contemplated for itself. Regardless of what happens to the island airport, the number of people travelling in and out of downtown is about to explode. Union Station, despite the chaos of renovations, continues to usher through 65 million passengers per year—a number that dwarfs any other train station or airport in the country and that is expected to surpass 100 million by 2030.
Where will all these people go? They’ll disperse into all the new commercial and residential buildings going up in the core. CityPlace, which will end up packing roughly 10,000 new residential units into its 18 hectares once it’s complete, is a useful measure for the growth to come. The plan for the East Bayfront, a 23-hectare parcel south of the Gardiner between Jarvis and Parliament, calls for 6,300 new housing units and two million square feet of commercial space. The 32-hectare West Don Lands development will feature 6,000 new residential units. The 25 hectares south of the Gardiner from Yonge to Jarvis are in the early stages of planning, but already there’s a proposal for six new skyscrapers ranging from 40 to 88 storeys on about a tenth of the land.
The list goes on, and it will only get longer. Pick any empty parcel of land or any parking garage south of the tracks from the Don River to Ontario Place—25 years from now, it’ll likely be a tower. And as hyperdensity arrives, many arguments about the airport’s impact on livability become obsolete. One of the lessons from Toronto’s early-stage hyperdensity projects—CityPlace, for instance, or the Pinnacle Centre between Bay and Yonge—is that a lot of people don’t mind living next to busy, noisy, smelly transportation infrastructure. The city’s background noise only gets louder as density rises, but people tune it out. In fact, the denser their surroundings, the more people value being close to their escape hatches: railways, subways, expressways. Airways too. The more ports of entry and exit, the better.
In both size and ambition, this city has already far outgrown the time when it could be served by a single airport. But it retains a regrettable parochialism when it comes to its own needs and desires. Toronto is not going to keep climbing the ladder of global influence by resurrecting the ferry to Rochester. Ours is one of the few cities in North America with an airport so close to its downtown. Ten years ago, before Porter took flight, people cited that fact as if it were a bad thing. Now we increasingly evoke it with glee—as well we should. It’s proven to be a great addition to our economy, our lifestyle, our skyline and even our din, and we won’t regret this expansion any more than we do the last one.
POSTSCRIPT: Urbanist Richard Florida has come out in favour of jets at the island airport in the Toronto Star, arguing that airports are major drivers of economic development and job creation. Florida and I have sparred vociferously in the past, but on this issue we see eye to eye.