Toronto City Council is about to decide the future of Toronto's waterfront. What is being proposed is nothing less than the transformation of a small, inner city airport to a major international one. This decision is not about Porter Airlines, whose service and convenience are widely appreciated by many. It is not about a little airport. It is not about a limited expansion.
Porter is seeking approval to grow the annual passenger volume from the current 2.3-million travellers to 4.8-million. That is about the same passenger volume as the Ottawa International Airport – Canada's sixth-largest. If council chooses to permit the expansion of the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to allow jet service, a series of negative consequences will be unleashed that will change the waterfront forever. Here's why:
First, jet service to the airport requires an extension of the runway by up to 200 metres in each direction into the harbour and into Lake Ontario. The existing marine buoys at either end of the runway may need to be extended to accommodate safety requirements. We will be left with a smaller, more congested harbour. To minimize the jet blast on small boats, a high and obtrusive jet blast deflector wall would be constructed across the entire width of the runway at both ends. On the west side, the new Ontario Place water's edge park would be a mere 300 metres from the end of the runway.
Second, traffic congestion will intensify. Adding more cars and taxis – the predominant travel option – to Lower Bathurst St., Queen's Quay and Lakeshore Blvd. will only add more chaos to an area that is already on the edge of failure during peak periods.
Traffic consultants retained by the city have concluded that there is no way the current road network could handle the proposed expansion of passenger volume. It is not clear how the $100-million sought from the federal and provincial governments for ground infrastructure improvements would address this problem.
The expansion would cater to the vacation traveller, instead of the commuter business community. This will result in totally different and escalating demands for longer-term parking, luggage and ground support operations. Conflicts between vehicular traffic and the safety of elementary school children have already resulted in suggestions to consider relocating the existing Waterfront School and Harbourfront Community Centre.
Third, Torontonians currently enjoy a range of waterfront activities, including recreation and culture. This is a core issue. If the airport doubles in passenger volume with the planned runway expansions, it could mean, over time, a gradual increase of up to 30-36 aircraft movements per peak hour. This means a jet could land or take off every two minutes. Air Canada and WestJet have already indicated their desire to operate jet service out of an expanded Island Airport. Such continued growth would choke the neighbourhood and its services. Offering jet service to such distant destinations as Vancouver, California, Florida and the Caribbean would tip the balance. The airport would dominate the waterfront rather than being part of a range of human-scale activities for citizens and tourists.
The effects of airport growth to this point on the Bathurst Quay community are already considerable, and would worsen under an expansion. In warmer months, residents have experienced a residue from aircraft fuel on their windows, balconies and furniture.
The Toronto Medical Officer of Health has documented the health impact of the airport and its expansion. This led to the unanimous rejection of the proposed airport expansion by the Board of Health.
In 1999, the people of Toronto celebrated when the federal, provincial and municipal governments came together to establish Waterfront Toronto. This corporation has invested more than $1.5-billion of public money in the visible revitalization of our entire waterfront, 47 kilometres spanning the amalgamated City of Toronto from Scarborough to Etobicoke. This civic renewal has improved the quality of life for a public who now have access to their waterfront. Toronto's Official Plan also requires that airport operations comply with the 1983 Tripartite Agreement and that improvements to the airport's facilities have no adverse impacts on the surrounding community.
The scale and scope of the airport expansion and introduction of jets are simply not compatible with this vision – and council policies. There is no such thing as a "little big airline" or a "little big airport." Those are clever words masking private gain and public loss. We cannot allow it to replace a highly valued public vision for our waterfront. We only have one waterfront and it belongs to everyone.
Eds Note: An earlier version of this column said Continental Airlines expressed interest in using the Island Airport. Continental has merged with United Airlines and relinquished its landing slots to Porter in 2011.
Paul Bedford was the chief planner of Toronto from 1996-2004; David Crombie is a former mayor of Toronto; Jack Diamond is Toronto-based international architect; Anne Golden is the chair of the Transit Investment Advisory Panel; Ken Greenberg is the former head of urban design in the Toronto planning department.