When Mazyar Mortazavi, CEO of TAS Design Build, decided to re-develop the old Shriner’s temple on Keele Street, south of Sheppard, he was keenly aware of the emerging urban context around what may seem like an unremarkable address on 1960s-vintage suburban arterial.
Just to the west was the finger of the meandering Black Creek ravine system. Across Keele: Downsview Park, replete with open spaces, recreational amenities and, as of a few months ago, a brand new subway/GO station (Downsview Park). York University, the Humber River Hospital and Highway 401 are just a bit further afield.
Mr. Mortazavi observes that TAS’s new 300-unit mid-rise, designed by Teeple Architects and dubbed the Keeley, is landing in a part of the city that is being transformed by the accumulation of highly desirable urban infrastructure within a traditionally low-density setting. Downsview, he says, “is an incredible opportunity.”
TAS, evidently, isn’t the only investor to be thinking such thoughts. The $871-million sale earlier this month of Bombardier Aerospace’s Downsview plant and airstrip to the Public Sector Pension Investment Board points to the long-term redevelopment of 371 acres of mostly fallow industrial land east of Downsview Park.
The sprawling site – it is roughly half the size of Toronto’s Portlands and wraps around a working-class enclave that once housed the factory’s employees – enjoys even more locational advantages than TAS’s project: proximity to three subway stops as well as the cluster of big box retailers south of the runway.
The opportunity to rethink this oddly shaped gap in the city will have “excellent ripple effects on the community around it,” predicts planning expert Laura Taylor, an associate professor at York’s faculty of environmental studies. “The airport lands have been like a military installation. It’s been a keep-out zone.”
The big question facing PSPIB, the city’s planning officials, developers and local residents is how re-urbanize a giant void that has long been reserved exclusively for employment and industrial uses, with residential development strictly prohibited. PSPIB has quietly retained a leading planning consultancy, but the re-zoning process will take many years. And if previous controversy over proposed high-rise development at the fringes of Downsview Park is any indication, the eventual plan will also attract opposition from homeowners living in the vicinity of the airport.
City officials, however, say they won’t be in a position to field an official plan amendment (OPA) for at least two years owing to a backlog of appeals.
That enforced bureaucratic delay, however, may be a blessing in disguise.
Citing examples such as the redevelopment of the waterfront lands, the Unilever site or the Woodbine race track, planning experts point out that large tracts such as Downsview pose all sorts of tough questions about the mix of uses, densities, staging and the creation of new public amenities, as well as the area’s eventual relationship with the communities beyond its borders.
“There’s a lot of handshaking to be done with the urban fabric around it,” says Kevin Harper, development manager for Minto Communities, in Ottawa. The process, he adds, “will be fascinating.”
Given the city’s focus on protecting employment lands and ensuring that redevelopment doesn’t lead to a net reduction of jobs within the city, it’s almost certain that any new vision for the Downsview airport site will include zoning for office, commercial or light-industrial development.
Indeed, the area around the combined Downsview Park subway/GO station could potentially become the core of a new mobility hub, positioned as destination for commuter journeys. But, as Prof. Taylor cautions, the viability of any such a plan will depend entirely on demand for new office, commercial or institutional space.
As city planners well know, residential developers will also be eyeing the parcels of land within a few minutes walk of those stations. Peter Zimmerman, president of New Commons Development, says the PSP should be looking at a thoroughly mixed-use approach that includes employment and mid-rise affordable housing. “That’s got to be part of the deal,” he says. “That kind of balance is the best thing on so many levels.”
In fact, Mr. Zimmerman and others hope that a pension fund, which has long investment horizons and a desire for predictable cash flow, will focus on spurring the development of plenty of purpose-built rental housing when the site is rezoned.
Besides the mix, tenure and massing of any new development, the planning for Downsview will require significant investments in the public realm, including a new internal road system that links the east and west sides of the property and provides connectivity to development within the site.
Prof. Taylor suggests the airport’s runway, which conspicuously interrupts the city’s north-south concession grid, could potentially be transformed into an arterial spine, creating a main street with a series of angled intersections that produce both a sense of place and distinctive architecture. “It’s part of the historic landscape.” Mr. Harper agrees: “You would end up interesting spaces at grade.”
Others point to the importance of linking the Downsview airport lands to Downsview Park, which sits on the west side of the GO rail corridor. One idea, says Mike Collins-Williams, policy director for the Ontario Home Builders Association, is to consolidate any parkland dedications arising from mixed-use redevelopment of the airport into a contiguous east-west green space, with a land bridge over the rail line and into Downsview Park. “With the park there, there’s such great potential.”
More generally, Mr. Collins-Williams adds, the city and the pension fund’s consultants must be “thinking long term” because of the unique alignment of a property that has come fully loaded with all manner of city-building components. “This project has the potential to remake that area of Toronto,” he says. “There are multiple spokes on the wheel here.”