ULI Toronto News

Reimagining Former Airport Lands at Downsview

By: Eunice Wong, EY Transaction Real Estate

A little less than 30 years ago, the federal government had decommissioned the Canadian Forces Base (CFB) at Downsview in Toronto, revealing the transformational potential for hundreds of acres in the area. Fast forward to January 2018, Bombardier Inc. announced the decision to offer its 370-acre site for sale. On June 7th, 2018, Bombardier confirmed the completion of the previously announced sale of its Downsview property to the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP) for $635 million USD. Pursuant to an agreement with PSP, Bombardier would continue to operate for a period of up to three years, with two optional one-year extension periods. Bombardier and its subsidiary de Havilland have been located at Downsview for approximately 90 years, claiming Downsview as the “aerospace hub” in the GTA. The aerospace hub includes a $72 million aerospace campus for Centennial College, partly funded by the federal and provincial governments, and is due to open in Fall 2018. Bombardier’s position resulted from its strategy to capture value from monetizing an underutilized asset, streamlining and optimizing business operations, and seeking further economic development and job growth in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

The Downsview Area Secondary Plan was updated in 2011 and, as a result of the recent Bombardier sale, there is a relatively new secondary plan to be realized as the Downsview site has been recognized by the Toronto Star as one of the GTA’s last remaining “canvases.”

Lessons can be learned from other major airport redevelopment projects as industry leaders involved with the redevelopment of former airport lands in Canada and United States offered their perspective on opportunities and challenges related to their project and to the Downsview site. Moderated by Signe Leisk, Partner at Cassels Brock, ULI Toronto industry professionals were enriched as project experiences were gathered from:

Each speaker provided a detailed background on the main design concepts and governance decisions influencing the redevelopment. A common aspirational goal among the development projects involved the planning, design, and development of a more connected city. The three panelists speaking about their respective projects also mutually agreed on the challenges of managing expectations against reality — whether it related to setting vision and principles or managing time and costs.

A defining component of the Blatchford project that had a similarity with the Downsview site was the key element of mobility and the layer of the light rail transit (LRT) line that was used for the purposes of integrating the various uses of residential, commercial, and institutional. In MacDonald’s experience, it was about building the culture for a walkable or cycle-friendly design as the priority was no longer given to vehicle traffic. In addition, the Blatchford site was also viewed as a rare opportunity to provide social and community impact at such a large size and scale. Blatchford was largely on the public stage and it was imperative that in order to overcome these hurdles, a good communication plan was necessary. Good communication not only related to community engagement but it also involved environmental concerns that were typically considered standard but the messaging was initially transparent.

Recognizing that the Blatchford project involved many complex layers, MacDonald admitted that one of the biggest challenges involved the relationship management with the City of Edmonton as the developer, even for rezoning and entitlements.

The Stapleton redevelopment project was a response to a demographic slide within Greater Denver as an attempt to appeal to those moving away from the community. Approximately 4,200 acres were redeveloped as part of a 30 year project. Johnson claimed the most notable opportunity was rooted in the ability to demonstrate how the land could repair the damage that the former airport activity caused. With such a large scale development project, a well-developed governance framework was essential in overcoming any planning or development hurdles. Johnson spoke of the various stakeholder interests involved where trust was a major question.

The Playa Vista project in Los Angeles benefited from the surrounding value that already existed in the community and development. Its proximity to the Los Angeles International Airport and location near the ocean was already a major opportunity for the redevelopment. A drawback of the Playa Vista project was that the site was built on landfill and wetland areas, subject to environmental protection and heritage rights. Playa Vista was able to attract various social media, entertainment, and technology businesses, eventually earning the nickname of “Silicon Beach.” The development appears to have successfully integrated both employment and residential uses to establish a “live-work-play” culture. Nesbitt claims that the social media industry was the stimulant for the residential. Some of the area businesses within the campus include Facebook, Microsoft, and YouTube, which have also been fundamental in providing signature events for community participation.

When asked about affordability, Nesbitt said that there needs to be a proper balance of supply and demand for housing. Affordability will not exist if the focus is solely serving the demand. Playa Vista integrated affordable housing control prices within its development and offered a mix of units in condominium and purpose-built apartments.

The airport lands at Downsview represent a unique opportunity to increase density within and/or around the Downsview site. Taking advantage of the transportation links already set up (i.e. new TTC subway stop and GO station) unlocks potential to develop large tracts of land within an urban area that will no longer be constrained by flight path restrictions. Given the site is currently zoned for employment uses, Downsview is considered a prime location for the “live-work-play” culture. As a result, the above 3 projects discussed offer suggestions on how to look at a mixed-use approach to incorporate employment uses and affordable housing.

For how Toronto can learn from these experiences for the transformation of the Downsview site, some of the collective recommendations included:

  • Future Proofing – ensure the design and planning is not only just for today’s community needs but for 30 years from now;
  • Beware of “Fake News” – manage the expectations and perception of what the neighbourhood will be like and ensure it is also consistent with the perceived financial performance and benefits of the community;
  • Balance of Mixed Use – it is important to have employment uses, but there needs to be a balance;
  • Be Realistic – it may not be financially feasible to implement all desired sustainable infrastructure and as a result, a sufficient evaluation framework is required to measure these types of decisions weighing how the development objectives can be achieved;
  • Communicate – communities need to be educated to understand how projects are financed and how the cash flows that support phased development are impacted;
  • Start early – be cautious of continuous changes as projects will likely become more complicated with time;
  • Vision – the redevelopment should not just be the “Mayor’s vision.” The conversation or discourse is how you create alignment over the process; and,
  • Community Involvement – get the community involved for a healthy robust stakeholder engagement process.

With a rich history of aviation and military, the future of the Downsview site will be complex as it involves multiple stakeholders – city planning officials, policymakers from all levels of government, developers, local residents, and the surrounding communities within the GTA – all within the public eye. As the protection of jobs remains a primary objective, it is important to realize that employment succeeds not only in industrial or business parks, but also in mixed-use settings that benefit from the “live-work-play” community. As the GTA is faced with housing affordability and housing supply issues, the potential landscape of Downsview will be a profound endeavour in how it balances these pressures.

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