Members of Parks not Planes are your neighbours. Join us in the effort to turn the Island Airport lands into a magnificent park.
Toronto’s waterfront has one remaining noxious vestige of its industrial past ‑ a busy commercial airport on Toronto Island, delivering noise, pollution and threats to our natural environment, the City's health and quality of life. Now, as has already happened all along the waterfront, there’s a tantalizing opportunity to repurpose the 215‑acre Island Airport lands as desperately‑needed parkland.
In 2033 the Tripartite Agreement that allows the island airport to operate will end. We have less than ten years to ensure that these lands are returned to parkland and showcase Toronto as a visionary city that values and loves its waterfront.
And the timing is right: The City is asking the public to provide Big Ideas for the new Toronto Island Park Master Plan, which will have a special focus on natural spaces and the Island's Indigenous history.
In this age of climate crisis we need a high speed train link from Quebec City to Windsor, not more business travel by planes. And we need to cut the current air pollution and noise pollution that impacts the waterfront.
But Ports Toronto is trying to attract other airlines to the island airport. This is short term thinking and not what Toronto needs for the 21st century. The islands need to be parkland that is easily accessible by the underground tunnel and open to all.
We’ve formed Parks not Planes to ensure that this remarkable opportunity is realized.
On May 20, 2021 news was leaked that Porter Airlines, the operator of 85% of the commercial flights out of the Island Airport, has purchased 30 passenger jets from Embraer of Brazil and is in discussions with Pearson International Airport, and others, to establish passenger jet service. Jets are prohibited at the Island Airport by Transport Canada.
We’ve also learned that Porter, which sold the Island Airport terminal for over $700M to a group of New York investors, now refuses to pay the fees the terminal owners want to charge, claiming they’re more than three times what Pearson charges. Porter has repeatedly threatened to leave the Island Airport as a result.
Even before the pandemic, Porter was losing money – projected at $40M in 2018, and $30M in 2019.
Porter may continue to fly out of the Island for a time, using its turboprop Q400 aircraft, but it now seems inevitable that the company will streamline its operations, and close its Island service. Without commercial airline service the only planes operating from the Island will be general aviation. The airport will be financially unviable.
There’s an outside date for the Airport lands: the City of Toronto’s rent free lease (the Tripartite Agreement) to Ports Toronto of a good portion of those lands ends on June 30, 2033. There is no right to renew. To date, the city has shown no interest in renewing the agreement.
Parks not Planes is a new community group keen to take advantage of the opportunity of these recent developments.
An Airport on the Waterfront
From its beginning the Island Airport has been controversial.
On July 9, 1937, after two days of debate, City Council voted 14–7 to approve the construction of two airports: the Island Airport and Malton Airport, later Pearson International Airport.
The approval of the Island Airport meant the demolition of Toronto’s major baseball stadium, fifty-four cottages, a boardwalk, amusement park attractions and the regatta course. It led to the filling of water lots in both Toronto Harbour and Lake Ontario. It also created a controversy that continues to this day.
While major carriers chose Pearson, and it grew into Toronto’s main airport, for years the Island Airport was a sleepy facility serving private planes.
But in the early 1980s there was pressure from business interests to permit commercial flights out of the Island. After negotiations the City, the federal government and the Toronto Harbour Commission (succeeded by Ports Toronto) signed the Tripartite Agreement that allowed commercial flights.
To prevent a major commercial airport operation, that Agreement prohibited all but short takeoff and landing (STOL) commercial aircraft and private (non-commercial) aircraft from the Airport. It also prohibited any runway extensions, and prohibited a bridge.
City Express operated STOL aircraft from the Island Airport from 1984, but ceased operating in 1991, when it became bankrupt.
Air Ontario commenced its STOL service from the Airport in 1990, but also failed to find enough business. Its traffic declined steadily, with 2001 levels approximating 90,000, and 2002 levels projected at 80,000.
Without successful commercial aircraft operations, the Island Airport was losing money. For a time, it received federal subsidies. These were phased out with the implementation of its National Airports Policy in the 1990s, which required airports to be commercially viable.
The city came to the airport’s help with grants of $2.8M annually, plus capital subsidies, but wanted to stop paying.
The Toronto Port Authority, the federal government agency administering the airport, could have decided the airport was unviable but instead chose to expand the airport’s business. To do so, in 2003 it proposed building a bridge across the Western Gap to the Airport.
This became a major controversy in the 2003 municipal election. A citizen’s group, CommunityAIR, emerged to fight the airport expansion, and David Miller was elected mayor on the promise that he would cancel the bridge. Shortly after, the federal government followed the city’s lead and the bridge was canceled.
The Port Authority was undeterred. It made an agreement with Robert Deluce and in 2006 Porter Airlines was launched despite serious safety concerns and violations of the Tripartite Agreement:
An intergovernmental committee of safety experts had found that in the event of an emergency, it could take up to two hours to get the appropriate equipment over to the island without a bridge. The committee said that was not acceptable.
Porter announced it would fly Bombardier Q400 aircraft which does not have STOL capabilities.
The runways at the Island Airport are too short to accommodate aircraft the size of the Q400.
Pearson safer choice
There are other issues that suggest that Pearson was the safer choice:
The Air France Airbus A340-313 aircraft overrun at Pearson Airport on 2 August 2005, triggered calls for longer runway end safety areas (RESAs) but Transport Canada has delayed requiring them – primarily because it realizes adequate RESAs are impossible at the Island Airport – Ports Toronto recently revealed that it would cost $50M-130M to build RESAs – if approval is forthcoming from the city
“The high-rise condominium developments, which have been built along the waterfront impact airport operations. These impacts are primarily to the Airport’s instrument approach procedures, which must be modified to ensure compliance with Transport Canada regulatory requirements. The resulting operational impacts to BBTCA flight operations are in the form of approach minima that are higher than ideal.” (from Ports Toronto’s 2014 Airport Master Plan)
No study that we are aware of addresses first responder access to an airplane running into the water off the end of the runway or crashing into Toronto Harbour or Humber Bay.
Porter’s business stalls
In 2006 Porter started operations, and for the next seven years saw significant growth.
RPM is Revenue Passenger Miles per month, in millions: the miles Porter planes flew times the number of seats occupied in those flights. Based on data reported by Porter. Porter ceased reporting data in April 2013.
Porter’s growth ceased in 2012 and has remained stalled ever since. As we noted above, Porter has been incurring significant losses in its Island Airport operations.
From City of Toronto 2017 Staff Presentation November 14, 2017
It proposes a strategy that includes
Ensuring that Toronto’s system of parks expands as the city grows and evolves,
Expanding existing parks by acquiring and securing lands adjacent to existing parks and particularly in high-growth areas to improve programming potential and accommodate more use and activities, and
Seizing key opportunities to acquire and create new legacy parks overtime that will be powerful city-building moves and iconic open spaces that strengthen Toronto’s identity as a global, liveable city.
The report says that the downtown core, roughly between Bathurst Street in the west, Parliament in the east, Queens Quay in the south and Bloor Street in the north, is more deficient in parkland than any other city neighbourhood. The population in the core is now approximately 300,000 people. Many new residential high-rise buildings are under construction and more are in the planning stages.
This presents a serious challenge for the city. Residents of downtown multi-unit buildings have no access to private green space and rely on parks for recreation, but there is very little parkland available in the downtown core.
People from all over Toronto and beyond are flocking to the Toronto Island Park. Ward’s Beach and the Clothing Optional Beach, near Hanlan’s Point, are often crowded. There is a lack of recreational space like baseball diamonds and soccer fields in the downtown. This is not only a serious quality of life issue: the lack of clean air and green space are environmental and health issues.
The 215 acres of the Island Airport lands should be converted to a park and joined or merged with the Toronto Island Park to create 800 acres of public park open to all citizens. This will help solve the issue of the lack of park space for the people living in the city core, and it will create a magnificent park on our waterfront—a park larger than Central Park in New York—an icon demonstrating to the world that Toronto promotes the quality of life of its people, and protects and enhances the natural world.
In fact, no rezoning would be required – the Official Plan for the Airport lands restricts its uses to park and natural area, once the Airport closes.
The chief benefit of developing the Island Airport lands into a park is addressing the extreme shortage of parks in downtown Toronto, but there are major environmental benefits.
Fuel burned by aircraft in take-off and landing contributes to poor air quality in the downtown
Noise from aircraft has been a constant complaint of people living in Bathurst Quay and along the Waterfront
Over 350 species of birds have been sighted and identified on Toronto Island. A busy airport on the Island is a threat to all species.
The Islands are the second most important bird flyway on the Great Lakes, after Point Pelee. Replacing the Airport with this new park would create a sanctuary for birds, instead of a danger.
Aircraft bird strikes are a constant problem for Airports – almost 5,000 collisions between large birds and aircraft occurred in North America from 1990 to 2018, including the well known “miracle on the Hudson”. Damage was caused to the aircraft in over 40% of them. The thousands of Canada geese – 400,000 in southern Ontario and cormorants – 60 70,000 nesting on the Leslie Street Spit on the waterfront pose a significant danger to aircraft operating from the Island Airport.
A park on the airport lands will provide the opportunity to increase the number of trees and tree canopy in the downtown. Trees remove carbon from the air, and that will help address climate change. They also help to moderate temperatures and reduce the problem of urban heat islands in summer.
Some have argued that the Island Airport has been a major economic benefit. That has been marginal at best.
When Porter began flights in 2006 it was said this would be a great benefit to the downtown financial centre of the city.
The facts do not bear that out. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, Pearson had 50 million passengers, while the Island Airport had 2.8 million. Clearly Pearson has always provided more important services. Now that the Union-Pearson (UP) Express has been opened there is excellent connection between the downtown and Pearson Airport.
Any economic benefit from operating aircraft at the Island Airport can as readily be achieved at Pearson.
The economic benefits of the airport also ignored the benefits from closing the airport. Noise and pollution generated by an airport diminish property values in adjacent areas to a significant degree. Parks on the other hand demonstrate huge economic benefits, starting with increasing property values.
Tourism is a very large employer in the city. The Toronto Islands are a major tourist draw. The Waterfront has become another large tourist attraction along with others in the vicinity such as the CN Tower, Roger’s Centre, and Ripley’s Aquarium. When the Island Airport lands are converted into a park it will become another important attraction. These benefits far outweigh the importance of the Island Airport.
A New Park
The Island Airport occupies 215 acres of land. This is the most spectacular piece of property in the GTA. To the south and west is Lake Ontario and Ontario Place, across the Western Gap is the Bathurst Quay residential community, to the east and north is Toronto Harbour and the skyline of the city, and to the south and east is the Toronto Island Park.
When the decision is made to convert the airports lands into a park, the high wire fence separating the airport from the Island Park will be torn down and an 800 acre park will emerge. The park will be 6 kilometers in length, stretching from the Western Gap to the Eastern Gap. It will be surrounded by water with inlets and lagoons. Hanlan’s Beach will stretch from Gibraltar Point to the Western Gap, the longest beach in the GTA. There will be space for people to stroll, enjoy wildlife, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, canoeing, kayaking and small sailboats or just sitting and enjoying the skyline. There will be room enough for scores of activities.
This will be an addition of a large park at very little cost. The airport lands are already publicly owned. A federal agency, Ports Toronto, was given a good portion of the lands by the federal government and the city owns the rest. There will be no costs to purchase the land.
The federal government has made bold moves on Toronto's waterfront before: it created Harbourfront in the seventies, and co-created Waterfront Toronto in the nineties. Both to great acclaim.
It can do it again, and must, sooner than later, to address the extreme shortage of parkland, that will only get worse with the growing downtown population.
The cost of converting the Island Airport lands into a park is difficult to determine because it will depend on a number of factors, but if a minimal plan was established to remove the airport buildings and runways, the cost will be no more than $50 million.
Ports Toronto received $93M a few years ago from its sale of 30 Bay Street. We think spending that on the new Island Park would be an appropriate use of these public funds.
In an effort to rekindle its business growth, in 2013 Porter Airlines proposed that jets be allowed at the Island Airport. This proposal would have required filling parts of Toronto Harbour and Lake Ontario to lengthen the runways to accommodate the jets.
A new citizen’s group, NoJetsTO, formed to stop the jets. Ultimately, jets became a federal election issue, and once elected, the Justin Trudeau government honoured its promise and refused permission for Porter’s jets.
If City Express, Air Ontario, and now, Porter could not make a success flying out of the Island Airport, then it is unlikely that any other airline can make it a success. It seems inevitable that the airport must close because it is not economically viable, and governments are unwilling to continue to subsidize an airport used by a small number of people with private planes.
The important question, therefore, is what should become of the 215 acres of Island Airport lands? These lands are owned by the public: Ports Toronto, an agency of the federal government, the Government of Canada and the City of Toronto. The decision will be made by the politicians who lead these governments.
The City of Toronto is engaged in a new Master Plan for Toronto Island. Unfortunately the 215 acres of the Island Airport are not part of the plan's terms of reference. If these lands were included in the study, we are confident that people would point out how the conversion of the airport lands into a park would help to solve the need for parkland of those who live in the city core. They would also point out the environmental benefits and even the economic opportunities if the airport lands were converted into a park.
Toronto’s need for Parkland
In the last few years, the City of Toronto has been increasingly concerned with the supply of parkland to meet demands from a growing population. On November 26, 2019 its “Final Parkland Strategy Report” was adopted by City Council.
Drawing by Gerry Englar, professor, University of Toronto School of Architecture.
This drawing, by the late Gerry Englar, a landscape architect and waterfront resident, captures his vision of how the airport can be transformed. Toronto is blessed with many fine planners and architects. It is time to bring the collective imagination of the people of Toronto and the expertise of our planners to transform this spectacular property into a wonderful park.
This park can become a signature waterfront landmark. It will be accessible to everyone by good public transit. The pedestrian tunnel links the city to the Island and is open all year. Like the rest of the Toronto Islands, the new park will be free of private vehicles.
The Toronto Islands were occupied for centuries by the Mississaugas of the New Credit, and this continued well into the era when Toronto was established as a town in the 1790s. The Mississaugas should be invited to participate in the design and operation of the park on the Airport lands as a part payment for the settlement of their lands and as a way to celebrate aboriginal art and culture.
Edmonton (partially), Berlin, and Chicago have converted their downtown airports to parkland, and Santa Monica will do so soon. It is time for Toronto to join them.
Those who will benefit the most will be the over 300,000 people who live in the downtown core, but all Torontonians will benefit. Climate change is a major threat to everyone on the planet. By reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and changing our environment from a reliance on things like airports and planes to parks with trees and clean water, we will be contributing to the health and well being of everyone.
Join us in the campaign for Parks not Planes and help to create a clean green city for all the people.
Parks not Planes