Land at the Downsview Airport set currently aside for employment will “more than likely” be redeveloped to include residential uses says Mayor John Tory — a reversal of his previous position that the site be protected for jobs.
Future redevelopment of the 150-hectare site — currently operated by Bombardier — is now being overseen by Tory’s former chief of staff, Chris Eby. Eby is executive vice-president of the company set up to develop the land for PSP Investments, the investment arm of the pension plan for federal public servants, which bought the land from Bombardier in 2018.
“We have always expected and anticipated that the redevelopment of this Downsview site will result in it being the location of thousands of jobs,” Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat said in an emailed statement. “It will also, more than likely, include a significant number of residential units, including affordable housing.”
Tory’s recent comments, first reported by the Globe and Mail, seems to contradict what the mayor himself said about the site in March 2018. They also appear at odds with council, as the city is actively fighting appeals by PSP Investments and others over the city’s policy of protecting employment lands.
“That is employment land and I hope it will continue to be,” Tory told reporters in 2018.
“I don’t accept the notion that every single piece of land without exception … should just be allocated because we decide we’re going to have condo towers and apartment buildings everywhere. We need places for people to work.”
The conversion of land designated for employment to allow the building of more lucrative residential developments as the city grows at an unprecedented pace has been a contentious issue since council approved updated policies to protect sites like Downsview in 2013.
The process for converting employment lands for other uses is a lengthy and difficult process, subject to a comprehensive review by the city.
In May 2018, PSP Investments announced it had entered into an agreement to buy the Bombardier lands — sandwiched in the northwest elbow of where Allen Rd. meets Wilson Ave. just north of Hwy 401 and accessible by Line 1 — with options to continue operations at the manufacturing facility for several years. In December, Bombardier said it planned to open its new plant at Pearson Airport in 2023.
Canada Lands Company, a Crown corporation that manages properties on behalf of the federal government, owns 230 additional hectares, including Downsview Park, and is responsible for plans to develop pockets for new residential, commercial and park space.
Eby, now executive vice-president of PSP’s Northcrest Developments, told the Star it believes that with the aerospace uses being vacated and recent transit improvements to the area there is “an opportunity to revisit the land use framework in this area.”
“As we explore this opportunity — and to be perfectly clear, we are at the beginning stages — we will be working closely with the local community and other stakeholders, including the City of Toronto,” he said in a statement, adding those discussions will be about how PSP can support “important public policy priorities,” including economic development and also increasing the supply of affordable
Peat, Tory’s spokesperson, said any formal application would go through all the regular city processes.
“City planning staff are working with PSP to determine the right mix for this site, consistent with city policy and other developments elsewhere,” he said.
Toronto’s chief planner Gregg Lintern told the Star that it remains the city’s goal to “protect and maintain employment areas.” But with an active appeal over the future of the Downsview site, he said “consideration of other land uses does occur.”
Coun. James Pasternak, who represents the area in his Ward 6 (York Centre) and is a member of Tory’s executive committee, said residential development is not in the cards.
“We already have enormous residential intensification under the Downsview Secondary Plan with neighbourhoods built in Stanley Green, and planned for William Baker and Allen District,” he said referring to the Canada Lands development plans. “That is all that is on the table right now. These lands have great potential as a transformational employment and light industrial zone.”
He said while he looks forward to public consultations and working with the owners, “the local community has been assured there would be no further intensification.”
Maria Augimeri, who previously represented the area, had warned that the land was being privately shopped around as having potential for housing, despite the employment area designation. She has advocated for increased park space.
“I’m very disappointed and suspicious of what the mayor’s office is really up to,” she told the Star Tuesday. “He should tell Downsview residents what he’s planning.”
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Since 2013, when council approved policies by city planning staff to protect various employment lands, including at Downsview, developers have launched dozens of appeals of that decision at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal — the quasi-judicial body made up of provincial appointees who have the final say on land planning disputes.
Earlier this year, tribunal adjudicator Gerald Swinkin agreed with key tenets of the city’s position on the broader policy issues and knocked down a common argument from developers.
“There is no evidence to support the view that there is a need to convert employment lands to non-employment uses to meet the land supply necessary to create the dwelling units that are necessary to accommodate the city’s forecast population growth,” he said.
That decision concluded just one phase of the appeals. Site-specific concerns, like those at the Downsview site, have yet to be adjudicated.