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Toronto’s Waterfront Dreams

Fantasies of a revitalized, reclaimed central waterfront will one day become realities.

I can’t help noticing that the eastern tip of the main runway of the island airport sits dead centre on the north-south axis of Spadina Avenue, a great street in its own right and one of the few of any stature in Toronto that has an actual terminus—that being the old Knox College on Spadina Circle, now under overdue renovation. One of my favourite fantasies while pedalling down Spadina is to imagine what monument might some day rise up on that perfect site, surrounded by the waters of the bay, to mark the southern endpoint of the axis.

Any such monument would mark much more than that, of course, both symbolically and politically. That’s what makes the fantasy beguiling: the airport is long gone, the city’s most precious parkland is vastly expanded and accessible like never before, a car-free, Amsterdam-style neighbourhood hugs the southern edge of the Western Gap, and there is one move left to mark what all citizens agree has been a historic turnaround.

At the heart of the dream, there is a genius in the heroic mould of New York’s Olmsted or Moses, Los Angeles’ Mulholland or Paris’s Haussmann, a master builder who recognizes the urgent need to modernize the obsolete industrial city by humanizing it—and who brutally steamrolls all those who dare oppose the vision. So naturally, the monument will be grand and cost no object.

Indeed, many will be appalled by the extravagance of the gesture. But they will be the same people who said the redevelopment of the airport lands could never work. What happened instead is that the new community—car-free like the rest of the island, and confined to the footprint of the old airport facilities north of the runway—instantly became one of the most desirable residential addresses in Canada.

But the biggest revelation is the park, vastly expanded and joined directly to the mainland through a short pedestrian tunnel. Millions stream through in all seasons. Nobody lines up for a ferry. Hanlan’s Beach is almost a kilometre longer, and all the new facilities—pavilions, playing fields, cafes, amusements—are superb. People who barely knew the island existed before the transformation are amazed to discover such a splendid natural resort so close to the bustling city—and suddenly, miraculously, so much a part of it.

The applause is universal, the coffers are full with real-estate profits, and the island czar has a free hand to do something truly spectacular with the most valuable site of all—a great symbol of reconnection at the new watery foot of Spadina Avenue.

And then I wake up, of course, realizing I will probably be dead by the time such a dream becomes real. But I am certain that some day it will. The improvement is simply too obvious for it not to happen eventually. The tide that is transforming cities throughout the developed world may be weak in Toronto, but it only flows in one direction.

Just as the zoning says, the airport is a temporary non-conforming use. And the island is a park. That’s a fact, but you can’t say it out loud if you want to be taken seriously. The last authority to do so was the old Toronto Harbour Commission, which realized its airport was in the wrong place and proposed closing it in the 1970s. But none of the hundreds of plans, commissions, studies, and proposals since then have dared point out the obvious: that the existence of the airport is the biggest impediment to the historic task of reclaiming the central waterfront.

Even NoJetsTO, the terrific new group that is currently leading the never-ending battle against airport expansion, dares not go there. Just the opposite: accused by Porter Airlines and its allies of wanting to close down the operation altogether, its leaders insist they have no problem with what they call a “boutique airport” on the site. It’s a smart but sad tactic—and a bit of a puppet show considering how very few Torontonians actually do see the wisdom of bulldozing that runway tomorrow.

For the time being, then, we foolish few are fated to emulate the old-fashioned Communists who found reason to join mushy “fellow travellers” on journeys that generally headed in the right direction—even if they disagreed about the ultimate destination.

The dialectic is not dead, you see. “Boutique airport” is an obvious contradiction that history will soon expose. The operation is popular because, as Porter’s books have shown, it sells a service for less than the cost of providing it—losing money despite a long record of subsidies, tax breaks, and sweetheart deals with the Toronto Port Authority (the “gravy plane,” as one reader described it).

That can’t go on. As Porter’s propaganda acknowledges, however inadvertently, the airport must grow or die. Ergo, keeping jets out kills it off.

The problem is that there’s no rallying cry in that. There’s no vision at all, just an insistent, smothering nyet. Nothing will really change until more people open their eyes to a positive vision of what the central waterfront—the very face of the city—might some day be. We can only dream today, but the exercise is no less necessary for that.


  • Jason Martin

    This is a silly article. A small airport is not mutually exclusive to having a lovely island park in the Toronto Islands. There is plenty of space that can be improved on any of the other islands.

    The island airport is a unique resource for downtown. Something that provides much needed competition to Pearson and efficiency for the business core. Toronto does not become ‘world class’ simply by building more parks and housing. There are hard needs. We have been lucky to have a handy little airport right in our downtown.

    The gardiner and rail yards are noisier and more polluting than the airport is.

    John Barber, your ‘dream’ is an interesting one. Some people want Toronto to be more like Guelph and less like Singapore. A park at the foot of Spadina rather than an economic engine isn’t going to help Toronto become a greater city. Just one with one less airport, a longer commute, frustrated travellers, less business advantage, and one more fallow field that we can call a ‘park.’

    • Mercuryinretro

      Somehow Chicago managed to retain world-class city status even with closing their waterfront airport and turning it into a park!

    • RozR

      Jason, the fast Union rail link to Pearson will make jets at the island redundant for the below Bloor set. Anyone outside the city core can get to Pearson faster. Why do you think Porter’s Robert Deluce is so desperate for his buddies on Council to ram his “request” through without proper evaluation? And, once the existing limitations are opened up, Air Canada, Westjet and United will jump in.

      Nope, the jets belong and Pearson and Porter can concentrate on being a popular regional carrier, not a bully.

    • lovetoronto

      enough of the ‘world class’ crap.

    • tomwest

      I work in downtown Toronto, and all the business trips by my fellow employees (both from my office and others) use Pearson. The island airport does nothing for us.

    • tomwest

      In other news: “If you live near a park you are likely to live longer and be happier than your friends surrounded by cement alone,” ( )

    • tomwest

      “Toronto does not become ‘world class’ simply by building more parks”
      It also doesn’t become ‘world class’ by *not building parks. (London and New York both have oodles of parkspace)

  • Jeffery

    A great and timely piece by John Parker. Thank you. ‘If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true?” From The King and I.
    ‘A handy little airport’ is hardly an economic engine for a bustling metropolis, and no competition to Pearson. If Porter didn’t depend on public subsidies (see Community Air website), and the TPA did not spend 1/10 of its profits on advertising its version of ‘facts’, we would not even be wasting vast resources discussing this topic. If Porter Airlines can really compete, it should start with Jets at Pearson and compete with the big boys.The hi-speed train will make the journey from Union to Pearson in 25mins instead of the 35-40 mins by taxi to Billy Bishop.
    My suggestion is to keep the Tripartite Agreement as is until 2033. These kids will be 36 years old then. Let their generation create their dream.

    • Paul Kishimoto

      >John Parker
      >35-40 mins by taxi

      I’d love to read the article you wrote this comment for. It sounds really interesting.

  • Fresh Air

    I have a suggestion for Mr Barber and others; on a fine summer day ride your bikes from Sunnyside on the west to Ashbridge Bay on the east. You will be surprised at how much excellent parkland is almost completely unused by our fair citizenry. One novel idea would be rather than wringing our hands that we don’t have enough parks, let’s discover and actually use some of the ones we already have.

    • Mercuryinretro

      LOL stop giving away our secret…how cool Ashbridge’s is!

    • rich1299

      The airport does help keep people away from the surrounding existing parks alright, btw the parks along the western waterfront from just west of the Palais Royale right to the city’s waterfront edge at Marie Curtis park are always packed in the summer, especially on weekends, and used all year round. I rarely biked much further east since the ride wasn’t as pleasant but when I did it was very noticeable how the number of people in parks dropped off around the airport and didn’t start picking up again till around Cherry beach. The central waterfront area should be much more welcoming than it is with the airport there. Chicago gets millions more people flocking to their central waterfront and all the business that results whenever large numbers of people gather.

  • RozR

    Any expansion of the airport will dominate the waterfront. Jet aircraft blasting across the harbour every 2 minutes (turbos every 3 minutes now) will completely disrupt all venues from the Beaches to the Humber. After all the taxpayer $$$$ invested in finally doing something positive with the lakeshore, one man’s private company partnered with a revenue hungry Port Authority must not suck more $$$$$ out of Toronto for their own profit.

  • Jeffery

    My apologies to John Barber. I called you John Parker.

  • Slither

    Horrible writing. And the goal for this is more condos on the island, with the ability to walk around artwork? Isn’t that the problem with downtown now? Your dreams sound like Liberty Village and Etobicoke. Dry cleaners and Pizza Pizza establishments every 100 feet. And not a soul in sight because it is a horrible experience.