By Mark Brooks
The recent announcement of Cadillac Fairview’s (CF) purchase of a 100% stake in Toronto Buttonville Airport has important implications for the development of an aerotropolis in nearby Pickering. Buttonville airport, a busy GA (General Aviation) and utility airport, sits on a 169-acre property in the City of Markham. Considered a prime site for a major redevelopment a decade ago, its closure is expected to ramp up the actions needed to develop a new regional airport in nearby Pickering. Why and when will Buttonville airport close and what happens next?
As the old real estate saying goes, “Location, Location, Location!”. Buttonville Airport is located at the junction of Highway 404 and 16th Avenue just north of Highway 407 in the north east region of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Once surrounded by farmers’ fields, it is now land-locked by office buildings and housing. This location makes it a prime site for redevelopment. Cadillac Fairview purchased a 50% stake in the airport back in 2011. As reported by RENX (Real Estate News eXchange), CF recently completed a transaction to purchase the remaining 50% (80 acres) for an additional $193 million or about $2.2 million an acre.
According to RENX, CF has confirmed the acquisition – saying for now it will continue to operate as an airport.
“We can confirm that CF is now the 100 per cent owner of the Buttonville site,” Cadillac Fairview wrote in an email reply to RENX.
CF confirmed that the airport lands have been leased back to the current operator (TorontAir Inc) who will continue to operate the Buttonville airport for the foreseeable future.
“Over the coming year, CF will explore various land use options to optimize the site’s future development potential.”
What happens next? How soon will Buttonville close, and what are the implications for the development timeline of Pickering Airport? The land is currently zoned industrial, so in theory it could be closed by the end of 2023 and turned into an industrial park. But it is unlikely that CF paid $2.2 million an acre just to build an office park. An earlier proposal to develop 10 million square feet of mixed residential and commercial space failed to move forward, this writer understands, when the region asked for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional development levies. These levies are to support enhanced water, sewer and road access.
It is expected that CF will request that the site be rezoned. Next steps may include the creation of a new or updated detailed design, submission and approval of a planning application and a Land Tribunals – LPAT hearing. These steps could take years and could face a number of delays. Until a new deal is struck with the region and the city, it is unlikely that CF would immediately close a profitable airport.
CF now has a large investment in the property so a closure of the airport, in preparation for redevelopment, is likely to occur at some point. CF is the development arm of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) which is currently part of the consortium that owns the London City airport in London England. The airport in London has a runway just a 1000 ft longer than Buttonville’s, so it is possible that Buttonville could even be retained as an active airport. But it is far more likely that the airport will be closed in 2 to 4 years to clear the way for transforming the property into a multi-billion dollar real estate project.
What will happened to the hundreds of jobs and the $100 million in economic activity created by the airport annually? Buttonville airport is currently full with a waiting list of corporate and privately owned aircraft looking for hangar space. These include a flight school, Canadian Flyers International, half a dozen charter operators, an airline and three maintenance shops. All are based at Buttonville in order to provide aviation services to the region. In addition, air ambulances and police operators rely on the airport.
The only other airport able to provide aviation services to the region is Oshawa Airport. But Oshawa airport is a 45 minute drive to the east, not on a major highway and not well positioned for air ambulance operations supporting the larger local hospitals.
Oshawa Airport has limited room, so it appears that most of Buttonville’s businesses will be forced to shut down. In addition, the Oshawa city council has made it clear that it wants to reduce flight training activity and noise over Oshawa created by spiking air traffic, now above pre- pandemic levels. Oshawa airport is run by the city and is surrounded by thousands of homes. The city’s first concern is clearly to those homeowners and is therefore now in a legal battle to evict one of the flight schools (The Canadian Flight Academy) to reduce aviation traffic.
A simple solution is to enable private investors to build a basic airfield on land set aside for a new airport in nearby Pickering before Buttonville closes. These investors are expected to include some of the Buttonville businesses about to become homeless. One immediate benefit would be that Pickering Airports location will enable air ambulance and police aviation services to continue to serve the community without interruption.
As Buttonville is profitable, so too will Pickering Airport be. With proper planning, this new small utility airport could be allowed to grow into the much larger regional airport, a key part of an aerotropolis envisioned by regional planners. The new green aerotropolis planned in Pickering was originally expected to break ground in 2026, and open at the end of 2028. Buttonville’s pending closure is adding pressure to move up this time frame.
Cadillac Fairview buys 100% stake in Toronto Buttonville airport | RENX – Real Estate News Exchange
TORONTAIR LTD. – MARKHAM ON CANADA (companiesofcanada.com)