Dateline: Toronto: ISLAND AIRPORT REDESIGNED; Jane Jacobs Dies PART VII

[note: this concludes this seven-part series –ed.]

In Part V of this series we wrote:

The charrette concluded Saturday afternoon, at the lovely grand ballroom of a waterfront hotel, with presentations of the various design proposals as sown by the whirlwind. Here again members of the public were invited, and here his worship, the mayor of Toronto David Miller delivered a stirring address on the subject of our labours.

Then, in Part VI, we backtracked and described the consensus-building process as experienced by our own Jacob Allderdice, Urban Designer, in the group facilitated by Landscape Architect Janet Rosenberg:

In a nutshell, we all shouted at each other, or whispered at the sidelines, or some hybrid of the two, haggling each in our own way for our point to make it to the final list. Ultimately it was a question of “survival of the fittest,” or “consensus by attrition.”

It makes for sad and sordid reading. Go back and look again if you don’t believe us.

Thing is, the steam was out of our sails on this process by the Friday night before Saturday morning [ain’t that just always the way it goes? –ed.].

But we showed up Saturday (too late for Eb Zeidler’s presentation of his 1970s-era airport lands park proposal, but in plenty of time for several cups of strong coffee) for a fresh dive into the dusty whirlwind of the team Rosenberg charrette.

Surprisingly, the process on Saturday went fairly smoothly. Fact is, people came to the charrette in order to work on a proposal to replace the island airport with “something better” [kind of like the WTO protester slogan of yore about replacing “capitalism?” –ed.]. and most of us were fed up with the strife of the day before. We wanted to move forward and create something.

As a group, we had the talent and the skills to draw something up, and we worked from the idea about a new campus for the environmental faculty, together with ideas about the existing airport runways meeting the encroaching dune structure that would naturally be there, to arrive at a proposal for earth-sheltered buildings and a near-universal pathway that would filter through the “dunes” to arrive wherever a person might wish to go.

Janet Rosenberg refered to it, quite aptly, as “landscape-driven, not architecture-driven urban form.” Coincidentally, it was very similar to a project Peter Lynch Architect of New York submitted to an international competition for a cultural centre in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, back in 1990. Fact is, we worked on the Lynch proposal, but the coincidence ends there.

We presented our work with the five other groups on Saturday afternoon. It was an anticlimactic experience. Ms Rosenberg, who had spent the hour prior to her presentation struggling with John Bessai to nail down the exact words she would use to describe each slide (“I need a title for our project! I need a title!”), made a real hash of it. It wouldn’t have mattered that she rushed through her comments, out of sync with the slides on the screen, if only when, as she reached the end, she had not neglected to press the button to advance the presentation to the last slide. This image was to have been a skillfully crafted perspective view of the scheme that Ms. Rosenberg’s associate, James Roche, had spent hours creating.

It was a pretty telling moment, in our opinion.

Only one group among the lot of us, the one whose “fresh eyes” were provided by Michael Gordon, senior planner from Vancouver B.C., provided for a residential community on the site. How could this be? We have a theory that it’s in no small part due to one fact: despite receiving an extensive tour of the waterfront by the charrette organizers, no one among the “fresh eyes” was taken to visit the island residential community. How could they have any real idea how successful an idea it is? Fact is, living amidst a park with cars kept well outside the town line does not fit into the picture of “normal life” the automobile advertisements feed us each day.

But Michael Gordon had a secret weapon: he had family who had lived on the island and he had spent time there during summers past. He knew what a magical place it is, and was able to incorporate hints of that magic in the proposal of his group.

[Now might be a good time to sum up this whole process. Now might be a good time to round up the connection to Jane Jacobs’s life and work. –ed.]

Um, yeah.

Well, sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen.

First off, it turns out if you research the Community AIR project we mentioned previously, the one designed by John Bessai’s brother Tom, you’ll see that in fact it’s heartily endorsed by Jane Jacobs herself, who showed up at the opening presentation launch in 2002. As reported by Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star,

The drawings depict a varied landscape with hotels, cultural facilities, baseball diamonds and even a stadium. Architect Tom Bessai, who led the project, stresses the plan is intended mainly to stir discussion.

“This is the best planning I’ve seen for the waterfront,” Jacobs responded. “Downtown is very deprived of active recreation space, especially for teenagers. This new park would give them a place…. We have a miserable waterfront in Toronto. Everyone knows that. I worry about it.”

Second, and it’s no small point, Jacobs was a flexible thinker in her approach to the automobile and the city. She recognized strengths and weaknesses. At best, if you read what she says in Death and Life of Great American Cities or in Dark Age Ahead, she says cars take up too much space and there are too many of them. She decries “traffic engineering” as a pseudo-science and warns it is one aspect of the impending failure of our cultural institutions, but she makes no bones about the improved conditions in cities that came about when the “mud” (“a euphemism”) of horses was removed: it’s just that “We went awry by replacing… each horse on the crowded city streets with half-a-dozen or so mechanized vehicles, instead of using each mechanized vehicle to replace a half-a-dozen horses” (Death and Life, p. 343).

[Okay… So Jane Jacobs might not support your call for more car-free residential construction on the airport site. Can you at least say what is, exactly, that ties this whole event into the call to end automobile advertising in all its forms? –ed.]

You know, we’d like to, we really would. Problem is, it’s complicated. Closest we get is the “Gospel of the Car Ad” that told Janet Rosenberg (and, to be fair, Mark Van Elsberg too): “Got Kids? Need Car.” It’s kind of weak. We can see that. And then there’s that bit about how Jane Jacobs starts chapter two of Dark Age Ahead:

You probably know them personally, but in any case you’ve seen them in a thousand advertisements: the father, the mother, the little boy, and his older sister, alighting from their new car at the charming small-town church…

What does it say, though? Obviously Jacobs was aware of car ads. It doesn’t mean she bought them. She didn’t own a car. She didn’t know how to drive. She famously took taxis everywhere.

[This gets more and more pathetic. You’ve worked on this for over a month. Have you got anything to tell us, except about how you’ve lost all these ALLDERBLOB readers who miss the glory days of Jacob Richler and Leah McLaren? –ed.]

Well, there’s the small matter of these two letters to the editor that appeared in the Star last week. They’re kind of interesting. There’s a third one, too, that the Star didn’t publish, but we’ll stick it at the end too. It kind of sums up our position.


Turn island airport into waterside park
May 15, 2006. 01:00 AM

Harbour of our dreams
Column, May 13.

I can feel Christopher Hume’s excitement about the new waterfront projects and proposals. Unfortunately, the way things are proceeding, anyone who wants to enjoy the new amenities will have to do so while being assaulted by the roar of planes and the stench of aircraft fuel from Robert Deluce’s taxpayer-subsidized Porter Airlines scheme at the island airport.

Unseen will be the well-documented witches’ brew of carcinogens and other noxious chemicals that are also generated by aircraft fuel combustion.

If the money-losing airport were closed, Toronto could turn the airport lands into a spectacular new park. Adding a ferry across the Eastern Gap would then enable creation of a continuous waterfront greenbelt from Etobicoke to Scarborough.

The new airport lands’ park could be named in honour of the late Jane Jacobs, who wrote, “Expanding the Toronto island airport will undermine the downtown’s economy and liveability and intensify pollution and smog from Oshawa to Oakville.”

I urge people to write to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, tell him not to cave in to Deluce’s legion of lobbyists and to do the right thing for Toronto’s waterfront.

Marc Brien, Toronto


Welcome debate on island airport
May 16, 2006. 01:00 AM

Turn island airport into waterside park
Letter, May 15.

I was surprised to see Marc Brien’s letter regarding the island airport run yesterday in your newspaper without properly identifying his affiliation.

I’m sure your readers will be interested to know that Brien is a spokesperson for CommunityAIR, a local group opposed to the Toronto City Centre Airport. While this may explain Brien’s perspective, it does not justify his cavalier attitude toward the facts.

Contrary to Brien’s assertions, Porter Airlines is a 100 per cent privately-funded enterprise. In fact, we have raised more than $125 million in equity, making the airline one of the most well-capitalized in aviation history.

In addition, the Q400 turboprop aircraft that Porter is having built here in Toronto has an exceptionally low noise profile and reduced engine emissions which exceed the International Civil Aviation Organization’s standards by a large margin. Today, the Q400 is the turboprop of choice for airlines in many of Europe’s most environmentally-conscious countries.

We fully support an informed public debate on the benefits of the island airport.

However, to have that debate one must factor in the more than 500 new jobs to be created by Porter Airlines, the $800 million in economic benefits which will be delivered to the city annually and increased choice and competition for the travelling public.

Robert Deluce, President and Chief Executive Officer, Porter Airlines Inc., Toronto City Centre Airport


To the Editor:

re: Toronto Island Airport controversy rages on in letters page of the Star (letters, May 15, 16, 2006)

Robert Deluce, chief of Porter Air, and Marc Brien of the Community AIR advocacy group can duke it out on your letters page, and Christopher Hume has weighed in on the international competition to redesign Harbourfront, but little notice was taken of the little charrette, or design workshop, that the city sponsored a couple weekends ago to redesign the whole island airport site.

Called “Fresh Eyes,” the charrette brought outside design experts together with local ones and community members to consider an alternative future for the airport lands. The local organizer was the urban design firm OfficeforUrbanism, and public presentation of the work produced, including a congratulatory talk by his Worship the Mayor of Toronto, was held at the Harbourfront Radisson hotel on April 22.

Your paper may have missed it, but you can be sure neither Community Air nor Porter Airlines did.

I participated as a “local expert,” on the strength of an urban design proposal I did several years ago for a previous waterfront competition, this one organized by the Toronto Society for Architects. This proposal was also published in the remarkable book “uTOpia: Toward a New Toronto,” to which your paper has devoted much ink.

My impression coming out of the charrette is that positions are entrenched so deeply that neither side of this debate is likely to get anywhere. Community Air wants a park and Porter Air wants turboprop airplanes. Whatever happens, someone is going to raise a stink.

Those of us who want something else, say a continuation of the good urban design that exists in Toronto’s main streets like the Danforth or Queen Street, together with the rich and unique (car-free) residential fabric that can be found on Ward’s and Algonquin Islands, are not being heard.

Yet we exist in droves. There are 500 names on the (capped) waiting list for one of the 262 houses on Toronto Island. You cannot pay to get on the list. If someone, say the Toronto Port Authority who holds sway over what can happen on the airport site, were to look with their own “fresh eyes” at the situation, they might see a public relations coup in the making.

Yes, the island airport is unpopular: a mayoral race was decided on the basis of it alone in 2003. And yes, people would love to live in a carfree park setting. These two facts should point a direction for the Port Authority.

Eliminate the airport, build “main streets” with shops and apartments and tramline linkages along its (former) runways, and stamp the simple platting of Ward’s island housing lots on the interstitial quads of sun-baked turf. Lease the land and set strict design controls on what can be built (i.e. no “Harbourfront.”

Overnight, Toronto would have a new residential community of a type unique in the world, a true eco-village, and with the Port Authority as lease-holder that federal agency (which many revile) could finally turn a profit.

And what of Community AIR? What of Porter Air? Let them find somewhere else for parkland and airstrips. I hear there’s some vacant land at Downsview….

Jacob Allderdice M.Arch M.U.D.
Urban Designer


[huzzah! thank heavens! –ed.]

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