It's expected to take 30 years for Northcrest Developments to fully redevelop the 370-acre Downsview Airport Lands in northwest Toronto, so one of its current focuses is on “meanwhile uses” for the site.
“The site is so large that it's going to take many years to build,” Northcrest chief executive officer Derek Goring told RENX. “So by the nature of that, a lot of the site would remain empty for a long period of time.
“Given how valuable and scarce real estate is in Toronto, it seems like a pretty silly thing to just leave it sitting there empty.”
Northcrest parent company PSP Investments acquired the Downsview property for $825 million in 2018.
Former owner Bombardier has an agreement to remain on site for five years – a term that will soon come to an end.
Future plans for the site
There are ambitious plans for the land, starting with the 102-acre Hangar District that’s proposed to include:
- 2,850 new homes;
- 2.9 million square feet of non-residential gross floor area, including approximately 1.5 million square feet of retrofitted airplane hangars; and
- more than six acres of parks and open spaces.
There are also plans for more than one million square feet of film and television production and support space.
The goal is to start the first phase of construction in 2025.
Northcrest’s short-term goal is to promote activities aligned with the vision for the broader project and demonstrate what the future of the site might look like.
The idea is to draw people to the property and move it forward from its former uses as an air field, air force base, and testing and manufacturing facility.
“We are creating real estate and we want to attract people to live and work and shop at Downsview, but nobody's used to going there,” Goring said.
“This is a way of changing the psychology of people in the city and to turn Downsview from a place you drive around, because there's a big fence around it, to a place you actually go to.”
Mitchell Marcus and Downsview's interim uses
Northcrest hired Mitchell Marcus as its executive director of site activation and programming in March 2022. The role is somewhat unique, as is Marcus’ background, when it comes to development company hires.
Marcus previously spent 18 years as the CEO and founding artistic director of Toronto’s The Musical Stage Company, Canada's largest not-for-profit musical theatre company.
He is responsible for creating an interim cultural destination on the site, including a 2.1-kilometre runway and some of the hangars, prior to development.
He’s also creating and implementing a programmatic and operational long-term strategy for 100 acres of parks and public spaces.
“There was this invitation to say we want to authentically use arts and culture and different forms of gathering as a way to invite people to get to know this site that's right in the middle of Toronto and has been behind barbed-wire fences for so many years,” Marcus told RENX.
“It’s a dual focus role to look at the pre-developed lands that are not going to have development for a long period of time and to think about the meanwhile uses, and then to take all of the learnings and the DNA that gets created from the public enjoying those meanwhile uses and figuring out how we institutionalize those in the long term for the public realm of the districts.”
Inspiration for what’s happening at Downsview
Goring said some inspiration for what Northcrest is doing at Downsview came from the ongoing conversion of London, England’s decommissioned Battersea Power Station site into a 42-acre area with residences, bars, restaurants, office space, shops and entertainment spaces.
Goring also mentioned two other projects in which PSP is invested — the Boston Seaport District and The Wharf in Washington, D.C. — which both had interim activations as part of their redevelopment plans.
“We definitely try to look for inspiration and precedents to call upon, but neither of those are totally analogous because they're just not the same scale and timeline of Downsview,” Goring said.
“There are definitely elements of what they're doing that we're doing, but we're essentially going to try to build on that and take it to another scale.”
Marcus said there was less inspiration from the development world than from the public space world and cited the conversion of the decommissioned Tempelhof Airport in Berlin to Tempelhofer Field, an 877-acre park with picnic areas, communal gardens and preserved runways for runners and cyclists.
What Downsview has done so far
Downsview’s current uses will cease next spring after Bombardier makes its final exit and more wide-scale programming of the site can begin, but Northcrest has already held a number of short-term events where it’s been able to invite the public to unused sections of the site.
“Play On The Runway” has been staged for two years, inviting thousands of people to show up to ride bicycles and scooters, roller-skate, use hula hoops, play pickleball and more.
“Our aim was to provide just enough so that people who showed up with nothing in their hand could use a bike or roller-skate and have some ice cream, but to leave it a little bit open so the public is telling us through this event what it is they want to do on a two-kilometre runway, so we’ll be able to integrate that into the planning of the 30 years from now,” Marcus said.
“Light Up Downsview,” a show where artworks were created in the sky using drones, drew thousands of people on a rainy night last fall.
The site has also hosted an arts display known as Perimeter Project, and an artist-designed nine-hole mini-golf course called "Tee Up Downsview."
Future “meanwhile uses” at Downsview
While Marcus declined to reveal specific future events, he said they include “the intersection of arts, culture, recreation, food and beverage” with both free and commercial elements.
The Downsview site in the past has been used for massive music festivals, including the 2003 Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto (better known as SARSStock) and Riot Fest in 2014 and 2015.
Pope John Paul II also held giant outdoor masses at Downsview in 1984 and 2002.
Marcus wouldn’t say if such large-scale events could again be held at Downsview, but he believes it will be a major centre for civic events.
“The City of Toronto is one of the groups that’s excited about the fact that we have a couple hundred acres of space that won't be used for a period of time and have no roads running through them,” Marcus said.
“That makes us a great spot from a safety perspective and a logistics perspective for some of those bigger city moments.”
Downsview’s development also includes an employment component. Northcrest is trying to attract employers interested in repurposing the existing hangars.
Goring said the vacant land can also be used for research and development, or to test prototypes, and may be particularly appealing to companies in the mobility, transportation and modular construction sectors.
“Any time you need a big space to try something that is very hard to do in an urban environment, we've got a place where you can do that,” Goring said.