Despite the frantic development that has gone on in and around Toronto over the past decade, development opportunities continue to pop up. What’s unusual, however, is for a near-pristine 170-acre site to suddenly become available just a short drive from Toronto’s core.
That’s exactly what happened when the owners of Markham, Ont.’s Buttonville Municipal Airport decided to close up shop and transform the under-utilized landing strips and surrounding land into an ambitious mixed use commercial, retail and residential development.
Developer Cadillac Fairview Corp. and partner Armadale Properties Ltd. are together stick handling their zoning proposal – changing the site from light industrial to mixed use – through Markham’s city council. The developer says it enjoys widespread support from local politicians and residents.
The development will adhere to the current trend of creating a less car-centric mix of work, play and home. “Over the last 25 years we have realized that the way we built cities was wrong,” said Finley McEwen, Cadillac Fairview’s Senior Vice-President of Development. “Now what municipalities are doing generally is combining mixed uses, which is an update to the official plan for Markham.”
Reach for the Sky
The Buttonville project, officially called the Buttonville Redevelopment, is described by Cadillac as “a world-class employment district and vibrant, mixed-use lifestyle destination which puts people at the forefront of urban planning.”
That description does not really do justice to the huge scale of the project, however. As planned, the multi-year development will comprise 9 million to 10 million square feet of mixed use space, including up to 1.2 million sq. ft. of retail, service, commercial, restaurant and entertainment space and 2.6 million to 4.6 million sq. ft. of office space.
The development would ultimately accommodate 22,000 jobs and a population of 7,000, its backers say.
“There are very few projects of this scale in Canada,” said McEwen. “This idea of mixing uses is a very difficult thing, developers generally have a hard time doing it. Developers are generally good at developing one property type, maybe two, but they are not usually good at all of them.” Cadillac Fairview, he says, “is the most experienced developer in Canada at developing multiple property types: office, retail, residential, hotel, other. We are actively doing it across the country on a number of other sites.”
Cadillac Fairview’s phase one would begin in 2013 with more than three million square feet of development that will be its own self-sustaining community. “Our hope is that our phase one is a complete community. It has predominant weighting in employment space, but then it also is an amenity-rich environment with restaurants, retail shops and services, with residences, with hotel space.”
Phase one will comprise just over one million sq. ft. of office (a mix of traditional head office style buildings with retail around the base as well as mid-rise and low-rise buildings), half a million sq. ft. of ft. and just under one million sq. ft. of residential with most of that in a 60-storey condominium tower.
The condo building would, pardon the pun, tower over everything currently in the area and may be the first of a series of tall buildings at Buttonville and beyond.
“This land use application has the potential for being a real catalyst for change up in the northeast,” said McEwen. “Because there is an airport operating on the site there is a natural height restriction and when that airport closes it really dramatically changes how cities can be built in the area. For Richmond Hill, Markham, the surrounding area.
“The airport has the effect of limiting height over many cities, not just Markham, Richmond Hill.”
McEwen expects the shutdown of Buttonville airport to unleash a building boom in the surrounding area. “We feel that when that height restriction is removed, all of the skills that Toronto builders, designers, have in building high-rise forms can be brought to bear at Buttonville.”
He points to the bedroom city to the west of Toronto as an example of how intensification can happen with some decent planning. “If you look at how Mississauga developed over time it has become a very vertical community. it is a very efficient way to use land, the services, streets, water supply, sewers get used in a very efficient way.”
Build It, They Will Come
The Cadillac vice-president does not expect any difficulty filling the mixed use development. “There is strong demand for modern, progressive space that meets the needs of today’s employers. They do not want single-purpose, 9 to 5 office park space. They want modern employment space where their employees can go out to lunch and get a bite to eat, go shopping, and get together with their friends after work and play beach volleyball and other healthy activities.”
Because Buttonville is a far drive from the shores of Lake Ontario, that beach will have to be imported to the site, alongside the 12-acre, 550-meter long artificial lake that would be the centrepiece for boating and restaurants.
“Cadillac Fairview is very determined to create a unique sense of place with this project. We want people to linger after work, to enjoy the neighborhood and we are investing millions of dollars in creating that unique aesthetic, that amenity-rich environment.”
A Long Game
It has been more than three years since the Sifton family, owners of the Buttonville airport, announced their intention to develop the site. A year later, they partnered with Cadillac Fairview through their real estate development company, Armadale Properties.
The Buttonville Redevelopment will go before Markham city council this spring, which is just the next step in a long bureaucratic conga line. “It is quite a bureaucratic process,” said McEwen. “The municipality is in agreement, Markham is supportive. We have wideranging support, there is a lot of support from the community to close down the airport.”
The zoning application for a mixed use development is also consistent with Ontario’s Places to Grow development policy he adds, and the developer will also have to seek approval from York Region council after getting a go-ahead from Markham.