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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Globe article:

Buttonville Airport’s Imminent Demise Was Clear From Above

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 6:15PM EST
Last updated Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 7:07PM EST

For a pilot, life in the big city isn't easy. Toronto housing prices suck up your flying money, and there's no such thing as a backyard airstrip. But there are compensations, and Buttonville airport was one of them. I flew there for the first time in 1984 in a Pitts Special, a tiny, aerobatic biplane that reminded me of an angry bee. Through the biplane's bubble canopy, I looked out on an aviation fantasy: on one side was Canada's biggest city, its skyscrapers etched against the horizon; on the other was a green vista of farms and open country – we were free to loop and roll.

Some part of me knew this couldn't last. And it didn't. Late last month, we heard the news that pilots had been expecting for years – Buttonville will be bulldozed within five years to make way for suburban development. Fifty-seven years after it opened as a dirt strip in the middle of farm country, Buttonville has hit the end of the line, choked off by the city's relentless growth and the inexorable forces of commerce.

“It's sad,” says Kevin Psutka, executive director of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association. “This is a very special place.”

From the air, pilots saw it coming. I flew out of Buttonville just a few months ago in a Red Bull Extra 300 race plane, an aircraft even sportier than the Pitts I'd flown in 1984. But this time, everything was different. The open fields were now crusted over with endless miles of tract homes and industrial buildings – it was like flying over a gigantic circuit board. Looping and rolling were out.

As losses go, Buttonville seems confined to a small, easily-dismissed demographic – there are only about 65,000 pilots in Canada, compared to more than 21 million car drivers. But there's more to it than that – Buttonville is both a hotbed of aviation and a booming commercial hub. Against all odds, it became the tenth-busiest airport in Canada. The airport is home to police helicopters, corporate flights, radio and television traffic planes, an air ambulance service, and Canada's most prolific flight school.

Among the flight-school instructors is Jeff Gribbon, a 23-year-old who has spent the past several years building up hours, hoping to land a job with a major airline. Like most pilots, he knew that the odds were against Buttonville, but that didn't stop him from cheering for it.

“This was a one-in-a-million case,” he says. “It's a private airport next to a huge city that attracts a lot of traffic. It's a great place.”

Most airports fit a couple of typical profiles – there are big, high-priced operations such as Pearson and Vancouver International, or sleepy municipal ones like Nova Scotia's Waterville airport, set in the bucolic Annapolis Valley, where days might pass without a flight. Buttonville is different, a small, privately-owned airport that attracts a vast amount of activity – there are about 170,000 takeoffs and landings a year (more than 450 a day) and it's home to over 350 aircraft. The fleet is wildly eclectic – you can find anything from a Learjet to a Cessna to an Antonov An-2, a lumbering Russian biplane built back in the Soviet era.

Some of the aircraft parked at Buttonville are high-end floatplanes owned by wealthy cottagers who use them to beat the road traffic to the Muskokas. Magna Corporation uses Buttonville as home base for its long-range Dassault Falcon corporate jets. A week before he crashed and died in 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. flew into Buttonville in his Piper Saratoga.

The airport is also home to a significant number of grassroots aviators who fly ragged Piper Cubs or sun-beaten Cessnas that are worth less than a used Honda Civic. For this crowd, Buttonville has been a godsend, offering close proximity to the city and comparatively low costs. A few years ago, a pilot offered to sell me a share in a Vans RV-8 homebuilt he kept hangared at Buttonville. Owning a half-share in the airplane would have cost about $50,000 – about the same as a midline Mercedes. I was interested – I could drive to Buttonville, jump in the airplane, and be in Nova Scotia in less than four hours.

Storing it in a Buttonville hangar cost about $500 a month – as urban aviation went, this was a bargain. I knew a pilot who kept his Cessna at the Toronto Island airport – it cost him nearly three times that much. To afford the airplane and the hangar fees, he lived in a tiny apartment and did without a car, travelling to his airplane by subway.

I thought hard about buying the RV-8, but I didn't want to borrow the money. I was also worried that Buttonville would disappear.

Buttonville was founded in the early 1950s, when the Markham area was still open country. In 1963, it was acquired by the late Mike Sifton Sr., an entrepreneur who had flying in his blood. Mr. Sifton established Toronto Airways, a charter and flight-training service that grew into Canada's largest flight school.

Over the following decades, Mr. Sifton and his family poured their lives into the airport. They built new hangars, repaved the runways, and upgraded the terminal building with everything from deluxe waiting rooms to bathrooms with granite countertops.

Buttonville's biggest threat was the growing city. By the 1990s, your final approach took you over gas stations, houses and factory rooftops. Housing developments sprouted like mushrooms, and many of the residents didn't want airplanes flying low overhead. Crashes intensified the debate – when a Cirrus SR22 spun into a factory this year, it provided valuable ammunition to the airport's foes. So did the crash of a Cessna towing a banner, less than a month later.

The airport survived largely due to the Siftons' emotional attachment to it. Even though Mr. Sifton died in 1995, his widow, Heather, hung on to the airport as a reminder of her husband. But in 2009, there was a development that seems to have been the tipping point for the Siftons – the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (operator of Pearson International) cut off a decade-long funding arrangement that gave Buttonville about $1.5-million every year.

The land, meanwhile, was worth untold millions. Last month, the Siftons announced that they had made a deal with Cadillac Fairview – in five years or less, the airport will be bulldozed and filled in with homes and factories like the ones that now press up against it.

For those who love the airport, the news was almost a relief after years of speculation.

“We all knew it was coming,” says Dana Whyte, who runs the Prop Shop, a retail store located in the Buttonville terminal building. “This just makes it final. But it's too bad. Buttonville is special.”

Mr. Psutka of COPA says Buttonville has followed a well-known trajectory: “Airports located near urban centres become transport nodes,” he says. “They attract people and buildings. Then a vocal minority takes over, and the airport gets squeezed out.”

In Mr. Psutka's view, the ability to fly your own airplane is one of the things that makes Canada a special place to live.

He notes that there are more light aircraft in this country than ever before – about 30,000, 2 1/2 times as many as there were 40 years ago.

Now he wonders if Buttonville will be personal aviation's Waterloo.

“There are lots of airplanes, and there are lots of people who want to fly,” he says. “The question is whether there'll be any airports left.”

2,349 Posts
Discussion Starter · #5 · (Edited)
Toronto Star article:

New ‘Town’ to Replace Buttonville Airport

Jayme Poisson and Brendan Kennedy
October 27, 2010

Buttonville airport, which began as a grassy strip in 1963 and morphed into the largest privately owned airport in the country, will be replaced with a vast development billed as a town unto itself.

Condos, retail shops and office space built by real estate giant Cadillac Fairview will replace the floundering airport within the next five years. Officially announced Wednesday, the 170-acre piece of land it occupies in Markham was sold to developers Oct. 7 in a joint real estate venture.

“We are working together to maximize the property for the future,” said Derek Sifton, president of Toronto Airway Ltd., which owns the airport, adding that his company envisions an “innovative, mixed-use development” on the current airport lands.

For some, the deal is a huge opportunity, if done properly, to build up one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the GTA. For others, the news raises concerns about where 170,000 flights a year will go — especially corporate jets.

About a half-hour drive from the downtown core, and just east of Hwy 404, Buttonville is on prime land.

“In the area right now there are basically industrial parks and subdivisions,” said Robert Wright, a professor of urban design and planning with the University of Toronto.

Wright added the smart way forward should not be more big-box concept stores and subdivisions, but a development that is pedestrian friendly, incorporating green spaces, education opportunities, and with the latest environmentally friendly building technologies.

“We get one shot at these things and then they last for 50 to 75 years,” he said.

Heath Applebaum, a spokesman for Cadillac Fairview, said the vision for the land, which still has to be rezoned for commercial and residential purposes, is preliminary. “It will be several years before a shovel hits the ground,” he said.

The developer touted buzzwords like “high density,” “mixed use,” and “highest industry standards.”

Cadillac Fairview has $17 billion in assets and is wholly owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. The company owns 86 properties across North America; in Toronto, its holdings include the Toronto Eaton Centre and Maple Leaf Square.

Neither side would divulge the cost of the deal, but a year ago the undeveloped acreage was believed to be worth between $100 and $150 million.

“We believe this development will revitalize the neighborhood, attracting new business that will generate many new jobs in the community,” Applebaum said.

What springs up on the coveted land remains to be seen.

So does Buttonville’s next move.

Wednesday’s announcement comes 14 months after Sifton spoke of “the eventual demise and close of Buttonville.” An agreement with the Greater Toronto Airport Association that gave the airport $1.5 million a year to cover overflow from Pearson International was cancelled in April 2009.

Requests for financial support from both the federal and provincial governments did not come through.

“There is no secret the last couple years has been tough on all airports, but even more so when you are set up as we were and receive no additional support or incentive from the government” Sifton wrote in a letter to employees.

But, in an interview Wednesday, Sifton said this is not the end of his family business, which has operated Buttonville airport for almost half a century.

The company wants to relocate to the as-yet undeveloped — and highly contentious — Pickering airport lands.

Use of the Pickering Lands as a proposed second international airport in the GTA is an idea that’s been tossed around since the 70s but never materialized. It is still being reviewed by the federal government, which is studying whether existing airports can handle current air traffic capacity.

“Pearson is already too busy. You can only fly smaller planes into the island airport. There’s nowhere else for corporate jets to go,” said one charter pilot at Buttonville, Canada’s 10th busiest airport. The tiny strip also provides emergency services for nearby communities.

“It affects me quite a bit because I run this flight school at this airport and I don’t know where I will run it when the airport closes,” said Gabor Revesz, who runs the DancAir Flight School out of Buttonville. The airport, home to three flight schools, has also become important for recreational flyers as well.

Outside the Pickering opportunity, management has been in discussions with airport management teams at Peterborough and Barrie.

Any decisions are up in the air, so to speak.

With files from Patty Winsa

Buttonville facts

170,000 flights a year

30 - Flying clubs that call Buttonville home

300 - People the airport employs

300 - Local aircrafts housed at Buttonville airport

170 - Acres of land slated for development

1963 - The year the airport opened

Oct 27th 2010 Global news cast about the closure of Buttonville Airport ( CYKZ )
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