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The long-term future of one of Canada’s smallest but busiest airports remains uncertain as the facility finds itself for sale once again. However, several operators based at Toronto Buttonville Municipal Airport (CYKZ) remain cautiously optimistic about their status for several more years.
About 30 kilometres north of downtown Toronto in the City of Markham, Buttonville has been a general aviation and flight training hub for decades. Now, the owners of the 170-acre property — realty giant Cadillac Fairview and its partner, a family-held company — are putting it up for sale in an increasingly expensive commercial and residential property market.
Spokesperson Anna Ng confirmed to Skies that, “After forming a joint venture almost 10 years ago, Cadillac Fairview and our partner, the Sifton family, have made a joint decision and are in the process of putting our positions in the Buttonville airport site for sale.”
The real estate developer said it will instead be focusing on its “downtown Toronto land bank.”
The Siftons’ direct involvement is Torontair Ltd., headquartered near the junction of the airport’s two runways. Its president, Derek Sifton, said the airport is “an ongoing business” as the owners continue to maintain and upgrade 330,000 square feet of hangar and office space.
“At this point there’s no change in that direction,” he told Skies on Feb. 6. “We could have somebody that wants to step into our shoes . . . and wants to keep it as an airport — but who knows?”
There’s also the fact that the site is almost fully occupied.
“Our hangars are mostly full. If I had an operator with five airplanes who wanted to move in, I would have a hard time finding a spot for him,” commented Sifton.
However, even though it’s clearly a going concern, there’s still the reality that the airport sits smack in the middle of a real estate market where large properties are hard to come by. That’s of understandable interest to the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA) and the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) as well a number of businesses based at Buttonville.
CBAA president Anthony Norejko said in a brief interview on Feb. 4 that while it’s premature to comment specifically on the proposed sale, he did acknowledge the overall uncertainty. He also suggested that losing Buttonville would mean more business aviation traffic through other southwestern Ontario hubs such as Toronto Pearson (CYYZ) and Hamilton (CYHM) international airports, as well as privately-operated Burlington Executive Airport (CZBA).
Another alternative could be Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (CYTZ) off the city’s condominium-dense waterfront but that could be problematic, given that facility’s contentious long-standing ban on jet traffic. Norejko pointed out that modern jets are quieter than the current generation of turboprops using the island airport.
COPA president Bernard Gervais said that while his members understand the value of Toronto-area property, they would obviously like to see whoever buys the CYKZ site maintain the current zoning and airport operation.
“COPA strives to advance, promote and preserve the Canadian freedom to fly,” he told Skies in an email. “We hope the purchasers will understand the benefits and economic contributions of the general aviation community, and the role that the Toronto Buttonville Airport provides to aviation in the Toronto area.”
Buttonville began as a grass-strip flight training centre in 1953 and steady growth saw it evolve into an official airport in 1962. Construction of runways measuring 3,897 x 100 feet and 2,694 x 80 feet enabled it to handle size-limited overflow relief for Pearson.
In addition to general aviation and training, Buttonville is also used by the business aviation community (Torontair operates a Million Air fixed-base operator franchise). It is the base for at least three police services’ aircraft, with others using the airport on a transient basis. As well, it is home to Leggat Aviation Ltd., a Cessna-centric sales and service company which has been there since 1953 and currently has 18 employees.
Leggat’s vice-president, John Leggat, son of founder Jim Leggat, admitted that the recent resurrection of a potential sale was “a blindside.” He takes some comfort from having a three-year lease but said “nothing’s forever . . . and it’s really not within our control.”
Leggat also said that although “things had been pretty quiet during the week” for a while, there has been increased airport traffic over the past year, mainly due to Canadian Flyers flight training school.
“Activity breeds activity,” said Leggat. “People see that the airport is not ‘dying,’ that it’s coming back. . . There’s life being pumped back into it. The airport is still a prime driver. When you see the amount of activity on the corporate side and that there’s still medevac activity in the middle of the night . . . there’s still a glimmer of hope.”
Ron DeConcilys, president of Air Partners Inc., an aircraft maintenance operation at Buttonville, told Skies that he’s also buoyed by the improvement in activity. But, like Leggat, he maintains a watchful eye despite his hope that Buttonville will remain for another three years “or even longer.”
Although CYKZ is a 24-hour operation and is in controlled airspace, it no longer has a control tower. Nav Canada opened a $2 million air traffic control tower at the airport in 2007, but the structure was closed in 2019 with Nav Canada citing a steady decline in traffic.
Canadian airports generally must have 60,000 takeoffs and landings a year to justify a tower and, according to Statistics Canada, Buttonville had 26,108 in 2017 compared with 84,547 in 2014, when it was officially the 20th-busiest airport in the country.
But 2018, the latest year for which official traffic data are available, saw movements rebound with an increase of 12,570 over 2017. It was among several year-over-year increases reported for smaller airports across the country and included 8,801 more domestic movements.
The loss of direct air traffic control, coupled with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority’s termination of financial support for Buttonville, and Seneca College’s 2014 relocation of its aviation campus to Peterborough, Ont., has lost revenue opportunities. Added to the financial pressure is the site’s potential for other development.
The Siftons, originally the sole owners, first contemplated a multi-year redevelopment for mixed commercial-retail-residential use in 2009. Then, in 2010, through their Armadale holding company, the family set up a joint real estate venture with Cadillac Fairview, but planning delays led to an announcement in April 2018 that the site would continue to operate as an airport until at least 2023.
At that point, Cadillac Fairview said any extension of that time frame would be “dictated by progress on approvals” by the Ontario Municipal Board, a government-run agency which reviews development plans and which has since been replaced by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT).
LPAT spokesperson Sarah Copeland told Skies on Jan. 31 that the tribunal had mediated “the matter” of the Buttonville site’s future within the City of Markham’s Official Plan from late May 2014 through May 2016. The LPAT file on the proposal shows further occasional discussions through to early December 2019 and that the discussions are adjourned until a “case management conference” scheduled for July 2020.
A potentially important hurdle to overcome is the Ontario government’s designation of the Buttonville site as a “provincially significant employment zone.” The City of Markham wants that designation removed, but so far there’s no sign of action by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.