A green dream plan for Downsview

Downsview 2

When you stand in the flattened fields of what used to be the Canadian Forces base at Downsview, you can see the CN Tower on the shore of Lake Ontario, 14 kilometres distant, across the heavily developed heartland of Toronto, where high rise buildings rise in warning like sentinels.

It is a huge and empty place. It lies in a « U’’ around the deHavilland aircraft manufacturing plant. If you compressed the 276 hectares into a rectangle, it would be about three kilometres long and almost a kilometre wide. It’s the highest point in Metro and from here, long covered over, the headwaters of five creeks fan out, some to the west to join the Humber River watershed, some to the east to join the Don River watershed.

They are the hidden symbols of the healthy and flourishing landscape that once was. As the site is about to be redeveloped, and they are about to be resurrected, they sharpen the focus toward a vision of what might be.

However, when Art Eggleton, Minister of International Trade, and David Collenette, the then Minister of National Defence, announced guidelines for redevelopment a year ago last December, they were practical and succinct. There was no grand vision.

The guidelines called for most of the site to become a park, for existing buildings to be restored and reused wherever possible, for some residential development be added, for no financial demands be placed on the federal government, and for employment opportunities to be enlarged.

In the $1.4 billion development that was announced this week, all those guidelines will be met. There will be a 131-hectare park, 1,200 housing units (an increase over the exiting 215),  a sports complex with three international-sized ice rinks and a main arena with seating for 10,000 to 12,000, a high tech research and development business park, and a Technodome, supplying 11,500 permanent and full-time jobs, that will offer year-round skiing, whitewater rafting, swimming pools, mountain climbing, a rain forest, a movie and music theme park, a recreation of Bourbon Street, and a 30-screen multiplex movie theatre.

Jobs, housing, a park, reuse of existing buildings, no cost to the federal government — it’s all there. But where was the vision that harks back to the crystal headwaters and all they symbolize? Where was the determination to produce buildings that cooperate with nature instead of trying to subdue it?

The park will be lush and lovely, judging by the planning already done. The creeks will be uncovered and restored. Marshes that once existed will be recreated. Trails for walking and bicycling will connect with the park systems of both the Humber and the Don so that eventually, people will be able to start at the waterfront, trek up one river to Downsview, and then down the other river to the waterfront again.

There will be meadows, and wildflowers, and woodland, and quite possibly the gently rolling hillocks, which once were there. Trees from the 1800s will be returned — in lower areas possibly white cedar, black ash, basswood, and hickory; in higher areas possibly sugar maples, ironwood, beech, and red oak.

But the vision of wholeness that applies to the park, was absent from the guidelines for everything else. The reason, I guess, is that Eggleton and Collenette didn’t know what is becoming possible. The great hurdle they faced is that the sewer line that runs down Keele St. is already at capacity. So if anything more than a nominal amount of development is added to the site, it will cost the developers $150 million to expand the Keele St. line, and Metro taxpayers another $750 million to expand the lakeshore treatment plant.

Only now is Stephen Glogowski finding ways around that hurdle and beginning to develop a vision. The big question is whether, this late in the game, the principles of sustainability can be incorporated into all that has already been decided. Glogowski is project director for Canada Lands Company Ltd., the federal crown corporation that is charged with arranging for redevelopment of the site.

Can he articulate the kind of vision he wants? « No, we haven’t gone that far,’’ he says. « Anything is really open because it’s an educational experience. We’ll have lots of time for advice.’’

What he did do early on, however, was commission the eight-member Community Enrichment Development Group of Toronto to prepare a report on how principles of sustainability could be invoked. The report was delivered in September, but Glogowski has never circulated it to community groups that were asked to comment. And the principles never made it into the development criteria given to prospective developers except in the broadest, most ambiguous terms.

The report was not circulated because there were parts that « we didn’t think should see the light of day,’’ he says. One part was the suggestion that urban farming take place on the site. Another was the authors’ opinion that the site could support housing for twice as many people as the redevelopment calls for.

Glogowski is a civil engineer and a municipal planner. He held on to the report because he didn’t want to be faced with demands for anything that he hasn’t seen operating, or anything that doesn’t come with proven technology. However, he hasn’t visited places where technologies that he’s worried about are already in operation.

The report says that by joining with the forces of nature, instead of trying to separate and subdue them, there would be tremendous cost savings for a developer. Douglas Pollard, a Toronto architect who is part of The Community Enrichment Development Group, says a developer he knows in North Carolina, « dropped his infrastructure costs by 60 per cent with this type of thinking.’’

The report says there’s no need to send sewage down the Keele St. line if composting (waterless) toilets are used. Where there is sewage, it could be treated through « living machines’’ — arrangements of wetland plants that simulate the cleansing abilities of marshes. Compostable wastes from kitchens and greengrocers could be routed to methane digesters and the methane produced could be used to fire generators, thus producing both heat and electricity.

There is 13.6-million-litre underground reservoir, so huge that when its drained it looks like an eerily subterranean Temple of Karnak, and a smaller, 3-million-litre reservoir under a storage warehouse. They « offer an unparalleled opportunity to incorporate aquaculture, rain water and potable water storage, heating and cooling sinks, etc.’’

The storage warehouse, that will be i the area f the research and development park, is half a kilometre long, big enough so that 30 full-sized trucks and an entire freight train can be unloaded inside simultaneously. Its roof is a reinforced concrete slab, two-thirds of a metre thick — strong enough,  the report suggests, to hold enough earth for a farm. Glogowski rebels at the thought of the complications such a large farm would add. But Greg Allen of Allen Kani Associates in Toronto, a technology engineer working with The Community Enrichment Development Group, says a rooftop farm would become a cooling system for the warehouse in summer and insulation in winter. The result would be big cost savings in the operation of the building.

Buildings could generate electricity using advanced photovoltaic technology. Trees could be strategically placed to provide cooling microclimates in summer.

The report overflows with ideas. By implementing them, the authors’ claim,  the site could supply all its needs for water, electricity, heat and cooling, and it could handle all its own waste.

The ideas revolve around six basic principles among twenty-three outlined in the report. The six are the embodiment of a vision:
•           buildings should generate more electricity than they use;
•           waste should be treated as a resource;
•           development should be « landscape driven;’’
•           urban agriculture is important;
•           the site should return better water to the environment than it receives; and
•           trees and other foliage should be used to create microclimates;

The time for establishing sustainability principles is at the very beginning of a project, says the architect Pollard.  « First you outline the feeding chain. Then you figure out where a building fits into the chain. This one may be a producing building; that one a consuming building.

« However, it’s never too late. You can always improve. At this stage, we won’t end up with the same results, but we may be able to get similar benefits.’’

Glogowski agreed. He points out that the Technodome architects are already talking about installing a « solar aquatic sewer system’’ in the Technodome. It sounds a lot like the kind of living machine mentioned by the Community Enrichment Development Group.

What’s more, two weeks ago Glogowski hired Allen  as a consultant. « He’ll be our resource person on these matters, helping us examine plans that come forward,’’ he says. « I expect we’ll have a good interchange of ideas.’’

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