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Is CityPlace Toronto’s next ghetto?

Here’s the nightmare scenario: in a few years, once the massive steel-and-glass buildings in the city’s largest residential development start to age, the young condo-dwelling crowd decamps to a trendier area. Cut off from downtown by highways and rail lands, and with little in the way of street life, the towers fall into disrepair and become inhabited by families who can’t afford to live anywhere else. Can we avert a civic disaster at CityPlace?

Edward Keenan – The Grid

[dropcap]U[/dropcap]nder the autumn sunshine, Canoe Landing Park in the heart of CityPlace has the feel of a university quad, right down to the demographic — you have your hard-bodied twentysomethings in Lululemon on the artificial turf field kicking a soccer ball around, your hungover twentysomethings in Lululemon letting their dogs run free on the grass, and your helmeted twentysomethings in jeans and plaid conducting a skateboard race through the park’s winding mile of meandering pathways. Fishnets and miniskirts on a Sunday afternoon in November? Absolutely. Neon orange plastic shades? Check. Tights as outerwear? They’re everywhere you look, as the young creative-class crowd embraces autumn’s pleasures near Douglas Coupland’s sprawling landscape-architecture tribute to Terry Fox, with the tidal roar of the Gardiner Expressway serving as a soundtrack.

Looking northeast from this spot near the Gardiner, midway between Spadina and Bathurst, you can count the gleaming glass-and-steel towers that have sprung up over the past decade. Looking west, you can count the cranes (seven, eight, nine…) that are adding more towers to the city’s skyline. When CityPlace is completed sometime in the next decade, there will be more than 19 highrise and seven midrise towers in this one 44-acre urban block, about 8,000 homes in total. It will be a 21st-century urban neighbourhood built from scratch on what was until recently vacant railway land. Five thousand of these units are already either occupied or ready to be occupied.

[pullquote]When CityPlace is completed sometime in the next decade, there will be more than 19 highrise and seven midrise towers in this one 44-acre urban block, about 8,000 homes in total.[/pullquote]

It should be an urbanist’s dream, given that environmentalists and city-planning experts have agreed that residential, high-density towers are the way of the future for healthy, affordable, sustainable cities. And today it looks like an emerging young professional playground. There’s the park by Douglas Coupland, the hulking public sculptures by Mark di Suvero and Francisco Gazitua, the groceries by Sobey’s and coffee at The Spot.

Yet many of the people you talk to about CityPlace are worried that what’s being built here is a slum in the making.

“There’s no way CityPlace won’t be a ghetto in 20 years,” says The Grid’s real-estate columnist David Fleming, a Toronto realtor himself.

The relevant analogy seems to be St. James Town, Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood, and one of its most troubled. The 19 concrete towers there, near Parliament and Bloor, were built in the 1960s to serve the housing needs of young, swinging singles. But by the 1980s, the young and upwardly mobile had moved out and the towers had primarily become homes for low-income families crowded into too-small apartments. Today it houses a large immigrant population, and is a case study for poverty and disconnection from society.

This is the nightmare many foresee for CityPlace: Once the blue-green tinted glass buildings begin to age and no longer feel like the cutting edge in urban design, the development will no longer seem attractive to the young, mostly single and childless professionals who are currently moving in. Whoever replaces them will find a densely populated neighbourhood with little to recommend it. Cut off from the city by highways and rail lands, without much in the way of street life, the fear is the buildings will fall into disrepair and the only people who will live in the tiny apartments are families who can’t afford housing anywhere else.

Back in the 1960s, Toronto built more concrete towers than any other metropolis in North America outside of New York City — in Rexdale and Scarborough, Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park. Today those concrete-tower communities, like St. James Town, are home to the bulk of Toronto’s low-income population, as documented in the United Way’s landmark 2004 “Poverty by Postal Code” report. It’s a situation that led The Globe and Mail to say that Toronto is becoming a “city of vertical poverty.”

And just as St. James Town is the most visible example of a city-wide lack of foresight, today’s concerns about CityPlace don’t just apply to the area along the Gardiner. Pretty much everywhere in Toronto — around the Scarborough Town Centre, in North York along the Sheppard subway line, at the mouth of the Humber River — we are building glass-and-steel suburbs in the sky similar to the CityPlace model. More condos are under construction in Toronto right now than anywhere else in the world—we have 132 condo towers going up, compared to 88 in Mexico City and 86 in New York, while, in fourth place, Chicago is building only 17. We’re boldly leading the world into this condominium future—but a repeat of our concrete slab–tower experience would be a civic disaster on a horrendous scale.

On this Sunday in November, as the skateboarders make their way through CityPlace’s landmark park, another group of residents is meeting as part of an attempt to head off the doom-and-gloom predictions. The CityPlace Residents’ Association executive is touring a room at the Rogers Centre where, later this month, it will hold its first town hall meeting. It’s part of what president Dean Maher likes to say is an attempt to “make a house a home.”

Maher and the rest of the Residents’ Association are aware of the perception that the development is a failure before it has even been completed, and they are determined to counter it in two ways: by creating an involved community of citizens and working with the city government.

“When we moved in it was nothing more than a development — it’s still in the development stage,” Maher says. “And slowly but surely we’re getting people involved in building our community around that development, to make it sort of a neighbourhood here.”

The obstacles they face are numerous, and only some of them can be addressed by citizens. Real-estate agent Fleming says that a primary concern is the high ratio of investors who own units in the development and rent them out to tenants. “There’s no pride of ownership,” he says. “When you have units that are owned by investors, both landlords and tenants are aligned against the idea of upkeeping the property.” Tenants, he says, view themselves as transients with little reason to care about their home or community beyond the few years they live there; investors want to maximize their profit by putting as little money into the property as possible. And no-one really knows how these condos, built using brand-new construction technologies, will age.

The fear of a transient population and a lack of investment in maintenance is echoed by city councillor Adam Vaughan, who represents the area in which most of CityPlace is located. “Communities do better when people are invested in them,” he says. “When big buildings fall apart, it’s not easy for them to bounce back.” The need for smart development, particularly in condo towers and specifically at CityPlace, is a big part of what motivated Vaughan to get into politics and has been one of his main concerns as a councillor.

One of the key ways to get people to feel invested in a community is to ensure they can raise a family there, he says. “It takes a child to create a village,” and so he has lobbied to ensure a percentage of units have three bedrooms, so families will have a place to live and the community’s two planned schools will be full. Still, a “doorman survey” conducted by Vaughan’s office found only 128 children living in the nearly 5,000 units that have been completed, and most of those are younger than preschool age. “What we found,” Vaughan says, “is that if you have a second child, you move. If your kids are ready for school, you move. People don’t see themselves raising a family in the neighbourhood.”

Maher of the Residents’ Association says he hopes the completion of a Toronto Community Housing tower will help resolve this issue. “You notice there’s an age group missing right now. You have young professionals, you have some toddlers, and you have older empty-nesters. Once the schools go in and Toronto Community Housing goes in, you’ll start seeing more families, more teenagers, more kids playing in the park. That will show that this is a great neighbourhood to raise kids.”

Adam Vaughan rhymes off a number of other key concerns. The streetscape is key among them—big banks and Sobey’s have opened there, but you don’t have the mixture of mom-and-pop shops facing the sidewalk that make for a thriving neighbourhood.

“One huge worry is that CityPlace is difficult to get into,” he says, surrounded as it is by highways and rail tracks. “It has very few through streets, and there’s not anything to draw people into the neighbourhood.”

Vaughan says one of the main elements that makes a great urban community is the flow of people from outside the neighbourhood into it and through it. In other areas, for example, restaurants and movie theatres attract visitors; a street grid and transit lines allow people to take shortcuts through on foot or in cars; office space brings in a daytime population of workers.

Wise developers recognize this. Liberty Village, for example, was home to almost nothing but offices before residences and restaurants moved in together. “You need all things present—homes, shops, workplaces,” says Vaughan. “You have issues created by any single-use community, and that’s what they’ve been building here. It needs to be seen not as simply a place to live, but as a part of the city.”

Vaughan has been working with the Residents’ Association to address many of these concerns in future phases of construction. More affordable and family-sized units will come with the addition of the Toronto Community Housing–owned buildings. Some of the new buildings will feature live-work-sell spaces for artists and craftspeople. There will be a cluster of smaller retail units to attract a greater variety of retailers around a newly planned library. New buildings should, he hopes, feature office space on the second and third floors. And, addressing a key concern of current residents, a dog run will feature prominently in a new park.

Vaughan says he wishes many of these things had been thought of before, but he’s happy to see how the plans are starting to evolve. “I’m more optimistic now that the residents of these buildings are talking to each other,” he says. “There are still concerns, but now we’re talking with a community instead of talking to a community.”

Indeed, those who’ve looked closely at the example of St. James Town say this might be pivotal to avoiding that neighbourhood’s troubles. The Toronto Community Foundation has recently been involved in a project called “Recipe for Community,” which is part of an effort to revitalize St. James Town and Alexandra Park, a similarly troubled area. TCF President and CEO Rahul Bhardwaj says that the lesson his organization learned in St. James Town is the need for a sense of ownership and belonging among residents. “You need to make sure that the notion of connectedness is addressed,” Bhardwaj says. “Sometimes the physical infrastructure is what it is, but you can get a connectedness through social infrastructure.” In St. James Town and Alexandra Park, he says, this has meant community kitchens, organic gardens and collaborative community projects to beautify the neighbourhood.

Interestingly, CityPlace critic Fleming cites the farmer’s markets in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood as the type of community get-together for residents and visitors alike that is unlikely to spring up in CityPlace. Bhardwaj suggests such an initiative is the best hope for the new condo cluster. “One thing that is of paramount importance,” Bhardwaj says, “is that the community itself be involved, in a deliberate and intentional way, in a constructive discussion. The consultation of residents is important in creating a neighbourhood. You need to go from community relations to community developing.”

One of the Residents’ Association’s big goals, Maher says, is starting a farmer’s market. So perhaps they’re on the right track. And if the experts are right, then in its infancy, the CityPlace Residents’ Association appears to hold the keys to ensuring that its neighbourhood develops into a community. “I don’t think you’ll find anything like this in Toronto or in Canada, an entire neighbourhood built from scratch” says Maher, “It’s very exciting to be part of building something new, and we should have a great sense of community.”

The upcoming town hall meeting will, he says, be the “first real test” of how well the core of concerned residents can involve their neighbours in a discussion of how they can build a community together. On the immediate agenda for the group, along with the farmers’ market, are accessibility, managing both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, developing the park areas with more lighting and facilities, and more resources for dog owners.

“When I was looking for a place to live in 2003, I told my agent the location I wanted and it was right here. We’re trying to make sure that five or 10 years down the road, when people are asked where they want to live, they’ll say CityPlace,” Maher says. “And I think it will be that. There’s an electric vibe about this neighbourhood. Morning, noon or night, you just feel the energy of this whole neighbourhood.”

Standing in the park at the centre of CityPlace on a Sunday afternoon with the young and beautiful and possibly temporary population of this brand-new experiment in city building, the place doesn’t look much like a neighbourhood. It doesn’t look much like a ghetto, either. It looks like a construction site, a place likely to change as much in the next decade as it has in the decade just passed.

What CityPlace will become is still a big question mark. That critics have raised some ugly questions is probably a good thing. That residents are working to find answers is better.

Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto Realtor with Century 21 Regal Realty. He did not
write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who are
interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.