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Toronto Loft Conversions

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Modern Toronto Lofts

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Unique Toronto Homes

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Condos in Toronto

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Toronto Real Estate

Toronto Real Estate

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Tag Archives: toronto condo boom

Condo culture doesn’t have to be an oxymoron

The condo boom has created lots of space for shops, but why is it all so predictable?

Christopher Hume – Toronto Star

The condo boom has done more for the city than it has for its streets. Though most residential towers sit atop podiums designed for other purposes — commercial, retail and the like — most include little more than the usual franchises and chains interrupted by an occasional dentist or dry-cleaner.

Condos cant be held entirely responsible; the same phenomenon is playing out in cities around the world. Still, the result is the retail desertification of Toronto, and a homogenization of the public realm.

Sure, there are signs of change on the horizon. Last weeks announcement of a “City of the Arts” condo project on the site of the old Guvernment nightclub is one of them. Daniels Corp.’s $700-million scheme is being sold almost exclusively on the basis of its cultural and commercial tenants — including Artscape, the Remix Project, Manifesto, Last Gang Records — not its architecture, still unformed at this point.

But selling a condo on the basis of its ground-level occupants has been far from the norm. So far in Toronto, even the most architecturally engaging project, such as, say, Market Wharf on Lower Jarvis, ends up with a déjà vu Shoppers Drug Mart at street level. Or look at the West Don Lands, easily the city’s most exciting new neighbourhood. Two new seniors residences opened there recently. The first tenant? Tim Hortons.

Talk about the shock of the familiar.

Comment: Sure, because big chains sign long leases and plant to be there for a long time. There is big money backing them, there is less insecurity about rents being paid. When a condo board can choose between a no-name startup restaurant (with a 60-80% failure rate) and Timmy’s or Shoppers (with a 0% failure rate), one makes more financial sense.

Condo commercial tenants
The streets of Toronto have become a reconfiguration of the expected brands, logos, colours and signs. Subway, Starbucks, Tims, McDonalds, Shoppers and, at every corner, another bank branch have washed across the city like some tsunami of sameness, and condos are their enablers.

Of course, it wasn’t planned that way. It doesn’t help that each condo is a NIMBY fortress and every management board its own Spanish Inquisition. Condo dwellers may be idealized as young, smart, adventurous and urban, but they tend to be conservative when it comes to their own piece of the sky.

But that’s only part of the problem; with so many condos popping up across the city and beyond, competition for tenants is fierce, especially in such precarious times. To make matters worse, street-level rental is not a priority for most developers.

“Retail is a very ancillary part of most condo projects,” explains lawyer-turned-developer Steve Diamond. “In many cases, its questionable whether there’s any need for retail at grade. But banks prefer chains and franchises.”

Then there are technical issues, such as the fact that most podiums are large, column-filled spaces ill-suited to the needs of retailers, especially small retailers. That can be eliminated by adding a transfer slab, which allows for fewer supporting posts. But they are expensive and in a competitive market like Toronto, builders are always looking for ways to cut corners.

As former city councilor Kyle Rae also points out, “Street retail has been most successful where condos replace office towers and where there’s existing foot traffic. But in some places, it has been a disaster.

“In my experience, developers are putting more and more restrictions in place to protect future residents. They don’t want noise. They don’t want smells. They don’t want cooking on the premises … So you get the Tim Hortons, Starbucks and so on; they just truck in the supplies they need.”

Market Wharf Condos
But some developers are willing to be more adventurous than others. A couple of midrise condos on King east of Parliament Street have car dealerships in their podiums. Not terribly sexy, perhaps, but definitely a sign of changing times.

Comment: The city should step in a pay for space for a library or rec centre or even a school.

“You have to ask yourself: where does cool and inventive retail go?” says Toronto architect Michael Kirkland. “The ultra chic — Gucci, Prada, etc. — go to Bloor. Quirky retailers end up on Queen Street East. I’m a big supporter of the tower-on-a-podium model because it allows for intensification of the city. But the standard 750-square-metre floor plate tends to produce big retail. Small stores can’t use spaces that are so deep; this leads to less choice and a coarsening of the city.”

Indeed, the most vital streets in Toronto are those lined with small and often unremarkable two- or three-storey buildings that have two huge advantages: one, they are flexible and, two, they are older and, therefore, the mortgages tend to be paid off. Jane Jacobs was right when she proclaimed that “new ideas need old buildings.” This city is a perfect example of what that means.

As city real estate grows ever more expensive and its building stock newer and newer, we will have to go further afield to find structures that offer the same qualities Jacobs wrote about. That could mean places like Scarborough, North York and parts of Etobicoke and Mississauga where small spaces and cheap rents prevail.

Just last month that theory got an apparent boost when the author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, Tyler Cowan, wrote that “Scarborough is the best ethnic food suburb I have seen in my life, ever, and by an order of magnitude.”

Its unlikely much of that food is served in restaurants located in condo towers, but its a start.

Comment: It is also a function of downtown rents being much higher than in a Scarborough strip mall.

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

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent 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.