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Toronto Real Estate

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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.

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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.

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City shouldn’t mess with Waterfront Toronto’s success

State of waterfront address a reminder of how far city has come — and how far it has to go.

Christopher Hume – Toronto Star

At this point, Waterfront Toronto’s success speaks for itself. Revitalization still has a long way to go, but a decade into a 35-year process, things are looking good.

Comment: Finally. It has taken SO long to get here. But now that it has started, hoo boy, it is going gangbusters!

Though the argument for excellence has never gained traction in Toronto, WT CEO John Campbell made a pretty convincing case for it at his State of the Waterfront Address April 1.

As the departing head of the tripartite corporation pointed out, the result of the agency’s $1.3-billion expenditure is $2.6 billion in direct private-sector investment and a further $10.4 billion in indirect investment.

Underpass Park
As Campbell also explained, using a counter-intuitive yet enlightened strategy, WT put much of its money in the public realm, the part that usually comes last. Starting with the “frills” — Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, HTO, Underpass Park, Corktown Common, etc. — enabled people to see past the grime to the huge potential of these former industrial lands.

“Building amenities first is not the normal model for developers,” Campbell told an attentive audience of several hundred. “But this is about more than real estate. Revitalization is not redevelopment.”

Try telling that to your average builder, or city councillor. By acting as the “master developer,” WT can bring a more holistic perspective to the process. That means ensuring that new buildings are constructed to the highest environmental standards, with leading-edge technology, no more than a four- or five-minute walk from transit. It also means architectural excellence and a public realm that’s second to none.

Comment: Finally we have a serious push to more green building. Why has this taken so long?

Daniels City of the Arts
Don’t forget that, aside from building giant flood barriers, cleaning vast quantities of contaminated soil and purifying dirty water, the real job here is to create desire. The amount of construction on the waterfront and surroundings is a clear indication that WT has figured out that aspect of things.

Campbell also discussed the recently announced Daniels Waterfront development, an ambitious mixed-use project that has already lined up a number of cultural agencies as tenants. Located on private property — the site of the old Guvernment night club — the scheme lives up to both WTs requirements and its spirit. It will even extend Sugar Beach across Queens Quay and give it a new northern addition.

But there are issues, most notably the scheme to expand the Billy Bishop Toronto Island Airport to accommodate jets. “Were very concerned about the scale of airport expansion,” Campbell told a loudly cheering crowd. “Whats the impact of that sort of change, not just adding 200 metres of dirt in the lake at either end of the runway? And how does it fit into the overall plan?”

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. Indeed, island airport expansion flies in the face of everything WT and the governments that support it have been doing on the waterfront since 2001, when the organization was formed.

The Guvernment
There are other challenges, too, such as whether WT will have the financing it needs to fulfill its mandate. The original $1.5 million is almost gone, and no commitments have been forthcoming.

Ideally, WT will be able to raise cash through the sale of properties that it has planned and prepared for development. The next part of WT’s agenda includes re-naturalizing the mouth of the Don River, building a second flood protection berm, transit and public realm improvements.

In the meantime, the city is halfway through yet another review of WT, which, if it weren’t so petty, would almost be funny. The arrival of city planners and politicians on the waterfront would be the kiss of death for the one local city-building body worthy of the name.

Only in Toronto is civic success a cause for civic concern.

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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.

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Waterfront Toronto development just getting started

Steve McLean – Property Biz Canada

Where Canada’s largest city meets Lake Ontario looks much different today than when Waterfront Toronto was established in 2001 to oversee, lead and implement the revitalization of the 2,000-acre area, and there’s a lot more to come.

However, that future growth is contingent on renewed financial commitments from federal, provincial and municipal levels of government.

“A ‘no this year just means ‘not yet,” Waterfront Toronto president and chief executive officer John Campbell said Wednesday night. “Well use ongoing land revenue to develop as much as we can.”

The largest urban renewal project in North America and one of the largest waterfront redevelopment initiatives in the world is expected to provide Toronto with a variety of parks and public spaces, 40,000 residential units and 11 million square feet of commercial space as it evolves over the next 15 years, Campbell said.

Comment: Which is why I tell people now is the time to buy in the east end.

Campbell was speaking to about 400 people at a town hall meeting at Toronto Reference Library while reviewing whats already been achieved and looking ahead to the future of the waterfront.

Lower Don Lands
“Were just starting,” Campbell replied when asked by RENX about future projects to join existing developments such as the Corus Entertainment and George Brown College buildings in the city’s east waterfront area.

“In Hines-Tridel, we have another 1,500 units and half-a-million square feet of office space, plus weve got Quayside that will probably have another 1,000 units. North Keating will have several thousand units … so we can expect to see a lot more private-sector investment. The Pan Am Village is only part of the West Don Lands. Its 20 acres out of 80.  So I think things are going to start to accelerate dramatically.”

The Waterfront Innovation Centre, Daniels Waterfront and the River City and Monde condominiums will also be important parts of the area once they’re completed, along with Toronto Community Housing projects in West Don Lands.

“The publicly owned lands on the waterfront will have 20% of its units dedicated to affordable rentals so we can be inclusive of people of all income levels on the waterfront rather than just those who can afford the more expensive condos,” said Waterfront Toronto development vice-president Meg Davis.

Commitment from three levels of government

The federal, provincial and municipal governments each contributed $500 million and property to the initiative and gave Waterfront Toronto the authority to develop the land by “using real estate economics to fuel the engine” to foster environmental responsibility, social diversity and economic value creation.

About $1.26 billion of the $1.5 billion committed by the three levels of government has been invested, but Campbell is hopeful Waterfront Toronto’s economic benefits will convince them to commit more money to help fund future priorities, including $975 million for flood plain protection, to take it to the end of its mandate in 2023.

Lower Don Lands
Those benefits include attracting new development valued at $2.6 billion, construction generating $1.17 billion in labour income and $838 million in government revenues, as well as being a catalyst for private sector development projects valued at $9.6 billion on privately owned lands adjacent to the new waterfront infrastructure improvements.

Toronto Waterfront land “fairly cheap”

Campbell stressed Waterfront Toronto isn’t running out of money, but told RENX relying on land revenue is a challenge because what it controls is “fairly cheap” and worth 10% or less of what waterfront property in places like Sydney, Australia or Hong Kong sells for, so it cant realize the value other cities can.

Comment: The more they build, the more the remaining land becomes worth.

Building on land south of Front Street is also difficult and expensive because it consists of dirt dredged from the bottom of Lake Ontario, disused wharfs, abandoned ships, construction debris and municipal waste.

“Great cities are determined by their public realm,” Campbell said of Waterfront Toronto projects that have won 60 design awards before he listed many of the parks and public spaces that have been created or revitalized by the agency.

These include York Quay, Canada Square, Ontario Square, Portland Slip Waters Edge Promenade, Spadina WaveDeck, Rees WaveDeck, Simcoe WaveDeck, John Quay, Canada’s Sugar Beach, East Bayfront Waters Edge Promenade, Queens Quay Promenade, Sherbourne Common, Corktown Common, Underpass Park, Don River Park, Cherry Beach Sports Fields, Marilyn Bell Park, Martin Goodman Trail, Mimico Waterfront Park and Port Union Waterfront Park.

Campbell announced Queens Quay West will be finished on June 19 after three years of construction and public inconvenience, and he envisions the transformed boulevard becoming “Toronto’s signature street.”

Sustainability and public engagement

Campbell’s report also highlighted the importance that Waterfront Toronto has placed on:

* sustainability, green buildings, recycling contaminated soil,servicing the land it sells, and creating marine use and aquatic habitat strategies;
* public transit, public art, and building “smart” infrastructure and an ultra-high-speed broadband community network along with a digital inclusion policy;
* being transparent and accountable to the public and keeping costs down.

But when asked what Waterfront Toronto’s crowning achievement has been thus far, Campbell quickly replied: “The public engagement. We basically have the support of the community and its one of the few times I know of that we’ve had an agency garner that kind of public support.”

—————————————————————————————————–
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.

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