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Drawing the line on cultural development in Toronto

As city bends rules to accommodate growth, arts groups have been able to benefit.

Murray Whyte – Toronto Star

In the frenzied world of Toronto property development, there’s only one place left to go: up.

City planning has put a premium on increased density for years and its not hard to see why. With freeways like the Gardiner Expressway clogged like the arteries of a particularly devoted poutine enthusiast, sprawl is the last thing we can continue to accommodate.

So when the Daniels Corporation announced its plan last week to build 900 condos in two towers on the gravesite of the Guvernment nightclub on Queens Quay, no one could be surprised. As eager as the city’s been to increase density in the core, its been nearly as eager to breathe life into the windswept no-mans-land of Toronto’s waterfront.

Not to be lost in this bundle of checklist priorities, though, is the projects name: City of the Arts. When it comes to urban revitalization, Toronto has bought fully into the zeitgeisty notion that culture, however you choose to describe it, is the tide that lifts all boats.

Comment: Yes. At least adding to the condo construction. In any way that incorporates the larger city into any new development. These buildings need not be warehouses for renters, we can make them part of the actual fabric of the city.

Daniels rolled out an impressive package that not only ticks every box but ties them up with a shiny bow. Artscape, decorated with the many laurels of its various urban reclamation projects, will move its headquarters in, bumping elbows in the projects “Creative Industries Hub” with groups like Manifesto, a well-known non-profit that runs a hip-hop festival, and the Remix Project, which offers marginalized youth an education and entrée to the economic nirvana of the “creative industries.” And up above, in 900-plus condominium suites, residents eager to soak up the culture by osmosis.

City of the Arts isn’t the result of the city’s many development tools to force altruism from builders looking to profit from things like increased building heights. But you could fairly say, philosophically, that it is their product.

TIFF Bell Lightbox
Daniels has been down this road before. In 2010, the company built the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the gargantuan Festival Tower above it. When it applied for a height that exceeded the official plan by more than quadruple, it ran into Section 37.

In exchange for building a state-of-the-art home for the Toronto International Film Festival, the city backed off its height restriction of 30 metres, allowing the Festival Tower to climb to more than 143 metres, or nearly five times what the bylaw allowed. (Initially, Daniels had asked for even more.)

But the developer saw quickly that its mandated gesture to local culture was hardly a concession. Instead, it was worth its weight in marketing gold, as buyers eagerly snapped up units in a building that serves as ground zero for global celebrity culture every September.

Comment: And that is how you make a condo development part of the city.

This is how Section 37 works: a developer wants to build something bigger than the city’s official plan allows. The planning department says maybe, but what do we get in return? Through a negotiation involving the builder, planners, the local councillor and, ideally, local residents, an agreement emerges. In exchange for a fatter profit envelope, Section 37 can produce anything from public art to bike racks, daycare centres, playgrounds or parks.

But in the city’s fervour for cultural amenities, opportunities have emerged for bigger gains. In the West Queen West triangle, a development-frenzied zone jump-started by the opening of the Drake Hotel in 2004, an initial panic produced an ongoing neighbourhood preservation strategy.

The stretch of Queen West between Ossington and Dufferin has been the front line of Toronto’s gentrification war for at least a decade. In 2004, tensions ramped up quickly between developers and the hundreds of artist types living in the buildings they hoped to knock down and replace.

48 Abell Street Lofts
One of the first, the Triangle Lofts on Abell Street south of Queen, initially embodied the community’s worst fears. At an early meeting on the Section 37 benefit they might receive, recalls Michelle Gay, “I think they offered to repave some roads for us. We said we didn’t think so.”

Comment: Why they couldn’t have renovated and saved the old loft building I will never know.

Gay is one of several residents who ganged together amid the tumult to form Active 18, a residents group that took its seat at the table through the city’s community consultation process.

Negotiating through local councillor Ana Bailao, the group successfully transformed new blacktop into something more significant: the Triangle Lofts development was built with 70 permanent artist live-work spaces and a gallery now occupied by an art collective called Propeller.

Those 70 units were generated with the help of Artscape, which was then a smaller operator on the development landscape. It has since blossomed into a major force in the city’s redevelopment, and its emergence parallels the growth of an ethic that’s taken hold in both the public and private sector: that culture sells.

“The private sector is increasingly seeing how artists can be catalysts for change, growth and development,” says Tim Jones, Artscapes CEO. “That’s why so many developers are interested in working with us: we can help them build that narrative.”

For Active 18, Section 37 was less an opportunity for branding than it was about preserving what made the neighbourhood attractive in the first place.

“What we were fighting for were real community benefits,” Gay says. “Our thinking was simple: instead of another sculpture than nobody looks at more than once, lets build permanent infrastructure that keeps artists in the neighbourhood.”

Since then, Active 18 has been at the table for almost every Section 37 conversation — in their tiny pocket of the city, more than 20 in the past decade — which has played a part in such landmark projects as the re-purposing of the decrepit Carnegie Library on Queen Street as a state-of-the-art new home for the Theatre Centre.

Theatre Centre Queen Street West
But its the Toronto Media Arts Cluster that waves the Section 37 flag most vigorously here. Sometime this summer, with any luck (its still under construction) a consortium of venerable Toronto arts organizations like the Images Festival and InterAccess will move into a purpose-built facility in the base of a new condo tower just off Queen Street.

It will have offices, exhibition space, a theatre and — most importantly — the guarantee they won’t be gone if the rent goes up. Because thanks to Section 37, it won’t.

“That was our vision for the community: a permanent hub that was active and really added something,” Gay said. “There’s always pressure, pressure, pressure — public space is diminishing, affordable space for artists is diminishing. This is one way we were able to get something done.”

Comment: See, include people, create space to be used by the public. And make sure it isn’t pushed out and replaced by Starbucks in a few years. We can do this. We need to do this. More of this.

Even so, Section 37 is far from a panacea. Its critics over the years are many: planners who say it forces them into zoning concessions; developers who decry it as a shakedown and now Mayor John Tory, who ordered a full review of it in January.

In 2012, the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs published a report critical of its fast and loose approach. “That’s the problem: its always been far too vague,” says Aaron Moore, the reports author. Among other problems, lack of transparency was found to be a problem, he said, with the eventual benefit typically being negotiated mano à mano between the developer and the area councillor.

Its lack of specificity — “community benefit” can be almost anything, depending on your point of view — undermined its use as a credible tool to keep development in check.

Section 37 is voluntary, he said, not required by law. Non-compliance wont kill a project, but it could delay it so it effectively becomes pay-to-play. “If a developer balks at affordable housing (as a Section 37 provision), for example, there’s not a lot the city can do,” he says.

Comment: Make it public and let the people shame them into doing something for the good of the city.

He also warned of the bulldozer effect of the “creative cities” rhetoric and its tendency to romanticize one groups poverty over another, which Section 37 may have unwittingly exacerbated. “Its relatively easy to sell condominiums in a building where the affordable housing is artist live-work studios,” he says. “Its not so easy if there’s a soup kitchen.”

But Section 37’s looseness has also allowed it to evolve. “In our case, there was going to be development one way or another,” Gay says. “Its not easy to get people organized, but if you can articulate what a benefit to your community really looks like, (Section 37) can bring you something really meaningful.”

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.


Upper Beach condo designed with the kids in mind

From storing the stroller to generous outdoor space, Upper Beach suites by Streetcar Developments cater to young urbanites with kids.

Tracy Hanes – Toronto Star

A new midrise condo in the Upper Beach neighbourhood is putting family living at the forefront.

The six-storey Southwood by Streetcar Developments, at Kingston Road and Southwood Drive, is one of the first condos in Toronto targeted specifically to families, and has been designed with their needs in mind. The 45-unit building opened February 22 and offers a variety of suites, from one to three bedrooms. The building will also appeal to buyers downsizing from houses.

“We are catering to two kinds of buyers — the empty nester who lives in the Beach or Upper Beach and doesn’t want a house anymore but wants to stay in the neighbourhood, and the other group is downtown young couples with babies or young children,” says Jeanhy Shim, president of research and consulting firm Housing Lab Toronto and a consultant on the Streetcar project.

Comment: And this is what we need more of. While mega-towers will continue downtown, we need some smaller and more interesting boutique-y buildings further out from the core. In established neighbourhoods, that contribute to neighbourhoods. Not all condos need to be small and cater to first-timers, investors and pied-a-terrers.

Southwood by Streetcar
“There are a lot of young, downtown buyers living in shoebox-sized units whose life circumstances have changed. They may have one small child or are thinking of having kids and thinking ahead to where their child will go to school.

“Its the first building I can think of that’s actively gone after the family downtown demographic,” says Shim, who has been raising her own young daughter in a condo and is about to embark on an in-depth study of downtown urban family housing needs.

At a recent roundtable discussion held at the Star, several major condo developers identified condo family living as an emerging trend and saw a need for larger units and more amenities to accommodate them. The developers see an increasing number of people staying in the downtown rather than moving to the suburbs after they have kids, as they don’t want to spend a lot of time commuting.

For the Southwood, Streetcar held focus groups to hear what features were most important to potential buyers, and when people preregistered, a salesperson called them within 48 hours and gained useful feedback from those phone conversations.

“We looked at what features of a (lowrise) home people love so much and translated that into a condo,” says Shim. “One thing people love about a house is the outdoor space, and we have balconies that are livable and usable, a minimum of 200 square feet, where people can entertain or kids can play.”

Shim says the young families and empty nesters wish lists were surprisingly similar: as well as generous outdoor space, they both wanted indoor spaces large enough for entertaining as well as decent storage. And though they don’t have kids at home, empty nesters want space to have their grandchildren visit.

Southwood balcony
“What both groups wanted is large entertaining spaces as they want to spend their time together,” says Shim. “We tried to create living and dining spaces that are functional, and kitchens with gas cooktops, as well as French-door fridges and full-size dishwashers in large suites, and islands you can sit at on stools. We tried to make really functional spaces, such as a living room wall where you can put furniture or a TV. We thought about how normal people live.”

Empty nesters love dining rooms, says Shim, so the larger suites include these with enough room for eight chairs. Master bedrooms can accommodate a king-sized bed and two end tables, and closets are walk-in. Ensuites are larger than typically found in condos, with water closets and his-and-her sinks. Secondary bedrooms are a minimum 10 by 12 feet, most with walk-in closets.

Shim says powder rooms aren’t a necessity for family condo dwellers, but storage is, and that space has been used to create space to store strollers, tricycles and vacuum cleaners.

“I think people will respond quite positively, as the layouts are quite distinct and unique. We really nitpicked at the plans,” she says.

One-bedroom suites start at 655 square feet (priced from the $300,000s) while three-bedroom units start from the $600,000s. There are also some large two-bedroom-plus-den suites of 1,200 to 1,300 square feet, and two-level penthouses with 1,500 to 1,600 square feet plus large rooftop terraces.

The neighbourhood is well-suited to family living with excellent daycares, schools, parks and amenities, and the Main St. GO station is within walking distance. The streetcar to downtown is at the doorstep.

Streetcar Developments specializes mainly in stylish midrise projects in east- or west-end downtown neighbourhoods within walking distance of shopping, transit, cultural amenities and parks. The company was founded in 2001 by former chartered accountant Les Mallins, who identified a development opportunity in the Beach and converted a former bowling alley into Academy Lane Lofts, a condo loft project.

“Streetcar initially catered to the young, urban demographic, but sees this (family-friendly projects) as a natural extension of their brand as their buyers have grown,” says Shim. “Its evolving along with its buyers. Just because you have a family doesn’t mean you cant still be cool and hip.”

The Southwood will feature the type of warm, modern style Streetcar is known for, with features such as nine-foot ceilings, quarter countertops, engineered hardwood or laminate floors, and barbecue hookups on balconies. “Green” features such as VOC-free paints, heat recovery ventilators (that provide a constant source of fresh air to suites) and low-flow faucets are standard.

The lobby, designed by Seven Haus, will be “very beautiful” says Shim, and the building will feature a multi-purpose room that can be rented out for parties or serve as a meeting space for mothers and children.

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.


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.