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by Amy West – New Dreamhomes & Condominiums Magazine
The suburbs meet the city in North York, making it an attractive choice for new homebuyers. Thanks to a new subway extension along Sheppard Avenue, high-rise condos such as Empireâ€™s C-Condos and Tridelâ€™s Pulse are cropping up along the central North York corridor that runs from Finch to Sheppard, while single-family dwellings still dominate east and west of Yonge Street.
Originally North York was known as an agricultural hub made up of scattered villages. It was formed out of the rural section of the township of York. As North York became more urbanized, it was named a borough and later a city. The area boomed following World War II, and by the 1950s and 1960s it resembled other sprawling North American suburbs. To commemorate receiving its city charter on Valentineâ€™s Day, its corporate slogan was â€œThe City With Heart,â€ and it now forms the largest part of the area served by the North York community councilâ€”a committee of Toronto city council.
With a population of around 650,000, the North York of today forms the central part of the northern half of Toronto. Until 1998, it was one of six municipalities that comprised the larger municipal structure of Metropolitan Toronto. That year, the provincial government passed legislation merging these municipalities into a new amalgamated city.
Residents have easy access to a variety of cultural and entertainment venues. Directly beside the old city hall is the Toronto Centre for the Arts, previously known as the Ford Centre for Performing Arts, which opened in 1993. It houses three theatres and features musicals, theatre productions, and other performing arts.
Directly south of city hall in the same complex is the former North York Board of Education building, now home to the Toronto District School Board. To the north in the complex is a mall with subway access. The mall is connected to the North York Central library, the largest full-service library in Toronto. It is a part of a much larger facility that includes a school board work station, swimming pool, snack bar, veterans centre, and hotelâ€”the rooms of which look down on the interior of the mall.
Black Creek Pioneer Village, an authentic 19th-century township, and the Ontario Science Centre, which boasts over 800 exhibits, are North Yorkâ€™s primary attractions. A military base and aircraft manufacturing facility are located at Downsview, although much of the land is now being transformed into a park.
Two of Ontarioâ€™s largest shopping malls, Yorkdale Shopping Centre and Fairview Mall, are in North York along with the smaller Don Mills Centre and Sheppard Plaza. The city is also home to York University and Osgoode Hall Law School, as well as major health-care facilities such as North York General Hospital, Humber River Regional Hospital, and the massive Sunnybrook Hospital complex, which includes a veterans residence and regional trauma centre.
A multitude of sports clubs dot the area, including the North York Storm (a girlsâ€™ hockey league), Gwendolen Tennis Club, and the North York Aquatic Club, which was founded in 1958 as the North York Lions Swim Club and has produced many Olympian swimmers.
The growing popularity of this area can be witnessed by the fact that the section of Highway 401 that traverses it is the busiest section of freeway in North America, exceeding 400,000 vehicles per day and widening to 21 lanes at its intersection with Highway 404.
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Each month, our local home builders’ association receives several market intelligence reports from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. This month’s newsletter contained a number of items that I thought would be of interest to new-home buyers in the GTA.
Dr. Peter Andersen, CHBA’s consulting economist, notes that this year will be much busier than expected for construction activity of all types. Housing starts have surged and residential construction has picked-up again. Non-residential construction, always a second-half cyclical performer, is in a solid expansion. A strong office leasing market and a declining office vacancy rate are signaling the onset of an office tower construction cycle.
Housing starts averaged 248,000 at annual rates in the first quarter – an increase of 17% from the same period a year earlier. This is far above the 2005 housing starts total of 225,481 units and also the annual cyclical peak of 233,431 units set in 2004.
The March starts figures were striking – 252,300 at seasonally adjusted annual rates. The first-quarter surge reflected both single-detached and multiple-unit starts. Housing start forecasts for 2006 are being revised upwards as a result of the monthly performance through the first three months of the year.
The resale market is always a good indicator for new-home demand. It is still hot and shows no sign yet of affordability stress. First-quarter sales were at an all-time record high, after adjusting for seasonality. Sales of existing homes and condos in March continued at close to record levels. This is also good news for renovation demand as the stimulus to renovation from resale housing activity, which works with a lag, shows no sign of slowing down. The national average resale price in March in major markets was up by 11.5% year over year.
RBC affordability index
High home prices and utility costs in the last three months of 2005 pushed home affordability to its highest level in 10 years, according to the Royal Bank of Canada.
RBC’s affordability index measures the proportion of pre-tax household income it takes to service the costs of owning a home. Despite the fact that incomes continue to rise, this increase does not match the hikes in mortgage rates, house prices and utility costs.
Income growth in Canada is starting to accelerate, wages are rising, but the increase in house prices has been faster. Add to it higher interest rates and overall size of rising mortgages, so affordability is going down.
Vancouver and Calgary were hit the hardest as housing prices soared in the last quarter of 2005. Affordability is expected to get worse in the first half of this year, but should level off by year’s end.
The construction industry is concerned after hundreds of construction workers from Portugal and other countries have been deported as the new Conservative government moved away from Liberal government promises of an amnesty plan.
Promises of an amnesty gave hope to underground workers who came forward to file refugee claims as a result. Their attempts to stay in the country legally ended up getting many of them deported. Canada’s current immigration system is tailored to educated immigrants, and blue-collar workers often do not qualify.
“This is insanity,” says immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman. “We have an immigration system that is supposed to supply workers for jobs, but these blue-collar workers who are needed cannot qualify to get in.”
There is a major labour shortage in the construction industry – an industry that accounts for 9.5% of Canada’s total gross domestic product and 7.5% of Ontario’s alone. It is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 illegal immigrants working in southern Ontario’s construction and hospitality industries, and 200,000 undocumented workers across the country. Deportations are therefore a major threat to the construction industry.
The Canadian Home Builders’ Association wrote a letter to Immigration Minister Monte Solberg, supporting the work foreign workers do in the homebuilding industry and urging him to resolve the labour shortage.
Solberg says the government is working with the provinces to ensure labour needs are met. “We understand the process doesn’t work well for a lot of people. We’re trying to fix that. The ideal situation is for people to go through the process.” He ruled out an amnesty, he said, because he doesn’t want to encourage people to come to Canada illegally.
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Sherbourne and Wellesley will soon be home to a slew of high-end condos, but it’s already home to hookers, shootings, and No Frills. What happens when these worlds collide?
By Kimberly Spice – Fab Magazine
They are everywhere on Wellesley, Sherbourne, and Jarvis Streets: large sheets of poster-covered plywood caging in block-sized pockets of flattened earth. The pungent smell of grime is ubiquitous. Machinery pokes up ominously where the Wellesley Central Hospital once stood, a wasteland that soon will contain a new park and manicured lawns as part of a new condo development.
Butting up against Toronto’s gaybourhood, the Wellesley-Sherbourne area is not unique. Huge blocks are being demolished in the downtown core to make way for phallic condominiums. There’s Aspen Ridge Homes’ Vu two towers at Jarvis and Adelaide; Context Development’s Radio City, which took over the old CBC building on Jarvis and Carlton; and Great Gulf Homes’ “X the Condominium” tower at Jarvis and Charles.
But there is something different about the projects at Sherbourne and Wellesley. With voguish names like Verve, The Steam Plant Lofts, The Star of Downtown and 500 on Sherbourne, they are not only within a mile’s radius of each other, in some cases they’re right across the street from St. James Town â€“ a name that doesn’t conjure up stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.
David Dunkelman writes in his book, Your Guide to Toronto Neighbourhoods, that St. James Town was originally built to house “upwardly mobile singles and professionals.” But today the area is known for its multitude of low-income immigrant families from dozens of countries living in a block that is riddled with violence and drug trafficking. Between fifteen and eighteen thousand people call it home, making it Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood.
“There are still problems within the community and watershed moments of violence,” says Staff Sergeant Frank Bergen of Toronto Police 51 Division. “In the spring there was a daytime shooting on Bleecker Street and obviously these [types of incidents] are of major concern for the community.”
Although extreme violence has occurred in the area, some see it as merely “isolated incidents,” and some of the condo developments in the area are sold out, while others are 70% sold. Floor-to-ceiling windows, marble accents, laminated flooring and Euro-style kitchens are standard features in some developments. Prices ranging from $149,000 to over $600,000 are drawing the singles and professionals that St. James Town’s 18 high-rise buildings were originally designed for.
What happens when these two worlds collide?
Directly across Wellesley Street from Tridel’s Verve construction site at Wellesley and Sherbourne, Homewood Avenue stares back. Homewood residents are seeing the beginnings of the area’s changes as machines hammer cores into the ground for the condo‘s foundation. Some residents on Homewood are hoping for great things from the development. For years, prostitution, drug trafficking and vehicle traffic, including loud music and eggs being thrown from passing cars, have been on the increase. The problem peaked last year with a shooting on the street that killed two, with a stray bullet entering the window of a nearby home. Since then the community has become more proactive, holding regular meetings with concerned citizens and police and government officials.
Speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, one long-time resident says, “I’ll be walking home and watch while prostitutes lining the street lift their skirts way over their heads when a car drives by.” He lifts his own imaginary skirt and rolls his eyes in disgust. “And it doesn’t stop in the winter. I walked down the street this past winter and a prostitute wearing a fur coat walked right up to me, flashed me and asked if I was interested. They are totally naked under there!”
The breaking point is near for many residents. “I’m going to move if it doesn’t change soon,” another community member says sadly. “I’ve lived on the street for a long time but I don’t want to live this way.” Adds another man, “If Tridel can come in and clean up our neighbourhood, I’m all for it.”
Even if residents in the new large developments decide not to take an interest in solving the area’s problems, there will be an increase in the police presence in the area. The presence has already been felt. “We’ve been very fortunate,” presence has already been felt. “We’ve been very fortunate,” says staff sergeant Frank Bergen, whose unit of 17 officers was recently increased to 35, and will soon increase to 40. “The Wellesley-Sherbourne area will have a sergeant and six officers dedicated to that neighbourhood.”
But will the condo owners simply generate more complaints, and demand different standards, for these new officers?
“There is part of the community that appreciates [that prostitution is] a historical component of the neighbourhood, but that same community would also suggest that an increase in crystal meth, crack or violence is not acceptable,” says Bergen. “With development, certain standards are no longer accepted in that community.” This means that police often become the front line in effecting change. “Everybody wants to live where it’s happening, but at the same time they want what’s happening to change because they live there now.”
For 39-year-old Clafton Fiola, one of the original buyers in the Tridel Verve condominium, the negative aspects of the area are a moot point. “Up-and-coming” neighbourhoods have long been attractive to trendsetters looking to take advantage of lower prices. He purchased an 800-square-foot two-bedroom loft. “It will be a unique area. It’s been stable for about 30 years. [It's] known as the gay area and it’s in the middle of everything,” says Fiola. But he adds, “It’s a neighbourhood in transition. I’m hoping it will turn into a Yorkville.”
It’s a bold dream – when you’re walking past Food Basics and St. James Town, it’s tough to imagine FCUK moving in next door. “It will never be another Yorkville,” says Dr. Dennis Magill, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. He specializes in social change and has been a resident of the area for 27 years. “St. James Town is predominantly lower income families and what we call a social ethnic receiving area. That’s not going to change.”
Still, he thinks there are parallels between utra-chic Yorkville and what’s happening at Sherbourne and Wellesley. “Going back 30 years when I first came to Toronto, Yorkville was where everybody went for the hippy lifestyle, where everybody went to get drugs, mainly marijuana. It was pretty run down and it’s changed dramatically over time.”
“I don’t think our area [Sherbourne-Wellesely] will change the same [way] as Yorkville,” says Magill. “But it’s an area that’s undergone dramatic changes. Here we have a blending together of different lifestyles, different income levels. It makes city living interesting and exciting. I would hate for it to become a middleclass enclave.”
The middle-class enclave he describes is reminiscent of what’s taken place along Richmond Street and King Street East, which condo developments have transformed into long condo corridors with chi-chi furniture stores and Starbucks outlets at street level, and BMWs pulling into underground parking garages. Prospective residents of Sherbourne-Wellesley should expect more of a contrast.
One of the strangest juxtapositions is already taking place at the Radio City complex. When condo owners started moving into Radio City in late 2004, many predicted its towers would usurp the ultra-gay reputation of the buildings on Alexander Street, including the circular landmark nicknamed “Vaseline Towers.” It’s not uncommon for residents to be asked, “So who have you had sex with in the building?” But Radio City also has an entire floor of nuns. With sisters living alongside sisters, some have joked that it just makes the building gayer.
Peter Rex, a 43-year-old gay accountant who lives with his husband Steve Martin, the 43-year-old owner of a commercial cleaning service, says living with such a diverse population does not bother them. “Live and let live,” says Rex, owner of a penthouse in the Radio City complex. “On a day-to-day basis, we only see them in the garage. We have a very pleasant atmosphere. We chat all the time,” says Rex. “But we mind our own business.”
Still, not every buyer may be prepared for the diversity they will encounter. Informing newcomers about the area’s lifestyle is not as important as selling property for some developers at Sherbourne and Wellesley.
Gary Silver, president of Willowfield-Winchester Inc., which is developing The Star of Downtown, gave a curt, “No,” when asked if they inform their buyers that they are bedding down in an area predominantly populated by gays.
Tridel, on the other hand, wants purchasers to know who they’ll be sleeping next to. While queerness is not a prerequisite for living in the area, Winnie Chan, Tridel sales representative, says, “We always tell purchasers they are moving into the gay area. We want our purchasers to be well informed.”
And there are other factors that will help the neighbourhood feel more like a neighbourhood than a series of vertical gated communities.
The new Wellesley Community Centre and public library at Wellesley and Sherbourne opened in April 2005. It reflects the growing number of youth in the area. “Children and youth programs are one of our priorities,” says Jane Scarffe, Promotions and Communications Officer for the City of Toronto. But that priority may not include queer youth: Scarffe says, “We don’t have any gay-specific programming at [the Wellesley Community Centre],” she says. With an average of 15,000 people using the facility per month, staff have had to extend the hours of operation. And with funds being raised for a pool, there will no doubt be plenty of gay area residents eager for a new bathing destination.
Within a short walk, the 519 Church Street Community Centre, open since 1975, offers programming for the LGBTQ community as well as homeless people and other area residents. “Our trans programs and queer parenting program are increasing in numbers,” says Alison Kemper, the 519′s executive director, pointing to a shift in demographics and the needs of community members.
Also nearby is the Rekai Centre, a long-term care facility for patients with chronic illnesses (including HIV and AIDS) that opened last year. Half its residents are from the area, and the Centre will be a neighbour of condos like Verve. Walking across Earl Place, one street north of the Tridel, The Steam Plant Lofts and 500 Sherbourne developments, one can envision the possibilities – tree-lined streets, properties squared off by black cast-iron railings, neatly kept gardens. Nicely dressed elderly couples walking slowly along the sidewalks chatting amongst themselves.
“I believe the neighbourhood should be able to sustain people from the cradle to the grave,” says Kyle Rae, city councillor for the ward including Wellesley-Sherbourne, in reference to the new developments on the Wellesley Central Health Corporation grounds. “We are just enhancing the ability of people to retire, grow old or possibly become infirm and we’ll be able to maintain them in the neighbourhood.”
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