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In the heart of club land, one councillor pushes for a family-friendly city
Natalie Alcoba, National Post
Out of the concrete ashes of a cathedral-like fixture on the party-people circuit, a condo tower is slated to rise in Toronto’s once infamous Entertainment District.
The Joker, with vaulted ceilings, had its last laugh several years ago on Richmond Street. It’s being replaced by a 36-storey residential/retail tower.
Across the road, a trifecta of clubs are living on borrowed time — there’s a proposal to transform the southeast corner at Peter Street into a residential tower with a public plaza out front.
The list goes on in a neighbourhood that is a bona fide club graveyard these days.
At its height in the mid-2000s, the area extending north of Richmond, to the lake, from Simcoe to Spadina, was said to boast more than 80 nightclubs — the thickest concentration in North America — many of them of the “big box” fare that crammed hundreds of revellers into warehouses. Now, police, business and political officials peg it closer to 30 or 40. It’s been a gradual taming of club land, pushed in part by local councillor Adam Vaughan and his vision for a more “complex” neighbourhood that people walk in, not just through.
A former broadcast journalist, Mr. Vaughan campaigned in 2006 to create a more family-friendly downtown, warning that such complexes as CityPlace, almost exclusively the domain of singles, risked succumbing to the kind of decay and disrepair seen in St. James Town, near Bloor Street north of Cabbagetown.
His first term has revolved around development that pairs commercial with residential, and allows people with different sized families, and different socio-economic levels, to live in the same building or on the same block. This week he unveiled Canoe Landing Park, a focal point in the revitalization of the former railway lands near the Rogers Centre. There is also a proposal to build two new elementary schools, and affordable housing for families nestled around condo developments, all designed to diversify the demographics and allow young professionals to stay in the core.
The changes to the Entertainment District also mean couples staying to raise their children, or moving in. It means more parks, more small businesses, cultural spaces and hybrid developments that shorten the commute to an elevator ride between home and office. Smaller lounges are sprouting up. The Ontario College of Art and Design already owns three buildings in the area (home to former clubs); the new Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox is under construction. It also involves slowing down the traffic a little: Mr. Vaughan wants to test out turning Richmond and Adelaide streets, now four-lane thoroughfares that go in one direction, into two-way streets. He calls it a “high-tech” version of Kensington Market.
The plans are dramatic, and if realized would completely transform the area. They also have their skeptics. How many young families can afford the $600,000 condos in the core? And with an estimated 10,000 more people moving into the area in the next 10 years (double what currently exists) will the Entertainment District lose its buzz?
“It’s going to be entertainment for everybody instead of just 20-year-olds who come down to listen to house music,” said Mr. Vaughan, who raises his children downtown, and has prodded condo developers to build 10% of units large enough for families.
The latest complex, approved this week at Richmond and Duncan streets, has 94 units large enough to raise children. A daycare opened up across the street five weeks ago.
“I think fundamentally we’re seeing the social and cultural shift in the downtown core,” said Mazyar Mortazavi, who owns TAS DesignBuild, which is building on the former Joker site. “You need the diversity to activate the neighbourhood,” he said, “and once you begin to have the attraction of that diversity, that’s when you begin to see the change.” —
Oliver Geddes remembers the club district’s heyday. It was the late 1990s and his family was running Easy & the Fifth night club, Money, and This is London. But then things started to get out of hand, with new clubs opening up every other week and inexperienced owners eager to cash in.
“When they didn’t knock it out of the park, they lowered the bar, and they start working with some of the less savoury promoters and people in the industry who brought the crappier patrons. And that’s when the violence started,” Mr. Geddes said. That was around 2005, he says. The subsequent years saw numerous shootings, and murder.
Police flooded the area with extra enforcement on bicycles, on horses and on foot. Security cameras turned on. In recent years, crime has been on the decline, said Staff Sergeant Kevin Suddes, with 52 Division’s Community Response Unit. The drop in shootings is obvious, but there are also fewer assault calls and slightly fewer arrests, he said.
Violence, especially drunken, messy fights, is still an issue, and every weekend members of Toronto’s Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy squad roll in to help keep the peace.
Enter players such as the Ontario College of Art and Design, with students who relish taking over raw space and transforming it. OCAD will gain exhibition space near its burgeoning satellite campus when Aspen Ridge Homes builds 742 residential units in two towers at Duncan and Richmond streets. OCAD needs the room, said Peter Caldwell, vice-president of finance and administration.
Painting and drawing students have already been toiling away on big projects in buildings at Duncan and Richmond. Sometimes, worlds collide. An idea to “animate” the streets by showcasing students at work through big picture windows loses its sheen every time clubbers stumble out of bars and bang on the glass. “The students get unnerved by this, they end up wanting to cover the windows,” Mr. Caldwell said.
Janice Solomon, executive director of the Entertainment District Business Improvement Area, believes that when TIFF’s Bell Lightbox opens up, and the towers are complete, the population will surge and demand will spur commercial growth. Already, Ms. Solomon sees more people walking dogs, more small children and babies. The nightlife will always remain, she said, but it will be a range of venues.
Donald Rodbard, co-founder of the King-Spadina Residents Association, says he hasn’t really noticed a big difference in the area yet — most of the condo projects are under construction — but there are at least two daycares. Joseph Ko opened up Kinder College on Richmond Street five weeks ago, and about half of his clients live in the condos nearby.
“We’ve really seen a huge change in the downtown area,” said Sarah Baker, a Kinder College parent, who lives on Queen’s Quay with her husband and 13-month-old son. “We both walk to work, which is absolutely one of the reasons we decided to stay downtown.”
While Mr. Rodbard, who has fought against the concentration of big clubs, welcomes the shifting demographics, he is also wary of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction.
“This particular part of the downtown is going to be heavily residential. Our fear is we may be going from one extreme to another, from party and night clubs, those are in the decline, and now we may not have an Entertainment District.”
Joe Ferraro, another Kinder College parent who lives in Stouffville, is skeptical that downtown living will ever take off for families. “Number one is the affordability issue,” he said. “The only families I know are the ones that have been there for a long time. They’re established.”
Just south of King and John, Adam Vaughan is building skyscrapers in the sky. He knows this neighbourhood like the back of his hand; as if holding imaginary blocks, he stacks the future developments north and south of us. At the corner, a crane is moving material for a new high-rise. In a “master plan” drafted by the Entertainment District BIA, John Street will become the “spine” of the area, or a “cultural corridor.”
A tower going up directly in front of us, on Mercer Street, “will deal with the alley, and frame it a little bit differently so it isn’t so disgusting,” Mr. Vaughan said. The development “opens up” Mercer, where there’s a strip of historic buildings, and closer to Adelaide there are plans for a “theatre museum,” he said.
The local planners would like to pioneer a new format in which a lawyer, for example, could set up a practice in a small commercial floor in the podium, while living in a penthouse above.
“We think that with all the development that is coming into this area, you’re going to have a need for dentists and doctors and real estate agents,” Mr. Vaughan said.
“If you have that range of ages, a variety of stores, success builds on success. It’s very easy to say that government shouldn’t mess with the market and you should just continue to build what sold yesterday, today. But the reality is that we have to build a city for tomorrow and that means thinking about planning for the next decade.”
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The city and developers want breeders and their broods to start populating condo towers, but it’s an uphill battle
Anna Mehler Paperny – Globe and Mail
Carol Finlay’s friends and family think she’s crazy. A neglectful would-be mother. An urban masochist.
Her audacious proposal? To move downtown to raise a family.
“[They say,] ‘You can’t raise a family. … That would be neglectful to children … it’s not enough space to raise children, it’s dangerous.’ “
Ms. Finlay, 29, and her husband Charlie are moving in August from North York to a loft near the corner of Queen and Dovercourt, which they hope to convert into a three-bedroom condo. “Ninety per cent of our friends are going in the opposite direction.
“[But] our life is in Toronto and it didn’t make sense to us to spend so much of our time commuting,” Ms. Finlay says. “In North York we weren’t part of the community there as much as we would like to be. … We would like to start a family and that becomes even more important to us.”
And the city of Toronto wishes there were thousands more like them.
Surging demand for prized downtown real estate in a white-hot market has buyers snapping up new condos as fast as developers can build them – 951 high-rise units sold in January of this year, compared with 184 the year before and 508 during the market’s last peak in 2008.
For the most part, the city is on board with the onset of a hyper-dense metropolis of vertical neighbourhoods. But the people buying those $600,000 condos are young singles and couples and, to a lesser extent, retirees. This migration upward coincides with an exodus of families from the downtown core. In the 2006 census, children under 15 made up only 8.4 per cent of Trinity-Spadina’s population, compared with 16.3 per cent in the rest of Toronto.
The city is trying to change that. For months, Councillor Adam Vaughan has been working with developers on a social engineering project: to lure families into gleaming condominium boxes in the sky.
The to-do list is deceptively simple – families need space and services with an affordable price tag attached. Achieving that in one of the priciest real-estate markets in Canada is another story altogether.
It has been done elsewhere – notably Vancouver, which has seen its population of downtown children more than quintuple since 1986.
But developers shy away from the drastic measures and the minimum three-bedroom requirement Mr. Vaughan would like to see – they are skeptical as to whether this social-planning ploy will work.
If you build a kid-friendly condo, will families buy it?
Planning and growth
The city’s official plan to house more people in the downtown core calls for increasing density to take eco-conscious advantage of scarce urban space. But if Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods are going vertical, argues Mr. Vaughan, those 30-storey elevators should have kids inside.
“You can’t sustain a city with a monoculture; you can’t segregate singles from families and seniors from young people. What we need when we build these buildings is to build vertical neighbourhoods, and that means we need to sustain economic diversity and social diversity.”
In November, the city’s planning and growth committee proposed requiring large developments to devote at least 10 per cent of their units to three-bedroom condos. The report was branded as unrealistic and restrictive by the development community. So industry representatives and the city have spent the past four months trying to hammer out a compromise.
Mr. Vaughan has high hopes for the finished product, which goes before committee next month. As well, he’d like to see more high-rises with family-oriented services such as daycares.
Ed Sonshine remembers Mr. Vaughan pestering him to include family-friendly units in summer of 2008, when Mr. Sonshine was designing a property with Tribute Homes at the corner of Queen and Portland. And the RioCan chief executive officer did – about 10 per cent of the 90 condos on sale have three bedrooms. But there’s a catch: Less than 18 months before opening, “we haven’t sold any yet.”
“They’re a little bigger, so as a result they’re more expensive,” he says. The three-bedroom units start at $600,000. “And, you know, I’m not sure that people necessarily have it in their heads yet here that bringing up kids in a downtown environment is a good thing to do.”
The other 81 units, on the other hand, are almost all spoken for.
It’s not that Mr. Sonshine thinks the push to move families back into the downtown core is a bad one. “I’m just not sure it’ll work.”
For success stories, the city need look no further than Vancouver, which two decades ago began a push for family-friendly downtown condos: The city stipulated that all new developments had to be at least 25 per cent two-bedroom units or larger, and allowed them to build taller in exchange for parks, playgrounds and daycare facilities.
The result? The peninsula’s under-18 population soared to more than 7,000 in 2009 from 1,365 in 1986.
“It was a deliberate part of the vision from day one,” said city planning director Brent Toderian. He says Vancouver is the only North American city opening new elementary schools in its downtown core.
“Don’t give up on families downtown. They do want to live downtown, and our surveys have shown that if you design it well, they will choose the downtown over other options.”
Affordability IS key
The catch is affordability: Vancouver’s Yaletown townhouses and False Creek condos aren’t cheap – and the families buying them can afford the higher price point. Mr. Toderian admits financial accessibility is something the city is still grappling with. If Toronto wants to make its downtown condos accessible to those that can’t afford half-a-million dollars, the city has its work cut out for it, says Stephen Deveaux, vice-president of land development for Tribute Communities. Mr. Deveaux has been working with the city on a family condo policy. It’s not crazy to try to move families downtown, he says. But it’s not easy.
“Affordability is the main issue, and if that could somehow be solved, perhaps we could find more of a market,” he said.
“What we build is market-driven. And if there were a market for three-bedroom units, we could deliver.”
Mr. Vaughan would love to see third parties help to make the homes more affordable – pension funds, for example, that would come in and take out second mortgages on units to help lower the purchasing cost for would-be inhabitants.
David Michael Lamb considers himself a profoundly urban person: He works in the city. When he goes on vacations, he visits cities. As a CBC radio reporter and producer, he covers Canada’s largest. And living with his wife and daughter in a condo in west-end Liberty Village was an almost perfect fit.
But it was a very, very snug one: The storage locker quickly filled with baby clothes; they had to shop for small furniture that didn’t turn their tiny condo into a cramped cave.
“It’s close living,” Mr. Lamb said, but they made it work – until they were getting ready for a second child. Another, larger condo – one with a second storage locker, a third bedroom and a park nearby – would have been ideal. But they found nothing remotely suitable or affordable. The small Roncesvalles house where they’re living now is nice, he says, but he believes the city should take it upon itself to diversify a denser downtown core.
“If the city doesn’t somehow make sure that families can live downtown, then they will move out. And it’s not a healthy city when only one kind of person lives there.”
Ms. Finlay and her husband lucked out: As a saxophone player, he got a coveted loft at an Artscape development. The initiative provides affordable work and living space for the city’s artists. Five years from now, Ms. Finlay sees herself living in walking distance from parks, school and summer camps, and with a short commute. She’d rather not be the only one.
“I’d like to see less of our friends move away because they thought [it] was their only option.”
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