Friday, August 26, 2011


The Condos Changing the Toronto Skyline

Just got back from Toronto after a weekend convention.

I always tell people who travel to think carefully when contrasting their hometown to places they go to for business and pleasure. While it can be fun to take note of differences, it should also be viewed through the prism that we don't live in the city and don't see it through the daily lives of those who live there.

Having said that, it is not hard to see that Toronto may very well lead North America in how many construction cranes are in operation. That is not an idle statement. The boom in condo construction reminds me of what I saw in Florida over the years. In that sense, it alarms me as it was unsustainable growth in the U.S.

I can't say for certain that what is happening in Toronto could go bust but one thing is certain, it is transforming the skyline.

I didn't see as much in terms of pure office buildings going up. The last reports I saw indicated that the city was still absorbing a bit of stock from two years back when three tower went up.

However, this isn't about the financials underpinning Toronto today but an observation of where they are now.

What we see in Toronto today is a downtown filled with people. Some of this was organic growth, some of this was planned and a lot of this was fueled by 40 years of sustained immigration. In some respects there are two Torontos. The first being the urban one with offices, neighbourhoods and the like packed tightly together in higher density settings. The second is the suburban Toronto with subdivisions and regional offices and shopping. Throw into the mix service, industrial and manufacturing all over the city to keep people employed.

This is didn't all happen overnight. In my case, I stayed at the Harbourfront which got its kick start back in 1972 when the Trudeau government set up a plan to start changing the port of Toronto lands into something resembling Vancouver's Granville Island.

It is a work in progress to be sure. Many people come to the area for entertainment or work but the Gardiner Expressway, an elevated road creates quite a lot noise and blocks easier access. Transportation is via streetcar and the ferry can shuttle people off to Toronto Island.

The other noise in the immediate area is the Toronto Island airport. While obviously a huge convenience for those not wanting to use the ridiculously far and expensive Pearson International, the Porter Airlines aircraft take off at high angles and quite often.

It is obvious the city of Toronto has its hands filled trying to figure out how to make the area successful while still maintaining a functioning metro. Hence, the comment about the two Torontos.

Still, it is hard not to be impressed with with has been slowly achieved over the years. The downtown is filled with people and several districts have emerged and continue to thrive. It will interesting to see where it goes.


Now, the inevitable comparison to Winnipeg. We lack people in the central area of the city. With the exception of The Forks (which is Winnipeg's grand initiative on par with Habourfront), we have few places where people pour out onto the streets.

All of our grand downtown gestures save one did not think to include housing as a major component. The Winnipeg Convention Centre had a major component of apartment housing next door with the Holiday Towers. Sadly, the site was orphaned and left surrounded by parking lots.

In the last five years, Winnipeg has caught up with many cities in terms of building new condos in the downtown. Waterfront Drive has taken off and now we are seeing phase two being developed. Tens of millions are being spent. However, unlike the 26 floors of Holiday Towers North and South, we are seeing new construction of only several floors at a time.

So far, developers are only taking a tentative step forward in this regard. And why put themselves out? Twice now, two towers in the Broadway area and even further afield in the suburbs have met with resistance. Even smaller condo projects in River Heights and Linden Woods have run into trouble.

Maybe it is that way all over Canada and beyond. However, we seem to torpedo apartment and condo projects that are completely private investment driven.

After this next phase of condo and apartment building in downtown Winnipeg, are we likely to see some construction cranes and the buildings of high rises? One can hope.

We need more people living downtown to create dynamism. City Hall cannot continue as an impediment to this.


One Man Committee said...

Going to a place like Toronto really drives home the point as to how little progress we've made in terms of turning our urban core (downtown and surrounding areas) into healthy, vibrant districts. Just in the past 15 years or so, Toronto has really taken things to the next level... the downtown areas surrounding the financial core which were run-down buildings and surface lots 25 years ago have become full-fledged neighbourhoods now.

The fact that Toronto builds condos by the thousands has a lot to do with that. Winnipeg is starting to see some progress, but it needs to be multiplied if things are going to change. Even smaller cities like Halifax are seeing new highrises go up in central areas while in Winnipeg it's still generally small scale development of under 6 storeys.

Riverman said...

The alarming rate of condo development in downtown Toronto is due to the fact that people really, really want to live downtown. Proximity to the lake, Toronto Island, entertainment/nightlife (King/Queen West) are but a few reasons. Also to get into a small house there for under 500K you have to go north to Eglington or out to Leslieville.

This is not the case in Winnipeg. Most don't see downtown as desirable and those that do can easily get into a house in a neighbourhood quite close to downtown.

Anonymous said...

Toronto's "downtown" has a population of what 2 maybe 3 times the entire population of Winnipeg?

Why would anyone want to live in the cesspool that is downtown Winnipeg?

Anonymous said...

I've lived downtown for almost 20 years. Even if I won the lottery I wouldn't move to the burbs. Too many squares (like the previous poster)!

John Dobbin said...

OMC: I think so many of our developers have gotten burned by zoning fights, many seem to have sat by the sidelines to see which way the wind is blowing.

The developer of the Upper Fort Garry site got thrown under the bus.

This second phase of condos going up will be transformative.

We'll have to see if some of the bigger developers might step in.

Riverman: I agree sky high house prices are making a condo appear like a more affordable choice.

There are a few places big condo developers would love to put a 30 story condo downtown. It is called The Forks.

Problem is we all seem to know that would likely make it a close neighbourhood in the years after as residents decided that skateboard park should go elsewhere.

Anon 1: Toronto had a huge parking lot where the Metro Convention Center and CBC buildings were. Great swaths of it in the 1980s was vacant dead land.

I don't consider The Forks a cess pool. Neither do I think Broadway is. Might be nice to build on what is good in the area.

Anon 2: I have a feeling we are reaching a tipping point in a change downtown.

The View from Seven said...

Riverman has a point there. Toronto has reached a point where the various trade-offs that residents need to make give downtown living some strong selling points.

For many Torontonians, downtown competes with Oakville (40 kms by highway from downtown Toronto), Oshawa (60 kms) or Barrie (100 kms) as a place to live. Many people are doing long commutes from these places as a trade-off for a mortgage they can afford and/or having suitable family housing.

But if your circumstances allow you to live comfortably in 600 square feet or less, then why not spare yourself the long commute and live downtown?

In Winnipeg, downtown competes with suburbs just a few kilometres away for residents. Even commuting in from far-flung Charleswood is only equivalent to commuting in from the 401/404 junction or the Gardiner/427 junction in sprawling Toronto.

So, fewer Winnipeggers are willing to make the trade-offs required to live in a smaller downtown home as opposed to a larger suburban one.

Good point on John's part about cities looking different from a tourist's point of view than from a local's point of view. If there's one thing I learned from following a U.S. web site that allows people to write reviews about their cities, it's that you couldn't throw a stone in most of them without hitting someone who wants to "get out of this s**thole", whether it be Minot or San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

The only thing you can do is not to compare Winnipeg to Toronto. Are you kidding me. You stand on one corner and see more freight moved in a day than moves in a month here in Winnipeg. And we are burning through hundreds of millions on CentrePort - not to mention paying a political hack a pretty nice six figure salary ( am told its about 300K plus ).

The growth will not stop in TO. People are filling the place up and the burbs are just exploding. They have so much growth they will need to invest at least 25 billion in highways just to keep up. The 407, is starting to tighten up, and thats at about 20 bucks per day to use minimum. North York is allowing developers the ability to purchase whole blocks of brick bungalows and tearing them down. Up go the condo's, 30 plus storeys, all pre sold.

Winnipeg, best it could do is stay small and tighten up. Try and be a metropolis, well, it won't work, its not remotely close ( and there are reasons, number one, no big US city's south of here number 2, an unimaginative sense about itself )

John Dobbin said...

VOS: I agree that many people in Toronto are making trade offs based on commutes and expenses in the suburbs.

We in Winnipeg probably won't see the commutes or the expenses of living in the suburbs drive condo growth in the downtown.

What has had a major impact though by all appearances is the aging population.

It is a growing trend across Canada. Doesn't matter if you are on a farm spread in Saskatchewan or a house in Toronto suburbs. At some point the place is too big and too far out.

And if someone can longer drive, they can't live easily in the suburbs.

Every small town and big city alike wants central housing for this shift of older people.

As a trade-off, downtown starts to look better the place is close to transit, hospitals and other amenities geared to older people.

While I don't know the demographics of the Waterfront Drive area, it is very likely the retired senior component is a strong one. I think we will see it get bigger.

Anon 3: Think I have stated the case that Toronto has had explosive growth for 40 years or more.

We can't compete in population and economic heft.

As for Centreport, it is hard to see how successful or not it will be. Potentially, it could be good.

When I initially began writing this post, I was going to make a link to port cities and growth.

The idea of an inland port for road, rail and air in principle has a ring to it. However, I could not tell you if the money to date has been wasted or spent wisely.

I agree that the city should tighten up. I suspect our aging population makes it imperative. In some cases, I can see someone going from a four bedroom monstrosity in the suburbs to a bed, drawers and side table in the downtown in 20 or 30 years.

Call it the downsizing of senior life.

This is something Winnipeg can get a head start on. However, it doesn't all have to be personal care homes for those in desperate need. It can also for seniors who are in good health and mobility but who don't want to own a big house that has to be taken care of when they are at the cottage or in Phoenix.