Eight years ago, Hazel Liau’s husband bought a 1,268-square-foot, pre-construction condo in the CityPlace complex at Spadina Avenue and Front Street.
He spent two years in his bachelor pad before Ms. Liau moved in. Now, the two-bedroom-plus den unit is a family home for the couple, their two daughters, a French bulldog and a school of saltwater fish in a 300-gallon tank.
Their evolution has been mirrored in the neighbourhood around them.
“It feels like the kid population has maybe tripled in the past four years,” says Ms. Liau, 33, who’s currently on maternity leave with her eight-month-old second daughter.
She’s almost right. Between 2006 and 2011, her Trinity-Spadina ward has seen a 20-per-cent jump in the number of under-five year-old residents – and since the majority of the ward lives in multiunit buildings, it’s safe to say a whole lot of those kids live in condos.
Toronto’s condo boom has kicked off a real-time experiment in ultra-urban living, and one of the most controversial aspects of the shift is whether the city is ready for the influx of high-rise families like Ms. Liau’s.
With 21 buildings and roughly 7,500 units, CityPlace is perhaps the fastest-burbling test tube of them all. Ever since the developer Concord Adex began dropping towers onto the site in 2000, CityPlace has taken a lot of criticism for lacking sufficient infrastructure or amenities for its population. In some ways, the neighbourhood is catching up: In exchange for allowing extra-high towers, the city got developers around the Fort York neighbourhood to kick in cash to build parks, like the Canoe Landing splash pad that Ms. Liau’s daughters love, and a modern, high-tech library that opened earlier this year to an immediate influx of condo-dwelling families. “We use it all the time – everything’s so new,” says Ms. Liau.
Like many of her neighbours, the 33-year-old Ms. Liau says she prefers a small downtown space to a big suburban home: She grew up in Brampton and spent much of her 20s commuting the 90 minutes there and back. Here, her husband can walk to his office in the Eaton Centre, while she can take her daughter to Mandarin-language preschool in Chinatown on foot. Ms. Liau also says that part of the draw are the child-friendly amenities offered in her complex, like a movie theatre for holding birthday parties, a swimming pool that lets her bypass the waiting lists for city recreation programs, and an indoor playground, which was especially appreciated during this past brutal winter.
But the air-drop of new people into already-busy neighbourhoods definitely brings problems. The snarl of traffic in, out and past CityPlace is formidable – cars, bicycles and pedestrians all act independently, regardless of the stop lights – and it’s not the only capacity issue the neighbourhood is grappling with. Here, and in neighbourhoods from High Park to Yonge and Sheppard, condo parents are dismayed to learn that their kids might not automatically get into the high-rated schools in their district, because there just isn’t room. Two new schools are being built to handle the influx from CityPlace and other Fort York condos, but in the interim, there will be a whole lot of busing.
Ensuring his daughter’s smooth transition into a local school is part of why Andrew Geldard is currently renting an apartment in the Junction while waiting for his condo to be built. “That way, if she starts school before it’s ready, she’ll already be in the right one,” said the 37-year-old, who bought a 1,000-square-foot unit in the Duke condos, an eight-storey apartment and townhouse complex at the corner of Dundas Street West and Indian Grove Avenue. The building is slated to be ready for occupancy at the end of 2015. By that time, Mr. Geldard’s daughter will be almost five, and his son will be just over two years old.
Mr. Geldard and his wife spent a few months casually looking for a house before accepting that ground-floor real estate is currently too much for their budget, and anxiety levels. “There’s all this frantic panicking that you have to do to win a house,” he says of Toronto’s current market, which is rife with bidding wars and competition. “We nearly made one bid and pulled out. I felt like a rabbit in the headlights.”
As a senior designer with Quadrangle Architects – which is working with the developer TAS on the Duke – Mr. Geldard knew firsthand that the building’s floor plans truly maximized the small space. It helps that he grew up in a narrow townhouse in England, though he does wish he had a “garden” for his kids to play in. Part of why he and his wife like the Junction is the proximity to parks: The wading pool at Vine Avenue makes it a favourite. Choosing an apartment as his starter home was a compromise, but it’s one he thinks can work for the present time. “A condo seems like the stepping stone to a bigger property in the future,” he says.
One major drawback for families considering condos has been the lack of larger units on the market, leading them to command prices comparable to smaller homes (especially once maintenance fees are added in). Having noticed the demand, some developers are finally responding. Duke developer TAS has just launched a new mid-rise building, Kingston&Co, east of Main Street in the upper Beaches. Toronto’s average condo size is 800 square feet – more than half of the units in Kingston&Co are that big or larger, with the biggest ones bordering on 1,600 square feet. Many units have eight-foot-deep terraces, with sizes from 160 to 520 square feet, and most are split into two or three bedrooms. TAS chief executive and president Mazyar Mortazavi says these design decisions were made purposely to attract families.
“The units have the kind of space you need to keep a vacuum in, so you’re not always running to your basement locker,” says Mr. Mortazavi. He knows that many people choose condos over houses because of economic constraints, but says the upside of that is the decision to remain in downtown neighbourhoods. The goal is to make Kingston a building that appeals to buyers from singletons to parents to retirees. Rather than a condo, Mr. Mortazavi hopes they’ll consider the seven-storey building a “home in a multiuse environment” – one they can stay in as they transition through life stages.
Ms. Liau says that her family will need more square footage at some point, but while her husband is set on a house, she’d consider another condo. “We’ll probably move in a year or two,” she says, “and I want to stay as central as possible.”