In the 1990s, Queen Street west of Ossington Avenue used to be much like the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes. If the marketing gurus of the development industry portrayed it as an unforgiving, hostile neighbourhood, people would just stay away.
In the movie, Dr. Zaius and the conformist administrators of the ape world portray the Forbidden Zone as a toxic and mysterious wasteland. But all their warnings aren't enough to ward off the young and impetuous intellectual chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius, who discover (with the help of Charlton Heston) that the zone was a false legend to keep the apes ignorant of their potential, both good and bad.
Unofficially marked on its eastern entry point by the former Queen Street Mental Health Centre, the Queen West neighbourhood was once a haven for addicts, prostitutes and psychiatric outpatients, but also hosted a vibrant community for artists, musicians and writers, as well as long-time residents with blue-collar roots. These groups freely mingled with each other and built a community that was neither depressed nor affluent, but one that worked.
Queen West's transformation into an upscale "condocracy" began slowly with the redevelopment of several redundant factories into lofts and the transformation of brownfield land into the multiphased Liberty Village site along King Street.
But it kicked into high gear in 2003 with the launch of the Drake Hotel, a sleek nightclub bastion for the trend-conscious. Just east of the Drake at Gladstone Avenue, where the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks scar the landscape, the Gladstone Hotel was recently rechristened as an upscale social hub, a far cry from its more recent history as a welfare flop house.
Queen West is forbidden no longer; the sales centres and model suites have begun to pop up.
Many local residents who staked their claim in the neighbourhood before the glitterati brigade discovered it view the arrival of condominium high-rises with unconcealed contempt. The rundown, rough-around-the-edges aspect of the area is what appealed to them, and in spite of the obstacles, they built a decent community out of it before you could buy a decent Cosmopolitan in the bars.
They do have a point in this neighbourhood, more so than most. Undulating glass-and-steel modernistic domiciles could overwhelm the sturdy Victorian architecture that has survived here through good times and bad. If there is a place where hard height caps and strict design standards are needed, it's Queen West.
There's no denying that Queen West is a powerful draw for young, cool and single condo buyers with limited funds, especially at a time when traditional developers are retrenching in order to appeal to empty-nesters with $500,000 or more to spend.
One of the most extravagantly promoted projects peddling the carefree Queen West lifestyle is Landmark Building Group's Westside Lofts, directly across from the Drake. Its 360 suites, mostly wide open to resemble true lofts, range from $174,000 to $396,000 (to a maximum of 920 square feet) and are already more than half sold since launching this summer.
Consisting of two buildings -- seven and 11 storeys -- Westside started on the drawing board as a townhouse project in the same mould as Liberty Village to the south. Its rethinking has not produced a groundswell of bad reviews in a neighbourhood infested with harsh critics, in part because it has offered up a funky multicoloured façade and elegant landscaping to soften the impact on the street.
Another proposal that is yet to be approved by city officials is a pedestrian bridge from Westside south to King Street across the railroad tracks, which would be the first new link between King and Queen streets since the 19th century. The bridge, not coincidentally, would wind up in Liberty Village, where Landmark's parent company, Urbancorp, is building low-rise condominium townhouses.
Just east of Westside will be the Bohemian Embassy, courtesy of Baywood Homes, which has unleashed a massive marketing campaign hammering away at the project's ultra-trendy bona fides. The Bohemian two-tower layout -- a nine-storey conversion loft from an old textile factory fronting Queen Street, and including some commercial space, and a 19-storey glass tower behind it -- does have the potential to drown the delicate sensibilities of the area.
The Bohemian Embassy has received kudos for its landscaped courtyard, which is reached through an arched walkway. But the scale of the project and its overbearing emphasis on being hipper-than-thou will not endear it to the current locals.
Still, in its first week on the market in September, 150 suites were sold. A total 345 have been released to date, with prices going from $160,000 to $440,000 in sizes ranging from 475 to 1,220 square feet, including a good selection of two-storey lofts.