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The interior of Coca Cola's new office at 335 King Street East was revealed to media and company employees, Thursday, April 4, 2013. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)
The interior of Coca Cola's new office at 335 King Street East was revealed to media and company employees, Thursday, April 4, 2013. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

URBAN GEOGRAPHY

Coca-Cola’s move downtown is good for the city Add to ...

Coca-Cola hasn’t remained one of the world’s top companies just by making a fizzy soft drink. It has been on the leading edge of business trends from mass marketing to multinational production. Now it is joining another trend: the move downtown.

On Thursday, Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada opened gleaming new offices on King Street East. The three-storey complex sits atop the headquarters of the Toronto Sun. Constructed around a light-bathed central atrium, it has modern open-concept offices, bright meeting rooms inscribed with inspirational quotations and, of course, lots of Coke machines and drink fridges.

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Along with the attractive new office space, Coke’s 400 H.Q. employees will get access to a cool neighbourhood. Not so long ago, the eastern stretch of downtown was pretty depressing. Now Coke finds itself at the centre of a bustling neighbourhood of creative firms, cafés, restaurants and upscale furniture stores. The Distillery District and evolving West Don Lands are nearby. So is the waterside East Bayfront neighbourhood, just to the south.

President John Guarino says that the company looked all over Toronto for a new home after deciding to give up its old building in Leaside, but “in the end we decided to become part of a vibrant and up-and-coming downtown area.”

The choice nicely underlines Coke’s current Live Positively message of environmental awareness. By locating on a downtown street with a main streetcar line, says Mr. Guarino, the company will encourage staff to take transit and limit their environmental footprint. “We wanted to be as near to as much public transportation as we could,” he says. “The suburbs were not, from a sustainability standpoint, what we wanted to have.”

The company’s move is a sign of Toronto’s shifting urban geography. Coca-Cola moved into its old headquarters at 42 Overlea Boulevard in 1965, joining an exodus of industry to leafy suburbs where the car was king. The white, modernist building with copper-clad pillars is a classic suburban office building, set back from the street and fronted by green lawn.

In the decades that followed, thousands of companies put their offices in the growing suburbs of the 905. According to a 2011 report by the Canadian Urban Institute, only about a fifth of the office space in Greater Toronto remains in the downtown.

That exodus is now going into reverse. Tens of thousands of people – many of them young, creative types – are moving into downtown condos. They want to work within walking or transit range of where they live. To attract them, many firms are making the deliberate decision to locate downtown.

Since Telus started the trend by moving into a new York Street tower in 2009, a range of other leading companies from Google to Corus Entertainment to SNC Lavalin have opened or expanded downtown offices.

A recent report from TD Economics, Toronto – A Return to the Core, notes that downtown population growth more than tripled in 2006-2011 from previous census periods, outpacing growth in four surrounding suburban regions for the first time since the early 1970s. It also notes that 4.7 million square feet of office space has been built in Toronto since 2009, most of it downtown. In surrounding suburbs, by contrast, the figure was 3.9 million square feet. Downtown employment growth far outstripped the suburbs, too. “These trends represent a substantial turning point for the City of Toronto,” says TD.

Mind you, not every company wants to move downtown. Land is still cheaper, and the tax burden lower, in the suburbs. The downtown transit system is groaning under the strain of carrying so many people. Still, that a company such as Coca-Cola should choose to make the move is proof that this is more than a passing fad. It’s good news for the employees of Coke. It’s even better news for Toronto, which gains from a flourishing downtown where people are eager to live and work.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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