The condominium boom is the best thing that has happened to Toronto in a generation. It has transformed our once-poky downtown into a vibrant, around-the-clock urban community. It has created thousands of jobs in construction and services. It has brought millions into city coffers.
Yet listen to the chatter in the past few weeks and you would think it was some kind of calamity. One newspaper columnist said parts of the downtown were being “mutilated” by rampant development. Another said Toronto was becoming a “city of cement,” “devastatingly ugly” in places. At a city planning meeting Friday, a resident complained that “mere height” and “brutalistic design” were no substitute for the elegant city of the past.
She must have been joking. The Toronto of the past was a poor excuse for a big city. When I was growing up here, the tallest building was the stolid Bank of Commerce, all 34 storeys of it. Now, the downtown core is a thicket of arresting office and condo towers, and the streets hum with life day and night.
No fewer than 184 high-rise buildings are under construction. Some of the planet’s top developers and leading architects are vying to build here. Four high-end luxury condo-hotel towers have opened, most recently the dramatic Four Seasons complex in Yorkville. If you aren’t just a little excited by all this, pinch yourself – you may be dead.
Before it started, downtown Toronto was following the example of many North American cities and emptying out. Its population fell to 34,000 in 1976 from 55,000 in 1941. Now, thanks mainly to the condo boom, it is 110,000 and rising.You can see the results all around you: new restaurants, bars, grocery stores and gyms – all catering to droves of residents who have come to embrace urban living.
It’s a boon for the environment because residents of the vertical city use less energy. They walk to work, take transit and have less space to heat and light.
It’s a boon for city coffers. This year, the city has already secured more than $20-million in so-called Section 37 benefits from developers, money that goes for new parks, galleries and other amenities that it otherwise could never afford.
It’s even a boon for public health. Dense, busy, walkable cities encourage people to get out of their cars and move.
Far from being a land rush, the condo boom is producing just the result that city leaders had hoped for. The city’s official plan and the province’s Places to Grow program aim to discourage wasteful urban sprawl and encourage intense development in key nodes of the city. That this “densification” is actually taking place – and at such a dramatic rate – is a planner’s dream, the envy of cities all over the world.
So why all the bellyaching? Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s new chief planner, says Toronto was learning to live with density and height until two recent super-proposals came along. The Mirvish-Gehry plan for three giant highrises on King West and the Oxford Properties plan for a casino and hotel complex on Front Street “just shot everybody’s blood pressure right back up again.”
Although Torontonians have legitimate worries about whether transit and other infrastructure can handle all the new development, she says, it shouldn’t blind them to the good that can come from all the building.
“We’re entering a transitional period in the history of this city, wherein we’re experiencing something that we didn’t fathom – and it can be very good,” she says. Instead of quailing at the arrival of the unexpected, “I think we should go, ‘Wow, we didn’t anticipate this. This is cool.’”
Just so. That our dull old Toronto should suddenly become a capital of urban vitality is a small miracle. We should embrace it with both arms.