New condominiums have power to revitalize neglected areas of city
Love it or hate it, the building boom has intensified, revitalized, and in some case significantly altered neighbourhoods across the city from Yorkville to King West, Kingsway to the Distillery. Some ’hoods have gone from abandoned to alive, while others have been transformed into architectural eclecticism from merely historic.
Whatever your stand, there’s no denying the condo market’s role in the quickening pulse of the city from increased street traffic to happening nightspots.
Developer Peter Freed claims to be able to “see” the growth every 90 days or so, especially in areas like King West where his company has developed about 11 projects over the past decade. “The growth was happening so fast by ’06 and ’07 that you could see the pedestrian flow literally expand in the evenings and on weekends in the commercial venues that were popping up everywhere. And by the time the Thompson Hotel opened in the summer of 2010, it seemed to be an official declaration that this was a very busy part of the city, and from then on the activity was undeniable.”
Mr. Freed remembers the days when King West was “an underutilized, old neighbourhood that had gone through hard times after the flight of the textile industry some 20 years before. It was kinda cool in that abandoned warehouse way, and there were offices, but nobody lived there.”
That would soon change as the old warehouses started being retrofitted and tenanted, and bars and restaurants started cropping up. Gradually, developers came in to create new contemporary residential buildings with on-grade retail. “It was a collective effort that led to the neighbourhood’s rebirth,” Mr. Freed says.
Two other downtown neighbourhoods — the waterfront lands and downtown east — have experienced similar resurrection from a derelict death following the departure of industry for the suburbs, where land was plentiful and cheap and workers lived close by.
Although Toronto has always had its back to the water, the 30-year period starting in the 1970s was particularly bleak for areas like the docks at the foot of Bay and Yonge, where a scary expanse of empty parking lots were linked to the city by pitted sidewalks and intermittent streetlamps.
“There was a big disconnect between downtown and the waterfront, and rarely would anyone walk south of Union Station,” says Anson Kwok, VP of sales and marketing for the Pinnacle Group. When Pinnacle first purchased the property that would eventually be four towers at the foot of Bay, most people wondered what they were thinking to invest in this no-man’s-land.
But Mr. Kwok and the principals at Pinnacle knew the area had a lot going for it: proximity to the waterfront, a city planning department with the vision to start connecting the city with its beautiful waterfront, and an expanding – and young — downtown workforce that wanted to be close to the workplace where it spent most of its time and close to nightlife for what time was left over.
Pinnacle’s plan, Mr. Kwok says, was that their project would grow with the neighbourhood. And over the five or so years it’s taken to develop the four towers, with their nearly 2,000 units, the company has spent its development fees on improving the area at the foot of Bay St. and making it more enticing for pedestrians. The wider sidewalks and better access to Harbourfront are also part of the city’s “pedestrian friendly vision,” he adds.
Probably no neighbourhood has experienced such change as Downtown East. It officially started with the development of the St Lawrence neighbourhood in the 1970s under Mayor David Crombie, followed by the slow rehab in the late 90s of King East, and the transformation of the Distillery District. But its most dramatic overhaul has been the Regent Park redevelopment, where market housing and affordable rental mix, and the construction of several new condo projects plus community centres and schools has been the result of collaboration between city and developer.
When Greenpark first investigated the property at Adelaide and Ontario that would become its Axiom project (in partnership with Fieldgate Homes), the area either had amenities in place or the promise of them, says Greenpark’s VP of Highrise Lino Pellicano. There was the Distillery District, the waterfront, and the 200-year-old St Lawrence Market which was recently awarded honours as the world’s best food market.
“It’s critical to have surrounding amenities,” Mr. Pellicano says, “so that when people come out of their condos, there’s somewhere to go, something to do, and they don’t feel isolated. Downtown East’s high walkability score of 97 was incredible.”
A neighbourhood evolves thanks to the foresight of people who can look at it and see future communities, Mr. Pellicano says. “Redeveloping properties and building condos, which are communities in themselves, can rebuild an area because population is a contagious thing -- people attract more people.”
Mr. Freed agrees about foresight, and credits the resurrection of King St. – east and west – with former mayor Barbara Hall’s rezoning plan. “Both were historic neighbourhoods that were basically bankrupt, and the rezoning would provide the foundation for entrepreneurial and investment capital to return. The creation of vibrant, healthy neighbourhoods needs the support of the city, they need density, and they need to be multi-use, so that the live-work-play dynamic can come to life.”
Creating space for the whole neighbourhood to use and gather in is why Greenpark constructed a landscaped promenade that is an extension of the community, rather than solely of the Axiom condo building, Mr. Pellicano adds.
The Downtown East neighbourhood is well established,
but the Greenpark Group/Fieldgate Homes’ project,
Axiom will add a landscaped promenade as an enhancement.
The challenge of development, especially in a neighbourhood that’s derelict or even emerging, is retaining its identity, or at least its best aspects, icons and landmarks. In areas with historic buildings – like industrial warehouses – developers work with architects who are skilled at grafting modern skins onto historic sites which in some cases require a brick by brick reconstruction.
“Neighbourhoods are able to keep their identities when buildings of significance are reflected in the new construction,” Mr. Pellicano says.
This happened at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Rd., when the new Crystal was grafted onto the ponderous old ROM in 2007. While it unleashed public controversy, it also invited imitation and mimicry in the area. As Roy Varacalli, architect of Exhibit condo across the street from the Crystal, puts it: “architects create in context and buildings are always in dialogue with what else is on the street.”
Mr. Varacalli said he latched onto the sense of movement inherent in the Crystal and aimed to incorporate that into the Exhibit condo. But it’s an appropriate sensibility for the neighbourhood, too. Avenue Rd. and Bloor has long been a fluid neighbourhood, but one that has its focus on the fashion of the day: moving from the narrow straight-laced Victorians in Yorkville of the 1880s to the coffee houses, hippie art studios and hashish havens of the ‘60s. A decade later, it was fashionable with the mid-century Colonnade icon, Lothian Mews, and the Coffee Mill (which celebrated its 50 anniversary last month), and now 30 years after that, it’s the fashion epicentre, which in typical Canadian egalitarian terms means an amiable mix of mass market retail and serious haute couture.