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First Capital CEO Adam Paul, pointing to the King's Club at the left, says nearby Liberty Village's exploding population ensured that retailers would be interested in his development. 'When you talk to almost any retailers, they’re under-represented in the downtown core,' he says.Wallace Immen/The Globe and Mail

For a century, a stretch of Toronto’s King Street West to the east of Dufferin Street was a dreary industrial zone best passed as quickly as possible. But it’s about to become the new commercial face of Liberty Village, one of the city’s fastest-growing residential areas.

The Kings Club development, by First Capital Realty and set to open in 2019, features a block-long, three-storey podium designed to be the high street of the community. It will include the downtown’s largest Longo’s grocery store, an expansive Canadian Tire, a Shoppers Drug Mart and a range of boutiques, restaurants, services and office space. Three towers of rental apartments with a total of 560 residential units rise above the complex.

The complex on the north side of King Street, across from Allan A. Lamport Stadium, was three years in the planning. Construction started five years ago without any tenant lease commitments, but First Capital was sure the retail complex would be compelling because of the phenomenal population growth in the area, says Adam Paul, the company’s chief executive officer. Over the past 15 years, development in Liberty Village, just west of Toronto’s core, has turned formerly isolated industrial brownfields into a bustling residential and office neighbourhood.

“When you talk to almost any retailers, they’re under-represented in the downtown core. It’s almost unheard of to find 40,000 square feet and to get it in a new building designed with dedicated delivery access and storage,” Mr. Paul says. The demand for space in King’s Club has been so strong that First Capital has been able to sign tenants at premium lease rates.

But there were many challenges along the way. First Capital, which has done several projects in Liberty Village, began assembling the site in 2011. The pie-shaped lot along a major rail corridor was covered with former Canadian National Railway maintenance buildings that had been unoccupied for a decade. Because of high traffic volumes and a streetcar route on King Street, First Capital created alternative access to the site from the rear for general contractor Multiplex Construction Canada Ltd., and all parking and loading zones have been built behind and within the complex.

First Capital also arranged with the city to develop park-like landscaping around a historic stone and iron railway bridge over King Street. Development has begun for a long-awaited pedestrian and cycle path over the bridge and behind the King’s Court complex. Known as the High Line, the project will create an amenity for the building, as well as traffic-free access across King Street. A city proposal also envisages a commuter bike path running parallel to the rail right of way from Bloor Street to the lakeshore, with a connection into Liberty Village.

Meanwhile, a new King-Liberty train station is due to start construction in 2020 directly behind the development, with access to the High Line and the street. The station is to be part of the city’s SmartTrack initiative, which aims to create another transit option for commuters.

Not only GO trains but potentially Union-Pearson Express trains could stop at the station, making it convenient for people to commute downtown from here by transit or bike rather than go to congested Union Station, says Gareth Burton, senior vice-president design and construction at First Capital.

“The role of a master developer goes beyond just thinking about our personal interest, to developing a neighbourhood approach. You want to create buildings and architecture that provide long-term value for the area and a reason why people will want to live there,” he notes.

Rather than a modern glass-clad streetscape, the design breaks up the retail elements with an eclectic combination of designs and claddings.

“We wanted to give the stores the rhythm and feel of a proper high street, with different looks and feels and articulation, as opposed to having similar large units side by side,” Mr. Burton says. To compensate for a significant slope in the street from an underpass, the podium level steps up in segments. A broad sidewalk and bike lane on King Street will encourage pedestrian and cycle traffic.

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Kings Club offers retail, office and rental residential space. The mixture of shapes and claddings to each part of the development is meant to give the feeling of a high street.The Globe and Mail

The most prominent entrance to the complex is on the west end, at Joe Shuster Way. It features the Longo’s market at street level and the Canadian Tire, which has a similar footprint below grade. Escalators and elevators take shoppers down to the lower level Canadian Tire, “but you don’t feel it’s subterranean, because it has windows at grade along King Street that provide natural light. It’s an environment that makes you feel you are in a shopping centre at grade,” he notes.

All of the stores are connected to elevators and underground parking, with 700 spaces roughly evenly split between commercial and residential parking.

The complex was also designed to offer options for the future, says Jordan Robins, First Capital’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer. “We wanted to ensure that if the size of food stores shrinks in the future that we have options to make sure the retail space continues to be functional. Flexibility features include building in three entrances to the Longo’s store from King Street that could become separate stores in their own right. Some sections of the concrete floor are also poured over rigid polystyrene blocks that could be removed to lower the floor levels in the future.

A 15,000-square-foot floor of office space on the third level at the east end of the complex, with views of downtown Toronto, Exhibition Place and Lake Ontario, can be divided in a number of ways, although First Capital is currently in negotiation to lease the entire space to a single company, Mr. Robins says.

“You’ve really got to get it right, because if you spec design a space and it doesn’t work, then it is a big problem,” Mr. Paul says.

“It’s not about whether you get a higher or lower rent; it’s about whether a retailer you want will be able to function in your space, because if they can’t, they’re not going to stay. If you do get it right, you can get a premium rental rate because it’s such a rare commodity. And that’s fortunately what’s happened in this case.”

He points out that pioneer stores in Liberty Village have thrived as the area has grown. “Fifteen years ago when Metro opened a grocery store here, the sales were not that great. Now it is one of the best stores in sales in the entire chain.”

The decision to build rental rather than condo units in Kings Club is also an indication of the company’s long-range commitment to the complex, Mr. Paul says. “We just think rental is the way to go. ... We own the residential and have more control over who occupies it and what type of quality standards are adhered to in maintaining the building, and that will have an impact on everything else.

“A lot of effort goes into treating this type of real estate with long-term utility and flexibility. It takes a long-term vision and the mistakes that you can make are amplified if you’re thinking only in the short term.”

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An escalator from the west entrance to Kings Club leads to space that will be Canadian Tire store. The store is below street level but windows letting in natural light will keep it from feeling subterranean, the developer says.Wallace Immen/The Globe and Mail

Kings Club by the numbers

Retail and commercial: 155,000 square feet.

Residential: 320,000 square feet.

Number of residential units: 560.

Number of parking spaces: 700.

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