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marcus gee

Sometimes you don't have to go very far to find a good story. About five minutes walk from the headquarters of The Globe and Mail at Front and Spadina stands Concord CityPlace, a thicket of high-rise condominiums that will eventually house up to 14,000 people. Year after year I have watched it rise from The Globe's rooftop deck, one sleek tower after another, and as it has grown, my feelings about it have changed.

At first, I thought: Who on earth would want to live there? CityPlace is going up on the old railway lands, a huge tract at the bottom of downtown that stood fallow for years as the city and developers wrangled about what to do with it and scheme after scheme fell apart. For a long time, it was home to a downtown golf course with a towering net to catch golf balls, a sad symbol of a wasted opportunity. It seemed an unlikely place to make a home, with few amenities and no sense of neighbourhood. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was "no there there."

But as the towers rose, it became clear that something cool was happening. The buildings, unexpectedly, are quite beautiful, sleek medleys of glass and steel in a variety of shapes and styles. When you go closer, you find the beginnings of a real neighbourhood, with a supermarket, people walking their miniature condo dogs, couples pushing baby strollers and - officially opened this week - a creative new park designed by Vancouver writer and artist Douglas Coupland. Schools, daycares and public housing are to follow, along with a new library and community centre. There is a there there after all.

It goes to show that properly planned and designed projects need not be islands unto themselves. They can attract shops, restaurants and other facilities and weave themselves into the urban fabric.

There is a bigger lesson, too: Density works. The waterfront condo boom is a boon to the whole city. It is attracting more and more people to downtown living, reducing urban sprawl, helping the environment, making good public transit more efficient, generating millions in tax revenue for the city and producing the best high-rise architecture since the rush of office-tower construction in the core decades ago.

The CityPlace phenomenon is being replicated all across the western waterfront with high-end condo developments such as Malibu at Harbourfront, Tip Top Lofts and ICE. Developer Alan Vihant reckons that between 100,000 and 120,000 people will live in new housing along the waterfront once all the new projects are done, more than the population of Peterborough.

These projects are doing what decades of stalled waterfront renewal has failed to accomplish: Connect the city to lake. The people who live in all those towers can walk to the lake as easily as they can stroll northbound to the theatre district. Eighty per cent of the residents of CityPlace do not drive a car to work.

Even more remarkable, they are thriving on the waterfront despite the Gardiner Expressway. Gardiner haters want to spend billions to tear the elevated highway down, but thousands of condo dwellers are living within spitting distance of the Gardiner without much fuss. Mr. Coupland has even put a giant red canoe in his park, perched on a sloping bluff that overlooks the highway. He imagines people sitting in the land-bound canoe and waving at people sitting in their traffic-bound cars.

Urban planners have fantasized for years about a revitalized downtown with greater density and more urban buzz. They tried to spur it with schemes such as main-streets intensification, designed to line streets with bigger buildings. Nothing much happened.

The change came through a commercial phenomenon: the condo boom. Mr. Vihant says that Toronto is the top condo market in North America and one of the top five in the world. Condos have sprouted not just along the waterfront but in midtown (along Bay Street near College, for example), North Toronto (Eglinton and Bayview) and the eastern downtown (King Street East and environs).

A whole new neighbourhood, Liberty Village, is rising in the west end, and condo builders are focusing now on trendy West Queen West. In the northeast, meanwhile, Mr. Vihant's Concord Adex Inc. (he is vice-president of development) is planning to build another big project, Concord Park Place, near Sheppard and Leslie.

Critics call it the "condofication" of Toronto. They complain that condo clusters threaten traditional neighbourhoods and clog the arteries of an overcrowded city.

In fact, clusters like the one rising on the waterfront are simply a different kind of neighbourhood, busy, dense, vibrant and distinctly urban. In places like North Toronto, strips of condos on main streets exist happily next to quiet, leafy 'hoods of detached houses, no harm done. In places like the waterfront, they reclaim waste land and bring it to life.

Looking at those towers from the deck of The Globe, I no longer wonder why anyone would want to live there. Instead I wonder how neat it would be to live there.