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The vision for Toronto’s core and especially its waterfront was decades in the making, with a mandate for complete communities where people work and live.


For many people who have spent a lot of time in Toronto, the area south of Lakeshore Boulevard used to be a cold, desolate place during the long winter months.

Compared with the ongoing residential and commercial development going on now, and the community spaces, plus the remodelling and restoration of Union Station, it seems like another world in another time.

Office development in such places as South Core financial core – wedged between the east and west railway lines and the lake, with the Gardiner Expressway formerly looked upon as an impediment to development – has spurred more residential condo development. Or is it the other way around?

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“It’s been symbiotic,” says Matti Siemiatycki, interim director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto. “The two have fed off each other. You have this long wave of residential development over a number of decades as the urban core transitioned from office towers surrounded by parking lots to residential.”

Toronto evolved from a city where people shuttled in and out to work into a 24-hour-a-day downtown. More and more people then wanted amenities, and wanted to walk to work. More office space developments started emerging to serve a much more mixed-use and active downtown core.

The waterfront area is one example of a GTA-wide building boom, with more cranes in the sky – 120 as of July 2019 – than in any other North American metropolis, according to the Rider Levett Bucknall Ltd. Crane Index.

“It looks like it’s an overnight success, but this has been decades in the planning, for growth in the downtown, especially along the waterfront and the southern core,” says Siemiatycki. “Waterfront Toronto, right from their inception, was putting plans in place and developing proposals for how to create a complete community.”

Waterfront Toronto was created in 2001, with a 25-year mandate to transform 2,000 acres of lands on the waterfront into sustainable, mixed-use communities, public parks and spaces.

They started with the parks and public spaces. The wavedecks, located along Queens Quay, at the head of the Simcoe, Rees and Spadina slips, was a signal to the community that there were things happening down by the waterfront now.

It was also a signal to the investor community that this was an area that was going to have amenities to make buildings more attractive. That of course evolved eastwards, with Sugar Beach, then Sherbourne Common and Corktown Common, in addition to the infrastructure of sewers and electricity grids needed to make the community work.

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Live, work and play was all carefully strategized.

“Waterfront Toronto’s vision for the future of Toronto’s shorelines is focused on complete communities,” says Leslie Gash, senior vice-president of development for Waterfront Toronto. “As we revitalize waterfront lands and look to step beyond the industrial shadow of the city’s past, we strive to create spaces where business, residential and public realm elements work together to create dynamic neighbourhoods and thriving communities.

“This multi-dimensional approach benefits the economy, the environment, and serves as a good example for future developments across the city,” she says.

Factors such as eliminating the shoulder-to-shoulder traffic commutes from cities outside the core, a wave of environmentalism, lifestyle benefits of parks, schools, restaurants, shopping and recreation all within walking distance, and the willingness of families to live in smaller spaces are all contributing to the trek to downtown.

A strong economy, steady population growth and a supply of global investors looking for a stable place to park their money have all been supporting this long-term trend of development. There’s an urban dynamic plus enormous opportunities for success in a number of innovative fields. Now there are projects such as Google sister company Sidewalk Labs’ Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District in the waterfront’s far eastern end, which is a “smart city” plan pushing urban innovation, sustainability and affordability.

Menkes Developments was front and centre in all this a decade ago with the launch of 25 York Street. The area of East Bayfront is now being transformed in part by the company’s Waterfront Innovation Centre, a new beachfront commercial office space, and the master-planned community Sugar Wharf.

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The Innovation Centre will bring more than 2,100 employees to Toronto’s waterfront, says Jared Menkes, executive vice-president of high-rise residential for Menkes Developments.

“Today’s housing consumer – i.e. millennials – doesn’t want to commute,” he says. “We’re creating communities to match up with today’s consumer preferences.”

The dream of the white picket fence in a home in the suburbs has shifted. Now it’s more about city living.

“Toronto is this incredible story of development growth, and a blossoming city,” says Christopher Alexander, executive vice-president and regional director of the Ontario-Atlantic Region with Re/MAX Integra. “Over a 20-year span, it is a completely different city. Developers have been forced to build upwards. Businesses were looking to get close to where their people wanted to live. There are unbelievable projects coming into the city from renowned businesses.”

Toronto is the fourth most populous city in North American now, a highly ranked global financial centre, and is ranked among the top three cities in North American for tech talent, according to real estate services firm CBRE.

“Condos are the affordable option for most people,” Alexander says. “The majority of Canadians want to own homes, they want to build equity, and for the most part that will be condos.”

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Barbara Lawlor, president and chief executive of Baker Real Estate Incorporated, points to projects such as Davpart Inc’s The United Building at 481 University Ave. as the kind of mixed-use project that will always be in demand as the city continues to evolve.

“We have seen major changes to several sections of Toronto, with major companies establishing offices here, especially along the waterfront, increasing the need for centrally located urban housing such as The United Building even more,” she says.

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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