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Members of the Regent Park Catering Collective dish out their fare.The Daniels Corp.

When the Regent Park Catering Collective was established in 2013, the tiny social enterprise consisted of a few dozen women making food for local events from their apartments, with training provided by the Toronto Centre for Community Learning and Development, a well-established east end non-profit.

Their cooking proved to be a big hit. In 2015/2016, the Collective brought in $80,000. This year, that figure has already jumped to $115,000.

“We felt the need to formalize the model because we were getting massive orders,” TCCLD executive director Alfred Jean-Baptiste said, explaining that the group has embarked on a search for a space for a commercial kitchen.

As it happened, the Daniels Group, master developer for the first phases of the Regent Park revitalization, was in the midst of rolling out a second phase of its retail effort, known as the Community Commercial Program.

The first wave of retailers introduced into Regent Park’s newly constructed apartments, says Daniels vice-president Martin Blake, were focused on providing commercial services long absent from a low-income public housing neighbourhood: a bank branch, a supermarket, a pharmacy and a coffee shop.

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A rendering of the Wyatt, which will have space for nascent social enterprises.Daniels Group

But this next tranche, which will be located in the Wyatt and DuEast (both condo towers), are earmarked for nascent local enterprises founded by Regent Park entrepreneurs and supported by a microbusiness mentorship program run out of Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

Each will get about 1,000 square feet of storefront space on Dundas east of Parliament. Initially, the spaces will be provided rent-free, although the leases will build to commercial rents over five years, Mr. Blake added. “The intent is that they should be able to stand on their own feet.” The Paint Box restaurant, another social enterprise in a Daniels building on that same stretch, has evolved into a popular eatery and event destination in the area.

The catering collective, as well as a local sewing startup, are the first tenants, although Mr. Jean-Baptiste notes the cooking group must still raise $500,000 for restaurant-grade kitchen equipment before it can take over the space.

Although small and geared at Regent Park, Daniels’ initiative provides more evidence that some Toronto developers are increasingly seeking out alternatives to traditional retail tenants as they seek to populate the podiums of mixed-use towers.

The shift appears to have multiple drivers: the ongoing impact of e-commerce on the bricks-and-mortar retail; growing consumer interest in locally owned firms over ubiquitous chains such as Starbucks or A&W; and the desire among some builders to entice condo purchasers with in-building services other than the most familiar types of tenants: bank branches, dry cleaners or dentists’ offices. In the case of Daniels’ program, the impetus comes from the developer’s continuing campaign to rebuild or add community amenities to the $1-billion project.

For years, chains dominated condo retail because developers offered costly leases and relied on large commercial brokers to recruit tenants. However, “some of the tried and true national tenants are going through their own seismic shift,” said Madeleine Nicholls, who heads national leasing for developer Dream Unlimited.

She points to a pair of new partnership projects, at 514 King East (Streetcar) and in the Canary District (KilmerDundee), where local independent firms – bakeries, fitness and sports equipment retailers and small restaurants – will dominate the at-grade retail-tenant mix. Ms. Nicholls says Dream and its partners have sought to offer more flexible lease terms that ramp up over time in order to attract smaller businesses that don’t have deep pockets.

Among some developers that are offering commercial space on the higher floors of podiums, there’s also evidence of a move to find more tenant variation. Alex Speigel, of Windmill Developments, says his firm is creating a co-working space on the second floor of the Plant, a mid-rise project at Queen and Dovercourt, in part to take advantage of the burgeoning co-working market.

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A rendering of a co-working space on the second floor of the Plant, a mid-rise project at Queen and Dovercourt.Curated Properties

Windmill and its development partner, Curated Properties, will take about 30 per cent of the 12,500-square-foot space, and Mr. Speigel says his firm is marketing the balance of the offices to professional services firms, such as sustainable architecture or clean energy startups, that would want to co-locate with a green developer. Besides those synergies, he says the office tenants will ensure the whole building is active during the day, something that will benefit the ground-floor retailers. “We’re creating an ecosystem.”

The City of Toronto’s planning department is also working on guidelines and market studies meant to encourage developer to configure their commercial/retail spaces to be more flexible, with an eye to encouraging this sort of diversity in their projects. According to senior planner Igor Dragovic, the city is looking to foster more “fine grain” retail by developing template designs for smaller and more affordable units, not unlike those envisioned in Daniels’ community commercial program.

Mr. Dragovic and others point out that by figuring out how to generate more varied commercial venues for local entrepreneurs in large new buildings, the city can tap into the broad community-building benefits that have long been associated with main-street retail: vibrant streets, local jobs and small-business development.

Indeed, Mr. Blake points out that Daniels recognizes that its approach to using some of its Regent Park retail spaces as incubators can be applied elsewhere in its portfolio of projects, including in developments that are entirely market based. “We want to be able to take [the community commercial program] on the road and do similar initiatives in other parts of the city.”

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