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The floorplan for one of Tridel's current three-bedroom condo offerings.
The floorplan for one of Tridel's current three-bedroom condo offerings.

Condo living

In Toronto, a battle for the 3-bedroom condo Add to ...

Adam Vaughan would like to see developers alter their philosophy.

"Developers are very existential. They look at what sold yesterday and they want to build that today to sell tomorrow."

In this case, the Toronto city councillor for the Trinity-Spadina ward is calling on builders to do more to accommodate families who want to live downtown. Condominium buildings, he says, should offer more of the condo sizes, services and stores that make that possible.

"We need to effectively get them to become a vertical neighbourhood."

For their part, builders are answering the call with amenities such as daycare centres and recreation facilities. They are also asking designers to stretch their creativity and come up with units that provide three bedrooms without swelling in size so much that only the ultra-wealthy can afford to buy them.

In Mr. Vaughan's opinion, the family-oriented offerings have improved in the past few years, but not enough to meet the needs of a city that has made increasing density and reducing sprawl part of the official plan.

Mr. Vaughan has put forward an amendment to the city's official plan that would require builders to offer more units that cater to households with children.

If they don't, he says, enrolment in downtown schools will continue to decline, libraries won't load shelves with children's books and new daycare centres won't appear.

"The family-friendly services you require to stay downtown won't be downtown," Mr. Vaughan says. "The current trajectory makes the situation worse and worse over time."

Builders need to provide a mix of affordable housing, he says, because if they don't, only the affluent will be able to live downtown and affluent parents have fewer kids.

The change would require that 10 per cent of all units in large downtown developments be built with either three bedrooms and up, or have the ability to easily be converted to three bedrooms and up. To achieve the latter, Mr. Vaughan says, developers are looking at making walls that move, for example, so that floor plans can be reconfigured.

Builders are coming forward with their objections and suggestions, meanwhile, and the Building Industry and Land Development Association is collating views. Mr. Vaughan expects the draft policy will need some tweaking.

Since taking office, he says, he has asked developers building in his ward to voluntarily provide a minimum of 10 per cent of their units as three-bedroom residences.

Of the applications Mr. Vaughan has approved in his ward in 2007 and 2008, the voluntary approach led to 516 three-bedroom units out of 4,864 units.

He compares that with the period between January, 2005, and December, 2006, in the ward, when only 73 of the 2,551 units approved contained three bedrooms.

Jim Ritchie, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Tridel, says some customers do ask for three-bedroom condos, but the demand is relatively meagre compared with the numbers of people who want compact one- and two-bedroom units.

"We have sold to families in most of our communities for many years."

The problem for developers, he says, is that land downtown is so expensive to acquire that larger condos have to be sold at rich prices. Families who have the means to spend upward of $1-million for a property will likely opt for a house with a backyard and a barbecue.

Mr. Ritchie says it's not unusual for people to ask to have two condo units combined, say, or tailored to accommodate a disability. His team reshapes suites for all kinds of reasons.

"If people tell us they want a three-bedroom home, I'll have one designed and we'll sell it to them."

But the Tridel executive doesn't like the idea of the 10-per-cent mandate.

"Can children live happily in a condo? Of course they can."

But most condo owners are first-time buyers, he says. They often use an affordable condo as an entry into the real-estate market.

"To build a three-bedroom condo and keep an end price that works is difficult," he says.

To keep costs in line, Tridel has come up with an 822-square-foot unit that offers two bedrooms plus a den. The company first offered the family-friendly suite in a high-rise building at Front and John streets. Customers liked it, so Tridel has since replicated the design in other projects.

The compact design eliminates wasted space in hallways and other underutilized areas so that it can offer the bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and living room that a family needs.

At Lanterra Developments, president Barry Fenton says, the company finds that many clients are interested in selling their big house in Milton and moving to the centre of the city.

He points to the company's Ice developments near the Air Canada Centre, which offer nearby parks, lots of shopping and a short hop to the temples of hockey, basketball and baseball.

Downtown schools are excellent, he says. At Lanterra's downtown Residences of Maple Leaf Square, it built a daycare centre into the complex, and condo owners have first chance at available spots.

And while condos have traditionally appealed to singles and couples, he says, they increasingly draw empty nesters too. In some cases, owners want to accommodate older kids who are away at university and come home to the condo for weekends and holidays.

Lanterra builds in extra closets, condenses some of the hallways and uses a more open plan to give lots of living space for families. People who are moving from a large house like the brand new kitchen and broad expanses of glass.

In many cases, he says, they are glad to give up a larger house and the chores that go with it.

"They're not replacing their 2,000-square-foot house in Milton with a 2,000-square-foot condo downtown. They have to downsize."

Mr. Vaughan understands that some developers are nervous about the proposed plan amendment. He says some fear that the city will force them to build units that don't dovetail with their financing.

Banks often require a certain percentage of the units to be sold before they will lend money for building. And clients are reluctant to sign up for a big condo that won't be ready for a few years. If they need more space, they probably need it right away.

So Mr. Vaughan is waiting to hear the suggestions of the developers.

But he would like them to keep the family-friendly mix so that downtown neighbourhoods remain vibrant. It doesn't work, he explains, to have builders determining the shape of future communities based on what they can sell today.

"The market can't do the planning in Toronto. Toronto has to do the planning."

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