Resourceful home builders -- hamstrung by increasingly scarce and costlier serviced lots, rising development charges and gaps in suburban infrastructure -- are trickling into urban Toronto to build high-rise condos.
These young, entrepreneurially minded builders -- often the sons and daughters of the big developers who made tracts of single-family, semi-detached and townhouses their bread-and-butter -- see the move as a way of exorcising the development devils on their traditional home turf.
And they have been spurred on by provincial and municipal government policies that seek to curb sprawl, promote public transit, and support "smart growth" to concentrate development at major transportation hubs.
Madison Homes, for example, has for the past 30 years built nothing but suburban communities in Markham and Vaughan. But it is now venturing into the City of Toronto with a proposed 27-storey condo on Eglinton Avenue East, two blocks from Yonge Street.
Miguel Singer, a principal of Madison, which his father started, says that "greenfield development has become much more complicated. Ontario's draft greenbelt legislation has put a lot of suburban development in flux."
(The legislation would immunize 720,000 hectares of land from development.)
"There is also a fairly significant infrastructure problem with water and sewage capacities in various parts of York Region," Mr. Singer adds.
That has driven some suburban developers to seek opportunities in the city, where infrastructure isn't an issue, Mr. Singer says. Can they shift gears from endless tracts of one- and two-storey homes to residential towers with elevators? "It's just a different format, building up instead of across," he says.
He is typical of first- and second-generation suburban developers who tend to be more sophisticated than their fathers, says Clifford Korman, senior partner of Kirkor Architects & Planners in Toronto, which designed the Madison Homes condo. They are also more willing to make "a higher-end design statement" in the Toronto market and more likely to invest in a better, more marketable product by giving architects more design freedom, Mr. Korman adds.
Several architects are, in fact, establishing a commercially successful "Toronto aesthetic" in the city's marketplace, Mr. Korman says, building on the city's grid pattern. "Some of the best buildings are built to the street grid, with retail and commercial podiums and residential on top, usually stepped back."
The design of the Madison Homes condo (whose name will be announced later this month) employs Mondrian-like "planes and a grid creating the [design]palette," he says.
"Squares and cubes also create a façade on top of a three-storey base that wraps the street. Another vertical element is glass, with more of it on the upper stories. A grid of balconies and columns define the layering of the building."
Great Gulf Homes, a high-volume builder of predominantly single-family suburban homes for more than 25 years, saw what was coming 10 years ago when it started constructing condos in the city (St. James, The Regency, The Morgan, The Hudson, 18 Yorkville and The Winston).
Gary Switzer, executive vice-president, anticipates the company's proportion of high-rise condos will expand, relative to low-rise projects, over the next five years.
He identified two new projects, one a 1,000-unit high-rise on a former Sheridan Nursery site at Sherway Gardens in Etobicoke, and a 45-storey, 425-unit condo designed by architectsAlliance on the site of the old Metro Toronto police headquarters building at Jarvis and Charles streets. Neither project has all the necessary approvals to go ahead, as yet.
Suburban home builders "need to vary their product, so they don't get caught in the growing and acute shortage of suburban lots to build on," says Barry Lyon, president of N. Barry Lyon Consultants Ltd. in Toronto. "A lot of builders are getting very nervous about the longevity of their house-building operations and want an alternative."
Aspen Ridge Homes, for example, plans a high-rise condo on nearly a full city block (1.8 acres) it bought from the Goodwill operation at Jarvis Street and Adelaide Street West. The building will front on George Street and be adjacent to a designated heritage post office and bank buildings. "They will use it as a landmark and springboard for ongoing [urban condo]projects," Mr. Lyon says.
The builder's first Toronto project was a group of townhouses on Avenue Road north of Eglinton Avenue East; this will be its first high-rise in Toronto, he says.
As his company is acting as development consultant, Mr. Lyon wasn't at liberty to disclose many details, except that Hariri Pontarini Architects won what he called a very rare design competition for a Toronto condo. One of the winning features was the Vancouver-style streetscape treatment.
Neighbours' concerns about the height of the planned condo are being addressed through public consultations and with city planners.
Aspen Ridge's Goodwill site project also exemplifies how the next generation of home builders, in this case Andrew DeGasperis, is planning for the future, says Mr. Lyon. They are "seeing very clearly that they need to do urban developments as well. Younger and newer developers don't mind pioneering."
Mr. Lyon offered other examples:
Fernbrook Homes, one of the larger subdivision developers in Southern Ontario, is in a joint venture with CityZen Development Corp. to build a high-rise condo at Leslie Street and Sheppard Avenue. It's a site soon to be abandoned by the Bloorview MacMillan Children's Centre, which is combining its scattered operations at a new facility being built near Sunnybrook Hospital.
Beaverbrook Homes is developing a 10-storey condo at Keele Street and Wilson Avenue, part of the city-mandated revitalization of Keele from Highway 401 to Steeles Avenue West.
Remington Homes, run by lawyer/developer Rudy Bratty's son, Matthew, has two connected six-storey condos and an 83-unit rental apartment building under construction on Bathurst Street, a block north of Wilson Avenue, a site where rental apartment buildings had stood.
Richard Tripodi, the vice-president of the high-rise division at Remington Group Inc. in Vaughan, Ont., says the builder had previously done a few condos in the city with joint-venture partners. These condos are the first on its own.
"There are more opportunities in the city because of intensification," he says, which allows for more units to be built on therefore more affordable land. He says Remington will focus more on high-rise condos in the city.
Sam Crignano, president of CityZen Development, which provides management services to the high-rise condo industry in addition to being a condo developer, notes that older suburban homeowners are driving much of the demand for maintenance-free condos in the city.
His company and Fernbrook are developing a condo at Mississauga City Centre, which is that city's equivalent of downtown Toronto.
Stephen Dupuis, executive vice-president of the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association, says developers have responded to pressures to contain sprawl by building in the city, having seen "the handwriting on the wall and wanting to get ahead of the curve as much as possible."
Builders such as Great Gulf Homes and Fernbrook, among other low-rise builders, are hedging their bets by being active in both suburban and urban markets. More builders will join that bandwagon, Mr. Dupuis predicts. "Legislative and regulatory direction will force more builders down that path, for better or worse."
Meanwhile, he raises several questions. How much intensification can the city digest? To what extent can brownfield sites (former industrial land) be rehabilitated? Is there public acceptance for those remediated housing sites? And are existing homeowners going to accept higher density development in the city?