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The site plan for Geranium's Allegro in Aurora, Ont.Geranium Corp.

For decades one version of the suburban dream was to have a house overlooking a golf course or country club. But an insatiable hunger for land in the Greater Toronto Area has seen more of those fairways converted to roadways in new subdivisions.

In some cases what may have once been a rural course has been enveloped by suburban expansion. And while the golf industry has seen an minor upswing as a past-time appropriate to COVID-19 physical distancing, devoting 100-plus acres to chasing a ball down a hole simply can’t compete with the insatiable appetite for development land.

York Downs Golf and Country Club in Markham had been a private club until the membership voted in 2014 to sell the land for a reported $412-million. “The golf course went through a transition, a rethinking of the viability of their course,” said Frank Spaziani, vice-president, Kylemore Developments, which purchased the land. The wheels of planning grind slowly though and only now are approvals in place to begin selling new homes on the site. Some 30 per cent of the more than 100-acres will be kept as a public park, something the community was keen to see during the planning process.

“The simple fact is it was a private course, and now we’re opening it up," said Cailey Stollery, CEO of Kylemore & Angus Glen Group of Companies. “All these trails and valleys going through Unionville, we opened up some green space for the local community.” Kylemore is the development arm of the Stollery family, who built the Angus Glen golf club in Markham and over the past 15 years has built suburban housing surrounding it.

Some time in November (or December, depending on weather) the final rounds will be played at York Downs as sales open on future homes. Construction will begin in the spring of 2021. The initial phase will offer townhomes and detached homes ranging from 2,000 square feet to more than 6,000 square feet. Ultimately more than 1,100 homes are expected to be built over the next decade of development.

The pressure to redevelop golf course lands is being felt further north of Toronto as well. Geranium Corp. is doing infill development of golf courses in Aurora and Port Perry.

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A site plan for Geranium's Courts of Canterbury development in Port Perry, Ont.

The Port Perry plan is essentially an extension to the neighbouring seniors community, complete with automatic enrolment in the resident’s association (with all its attendant rules, such as no fences). In Aurora, the company faced pushback as its course snaked around and through a built-up neighbourhood that was itself partially converted from golf lands in the 1980s.

“The course used to be about twice as large,” said Cheryl Shindruk, executive vice-president of land development at Geranium, and current chair of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD). “There’s always a fear of change. It’s pretty common, to have a negative reaction from the community. When we looked at the Aurora site, population in this neighbourhood was declining, even though it was labelled a stable community. As the population ages in suburban areas, the kids have been raised and moved on.”

A settlement at the former Ontario Municipal Board kept the project on course. The deal that was worked out saw a large portion of the once-private course (about 52 acres) becoming public parkland. And the community was mollified that there wouldn’t be hundreds of townhouses in their backyards; most of the course will be converted to large-lot single-detached homes.

Ms. Shindruk is keenly aware that the provincial government’s Growth Plan seeks to promote infill and more density, moving away from the post-war car suburb design that gobbles up land and houses relatively few of Ontario’s booming population. But she said we shouldn’t be surprised if large-scale redevelopments of golf courses look more like that past than a densely packed future.

“In the last decade or so there’s been a change in the way the housing market is supplied, from being predominantly low-rise housing to today, tipped on the high-rise side,” she said. “In the last few months we’ve seen things settle out a little bit and there’s not such a difference between the two. Ground housing is a very desirable house form. The market has been undersupplied with that housing form.”

Indeed, as reported by Altus Group in September, sales of new ground-related housing (detached, semi-detached and townhouses, excluding stacked towns) in the GTA soared in August, up 355 per cent from 2019 with 1,930 units sold.

The Aurora and Port Perry golf course redevelopments will see homes with a median price of about $1-million.

“A lot of those [our purchasers] are move-up buyers – from York Region south, Markham Richmond Hill, – moving for schools or high schools of choice, moving from 36-, 40-foot lots making their jump up,” said Stephanie Lane, director of sales and marketing at Geranium.

The Growth Plan does require finding some density somewhere on a site if builders hope to sell large lots of ground-related housing. In all three cases a multi-residential building is planned for future phases of the projects, usually at the edges of the sites just off the major roads.

“Growth plan policies also speaks to compatibility and character that is consistent with the area … we took our cues from the existing community. The density is planned on the Yonge Street corridor, that’s where we’ve proposed a multi-residential seven-storey building,” Ms. Shindruk said.

None of the builders think their plans have much to say about the popularity golf. They see these redevelopments as just the natural consequence of land prices being pushed higher by planning doctrine and population growth.

As for Angus Glen, the course created by Ms. Stollery’s father, for now there are no plans to do away with golf. “We’re here to stay,” she says. “There’s always going to be an Angus Glen golf course … [though] it likely won’t be 36 holes.”

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