Scarborough’s Milne Avenue looks like a thousand other postwar suburban streets: tucked away behind trim hedges, fences, or stately trees, adorable little saltbox homes present a pleasant face to the public. Some have small additions, such as full second storeys, other have garages, but most look very much as they did when servicemen carried brides over their thresholds some 70 years ago.
Walk a little further, however, and Milne Avenue becomes a horse of a very different colour. Long, low, industrial buildings, surrounded by immense seas of asphalt, suddenly appear. In place of charming front doors decorated with seasonal wreaths, the passerby must now gaze upon yawning loading bays, yellow-painted bollards, and rusting chain-link fences.
But, in a few years, the largest of these buildings, 55-61 Milne Ave. – which sports over 12,000 square metres of high-ceilinged indoor space on three hectares of land – is poised to become a community gathering space featuring small business, artisans and artists, and social enterprises and non-profits.
Wait – a developer buying something that isn’t to be demolished for condominiums?
“The inspiration for me for this program is Wagstaff Avenue in Leslieville,” says Khan Tran, chief investment officer of Toronto-based development company TAS. “It just looks like some back alley, [but] you drive down and there’s Sloane Tea, there’s Left Field Brewery, there’s a coffee roaster [Pilot], and it’s, like, out of nowhere … you can walk into each one of those units and there’s a little bit of retail in the front, and there’s distribution [in the back].”
Think of it as Wagstaff Avenue – or the west end’s Geary Avenue, which transformed from industrial caterpillar to retail butterfly almost a decade ago – but on steroids. Dozens and dozens of interesting businesses and services all gathered together under one roof, and, even better, geared to what the surrounding community needs (TAS says there will be community consultation). To that end, TAS, a company that does indeed build condominiums, has also purchased 772 Warden Ave. nearby, and, in the west end, 142 Vine Ave. in the Junction, as well as a heritage building in Hamilton.
While the simpler model, says Mr. Tran, would be to purchase these properties, “lease them up,” and then flip them in 10 years, TAS, in partnership with LaSalle Canada Property Fund, has decided to walk the much more complicated path of first making them as sustainable as possible, and then strategically and creatively, carving up their insides to ready them for an eclectic mix of tenants while also responding to site conditions. Here, on Milne for example, one entire (and very long) façade of the building faces almost every backyard belonging to the little saltboxes along Wolcott Avenue, so it will need to present an approachable face.
“We can carve out these bays for 10-, 20-thousand-square-foot uses,” Mr. Tran says during a walkabout. “This would be a perfect space for that because it’s facing the neighbourhood, so it’s a good transition to the more harder, industrial use.”
As we walk into space after space – some with concrete floors and tall ceilings, others with carpet tile, drop-ceilings, and offices – I can’t help but think of all the artists I know, especially the ones who need larger spaces to weld, construct, build, and, generally, get very, very dirty. Will TAS make room for them?
“That’s something I’m personally passionate about,” says TAS vice-president of impact and engagement Leslie Najgebauer as we walk into a wide, open area lit by massive clerestory windows. “Within the whole portfolio we’ll be able to work that in. … We play a curating, co-location role [but] one of the challenges is you’ve got all of these individual artists, but there’s no organizing, larger body that can advocate on their behalf. One artist’s studio is very different from, I don’t know, 20, 30 industrial artists who come together.”
The key, adds Mr. Tran, is making the numbers work so TAS doesn’t lose its shirt: “These things have to have financial return too because they’re very capital-intensive, but there’re different ways of getting to the same financial return; it’s just being creative and thoughtful. … We have a percentage where we say this is going to be below market rent for community uses.”
While slightly smaller at about 8,000 square metres, at 772 Warden Ave., those community uses may lean toward food service or ghost kitchens, since there are no single-family homes or apartment buildings within walking distance. Or, if during community consultation it’s discovered what’s needed most is child care, that might be incorporated as well.
Regardless, what strikes me about both properties is their versatility. Since each building has been added to over the decades, as we walk their (sometimes) serpentine layouts we discover small, pokey areas that could be leased to one- or two-person operations, and then, seconds later, we encounter cavernous areas where almost anything could happen (A circus school? Rock climbing? The world’s tallest game of Jenga?). And, again, because these are buildings with rich and varied histories, there are single-use and multiple-person washrooms and sinks peppered around as well, which adds, further, to their flexibility. At Milne Avenue, we even discover a little, private courtyard complete with a tall white birch tree.
To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, these are old buildings that are just begging to be filled with new ideas, and the fact that a developer has the courage to see past an immediate return-on-investment to make that happen is, perhaps, the best real estate story you’ll read this year.
“We’re trying to use real estate to deliver broader benefits,” Ms. Najgebauer says.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Tran finishes.
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