A new generation of gleaming office towers is making Toronto's south core stand out. Now all it needs is a standout name.
The commercial-residential neighbourhood emerging south of the railway tracks in downtown Toronto is rapidly being seen as an innovation zone that has attracted more than financial giants such as the Royal Bank of Canada and CI Financial.
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Telus Corp., and Porter Airlines Inc. have all set up shop there, with others, such as Sun Life Financial Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc., soon to make the move.
The roster of tenants is not merely an extension of the traditional financial district to the north at King and Bay streets. Those firms now making the south core their home see it as a place where smart people from diverse industries can gather and share ideas – a view backed up by the PwC Cities of Opportunity 6 report released earlier this year which ranked Toronto No. 5 out of 30 cities in the category of innovation and intellectual capital.
PwC, which relocated from King Street about three years ago, has teamed with other tenants in the area to form the South Core Innovation Hub. Could the Innovation Hub become the short, but more recognizable, name that is a more inspiring description of the district than LoFi, for lower financial district, or SoFro, for south of Front?
"We've got a group of about eight companies who have met twice – we've got a third meeting later this month just to finish the charter of what we're trying to do," says Ted Graham, innovation leader for PwC. "It's nice to have people from different industries who are more open about talking about their challenges."
For example, Mr. Graham points to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which operates the nearby Air Canada Centre entertainment and sports venue, discussing ways to improve the experience for hockey and basketball fans and concertgoers.
"They're all pushing the boundaries of each of their sectors and that helps us think a little bit differently about our own problems," he says of PwC's neighbours. "So we can take a challenge that we thought was germane to our industry but we can talk to some of our innovation peers. Being able to convene groups like that is a special opportunity."
Even those who haven't yet relocated to the Innovation Hub are enthused by the potential meeting of minds where neighbours can brainstorm and test ideas.
"I think it's inspiring and I think that we haven't even really begun to understand what the potential of that area is," says Mark Collins, vice-president of marketing for Cisco, the world's largest maker of computer networking gear, that will move to the south core in 2015.
In addition to occupying the top four floors of the new RBC Waterpark Place III that officially opens this year at 85 Harbour St., Mr. Collins explains that Cisco will also be opening its Internet of Everything Innovation Centre on the mezzanine level, one of four such centres located around the world.
"We can not only use it as a showcase, but also as a living lab where we can discover what the next generation of connected communities looks like," Mr. Collins explains. "You can never assume that innovation stops, but in order for innovation to lead to outcomes, you need a place where people can congregate to test these ideas and bring them ultimately to fruition."
John Arnoldi, the executive managing director, Toronto region, for Colliers International, points to four different reasons why the south core area is becoming such a viable option for companies doing business in so many different areas – new building technology, availability of Class A space, a labour pool that wants to live and work in the same area, and the diminishment of the physical east-west barriers presented by both the railway tracks and the Gardiner Expressway farther south.
"Telus, PricewaterhouseCoopers, that very traditional accounting firm moving down there, that stigma of not being in the financial core where these traditional companies should be, is gone."
The almost billion-dollar renovation of Union Station, complete with a dedicated south-facing entrance for the first time, and a PATH connection that will soon stretch all the way down to Queen's Quay have helped attract new tenants and ease the divide between the areas north and south of Front Street. But there's more to come.
"Obviously the tracks will always be seen as this barrier, at least for now," says James Parakh, city urban design manager for the districts of Toronto and East York. "It's only a matter of time before we see development over the top of the tracks, just like they do at Hudson Yards [in New York]."
As for officially putting in an application with the city to change the name of the south core area to reflect the innovation in the neighbourhood, such as the Entertainment District and others have rebranded their geography, Mr. Graham at PwC says it's probably in the cards.
"It's one thing to have sort of the buzziness without the substance, but we're trying to put the substance together," he says.