On a warm Saturday night, CityPlace looks like a dorm on the edge of civilization. In pools of light at the base of its towers, small clusters of twentysomethings mill around the doors. Packs of men in untucked button-downs head across the parking lots, bound for the club district a couple of blocks north. The bar is full; the coffee shop is deserted.
"You can stand out front, have a cigarette and watch hundreds and hundreds of young professionals head out to the bars," says Tim Lamch, who's lived there for almost two years. "Their elevators are pretty much as busy between 9 and 11 as they are between 4 and 6."
But just because it looks like a dorm doesn't mean it works like one. Welcome to the land of professional youth, Toronto's newest neighbourhood and one of the biggest private developments in the city's history. Rising just west of the CN Tower, its 20 towers will eventually stretch all the way to Bathurst. Like so many products of Toronto's current condo boom, these buildings are full of small units aimed at young professionals. What makes CityPlace unique is its scale: it's going to house almost 14,000 people on one tract of land. It's becoming a city within a city - or, depending on who you ask, a suburb within a city.
What this means for Toronto is an open question, and one that's going to grow in importance as residents start moving into the newest phase of CityPlace, and its developers build a sister project near Leslie and Sheppard. Is this an oasis of youth, or a slum in the making?
A FLEDGLING COMMUNITY
CityPlace is an island in more ways than one. Located on former railway yards, it's set off from the city by railway lines to the north, the Gardiner to the south, the Rogers Centre and Fort York. (Right now, life comes to a sudden stop at Spadina, with its six lanes, two streetcar tracks, and lineups of rush-hour traffic.) But it's also a demographic island, filled with hard-working professionals in their 20s and 30s. If young residents have complaints, they're usually minor: The Rogers Centre can be loud. Traffic can be bad. Visitor parking can be a pain.
"There's always people coming and going, so it's a very vibrant-seeming building," 22-year-old Jonathan English says of the Front Street tower where he's lived for three years. Like others, he says he likes the downtown location, loves the Rabba downstairs, and finds the neighbours pleasant - but it's not as if he really knows them, since new people arrive "all the time."
Indeed, one thing CityPlace isn't is a return to college life, a time and place when floormates become family. In interviews, residents paint a picture of a friendly but detached home for the upwardly mobile. Many won't stay long, especially if they're renting - and there are a lot of tenants. CityPlace has attracted an unusual number of investors who have bought condos to rent them out. There are no hard numbers, but by some estimates, between one-third and half of the units are in the hands of renters. Staying put doesn't seem to be a local specialty.
People who live at CityPlace "spend a lot of time downtown. They're out all the time," says Kulbinder Saran, a consultant in her 30s who chairs a social committee for the complex and has been working to drum up community events.
Ms. Saran says get-togethers like dinner clubs, movie nights and speed-networking events see turnouts in the low dozens. It's hard to compete, she explains, with the social lives people already have. "I'm not necessarily going to go hang out with people I don't know when I could go hang out with my friends."
If anything, social life at CityPlace revolves around the SuperClub, its private community centre. Besides the gym, pool, and fitness club, the SuperClub offers a packed roster of programmed activities, from parent-and-child yoga to badminton and weight training for women out on the patio. (There's also the roster of oddball amenities that's de rigueur these days: the theatre, the karaoke room, the golf simulator - and the bowling alley that's across the hall from the massage parlour, to the chagrin of its rattled clients.)
A FAMILY FEELING
Kids could be the glue. A Montessori school sits on the ground floor of one building; the SuperClub hosts a well-regarded "Moms and Tots" programme, and CityPlace mothers who met at these events say they attend day trips and social events together. Two schools are planned for the still-unbuilt western half of CityPlace, designed to serve the whole neighbourhood. Concord estimates that CityPlace will eventually house around 200 children, with more coming from a public housing project planned for the western part of the site.
The catch is that even as parks and schools are being built west of Spadina, the realities of condo living make it hard for growing families to stay in the area.
"I'm sorry I can't be a part of it, but we've just grown out of our place," says Linda Fuerth, 28, who shares the master bedroom of her one-bedroom apartment with her one-year-old daughter, Ada. (She and her husband Jonathan use their den area as a changeroom.) Ms. Fuerth speaks highly of CityPlace and the community it offers for young mothers, but she's looking to move out to find more spacious accommodations, and soon.
Similar scenes are likely in the new areas of CityPlace being built west of Spadina: Only 10 per cent of the units will have more than two bedrooms. The towers that have already been built have even fewer.
And even large units have a downside. Since condo owners pay maintenance fees based on the square footage of their apartments, big units can incur bigger ongoing costs.
That's one of the reasons Peng Yang, a 40-year-old IT manager and father of one, is planning to leave. Like Ms. Feurth, Mr. Yang likes CityPlace but doesn't think it's suited to raising kids. He used to live in a condo in the Distillery District, where, he says, the population was older and events like yard sales would bring them together as neighbours. At CityPlace, he says, there's little sense of the community as a whole. Residents are "very focused on having a good time and earning a good living," he says. "Being an active member of the community maybe isn't up on our priority scale."
"It's going to be St. James Town all over again," says the area's councillor, Adam Vaughan - repeating a prediction that's as old as CityPlace itself.
Along with the new schools, a three-hectare park and a community centre are planned for the western half of the development, and Mr. Vaughan doesn't know that CityPlace provides either the children or the tax base to support them. On top of that, he fears that CityPlace's many absentee landlords will lead the condominiums to cut corners on maintenance. "Tall buildings that fall apart don't bounce back easily," he warns.
Ultimately, Mr. Vaughan says, CityPlace will become a stand of dilapidated towers, cut off from the city, underserved by transit and with eventually too many, rather than too few, children. "You're going to start seeing low-income families moving into smaller, underserviced apartments. That's when you're going to see a slum erupt on the underside of the financial district."
After all, he points out, St. James Town was originally a haven for the young, single, and upwardly mobile too.
So far, at least, things have been on the up and up for buyers. According to data from Urbanation, a quarterly that tracks the Toronto condo market, prices at CityPlace have risen by about 50 per cent since 1999 - from an average $230 per square foot in 1999 to over $390 per square foot for resale in the second quarter of 2007. Developers Concord Adex "got the land for a bargain, and were able to consistently come out under market and attract investor buyers," says Jane Renwick, Urbanation's vice-president. The former railway lands between Front Street and the Gardiner have been the subject of redevelopment plans for decades. But the lands sat idle until the economic doldrums of the mid-90s came to a close, when Grand Adex (who were related to Concord Adex) made a play for the land. At that point, the company was already engaged with a massive project in Vancouver: redeveloping the city's waterfront lands left over from Expo '86. Twice the size of CityPlace, the ongoing 25-year-long "Pacific Place" project will see the construction of between 40 and 50 towers on the city's waterfront.
"They came and said, 'Look what we've done in Vancouver,' " says Paul Bedford, Toronto's former chief planner, who toured Pacific Place in its early stages and came away impressed with its tall, thin towers rising from rows of compact townhouses.
But Vancouver and Toronto are very different places. For one thing, Vancouver's city planners have far more clout with developers than their counterparts in Toronto. Among other things, planners were able to commit Concord Pacific, Concord Adex's parent company, to building more family-friendly and affordable units into each tower. Still, Mr. Bedford is optimistic about CityPlace. "As the streets and amenity and retail and community centre happen," he says, "you're going to have a complete community."
And now, the cycle is about to begin again. A third mega-development in the same mould, Concord Park Place, is set to rise on abandoned industrial land in North York between Sheppard and the 401. Park Place will include 15 towers to house around 12,000 people.
"I think that it's positive to have one developer that will be building out the entire site," says David Shiner, the area's city councillor, arguing that the arrangement will foster community by preventing a mish-mash of conflicting smaller projects. The Concord plan, he says, provides a "phenomenal" amount of park space - about one-fifth of the 20-hectare site.
The councillor also categorically rejects Mr. Vaughan's predictions about CityPlace - and, by implication, the North York development - as "ignorant," saying that a development's success "depends on the quality of product that's being built."
Mr. Shiner says that he sees the condo market shifting toward family units. Many of the new condos along the Sheppard corridor, he says, appeal to buyers who previously lived in the area, but were forced into the 905 by housing costs.
In the meantime, residents will start moving into the next phase of CityPlace within a matter of days, and the occupation of the lands west of Spadina will finally begin. Another pair of towers should be finished near the end of 2008, and the march west to Bathurst will continue after that, year by year.
On a sunny weekday evening last week, Diana Pereira sat on the empty patio at Spot Coffee, just east of the Rogers Centre. Pereira, an outgoing online journalist in her early 30s, seems the prototypical CityPlace dweller. She works out at the SuperClub and helps run a dinner club for a handful of fellow residents. She became close friends with her neighbour across the hall, but hardly knows anyone else on her floor. She says she spends a lot of time waving at people she doesn't really know.
By any standard, the coffee shop is a nice place: Locally owned and light-filled, it's a welcome break from the cookie-cutter franchises that colonize the bases of so many condo towers. But this afternoon, the place is almost as empty as it was the Saturday night before.
"I don't know why people aren't using it," Ms. Pereira says. She pauses, and shakes her head.
"Actually, I do know. Everyone has their own lives in this town."