Toronto transformation under way

By Dorn Townsend | December 05, 2007 09:17AM

New York City has numerous Chinatowns, and more than
one Little Italy, but residents might be surprised to know that its
largest legal international segment is actually Canadian. Nearly a
quarter million Canadians live and work within the city; by and large,
they are professionals, youngish and urban-minded.

Canadian observers attribute this brain drain to the U.S. to a quest
for higher wages, cultural excitement and the feeling of being in the
center of the world. Any New Yorker with a Canadian friend can tell
you, however, that another pay-off for these migrants is the density
and variety of the built environment found in New York.

Commonly, these expats are dissatisfied with those qualities in
Toronto, Canada’s premier city and a logical magnet for its upwardly
mobile. For years, Toronto developers, shaping one of the
fastest-growing metropolises in the West, have fostered sprawl,
cookie-cutterness and sheer man-made ugliness, according to some
observers.

An everyday complaint is encapsulated in this recent observation in
Toronto’s National Post by a native returning home after exposure to
civilities abroad: “The gleaming new towers appeared banal … it was
depressing to attempt to find reasons to stay married to my urban
partner of 33 years.”

Still, for all the native’s deprecations of their city’s ungainliness,
something transformative is happening in Toronto. Sprawl is getting
checked. Downtown, in particular, is building upward — and in a big
way. While New Yorkers tend to think that theirs is the Skyscraper
City, recently Toronto homebuilders have surpassed Gotham in their
ratio of multi-unit to single-unit construction.

The numbers for 2006 (from the U.S. Census and a Canadian Conference
Board study) tell the story. In metro New York, an area with 18.1
million people, some 29,000 out of 60,000 housing permits were issued
for condos. For metro Toronto, a region with a third of the residents,
the condo numbers are nearly the same, and the proportion is higher —
25,000 out of 40,000. Buoyed by immigration, Toronto is growing at
twice New York’s speed.

Further patterns have been identified by Emporis, a German research
firm that monitors worldwide construction. In New York, 430 high rises
are going up, approved or proposed. Meanwhile, in smaller Toronto, the
pace is more intensive: 330 are in the works. In the roughly two-mile
by four-mile rectangle that comprises the downtown core, over 50
skyscrapers are climbing up; many are above 50 floors, replicating the
feel and scale of midtown Manhattan.

Significantly, New York developers are getting in on the action in
Toronto. Several are partnering with local developers to create
hotel-condo combinations.

No surprise that Donald Trump is one of those New Yorkers, with a
part-hotel, part-condo tower going up on Bay Street, Toronto’s answer
to Wall Street.

He also has stiff competition. Super-tall hotel/condo projects by
Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Shangri-La are going up nearby. As a
result, Trump had to lop off 13 floors from his original design —
although the height is the same, and more units were added. Prices at
the Trump tower are going for between $650 and $850 a square foot; the
penthouse was recently bought by the city’s youngest billionaire for
about $20 million.

Another New Yorker is helping to create a newly dense neighborhood outside of Toronto’s core.

Jason Pomeranc’s firm, Thompson Hotels, is partnering with Freed
Development on a 15-floor hotel-condo project. Prices range between
$190,000 for a studio to $1.5 million for a penthouse, or about $400
and $600 per square foot.

To be sure, developers from all over the world are active in Toronto.
They are drawn by an economy where housing starts have ballooned by
over 19 percent and median home prices are up nearly 15 percent, all in
the past year. Bazis International, a firm from Kazakhstan, is adding
to the momentum with plans to build the city’s tallest residential
tower: 80 floors in the midtown area.

On former rail yards between the lakefront and the CN Tower, Concord
Pacific, a Hong Kong company, is midway through erecting a cluster of
condos with about 8,000 units in 20 towers, each ranging from 20 to 40
floors.

Douglas Coupland, the Canadian author of the novel “Generation X,” is
designing a small park between these buildings. Funds for that park,
and for numerous public sculptures, come from impact fees levied by the
city on developers.

The sum effect, however welcome for its grace notes, is small. Unlike
New York’s core, Toronto’s midtown and downtown have to get by without
busy public squares, plentiful green space or lengthy bicycle paths.

As in New York, many of the high-rise structures are being placed along
subway and streetcar routes. Even more development may be sparked by
the provincial government’s commitment to spend $17.5 billion on
improvements and expansion of the city’s rapid transit.

While it is planned as one of the largest infrastructure projects on
the continent, some major developers still anticipate considerable
gridlock. They are disappointed because unlike New York, where express
subway lines propel commuters to hubs of neighborhoods, Toronto’s lack
of similarly fast subway routes makes for commutes as much as three
times longer than comparable distances in Manhattan.

What’s afoot, then, is a major intensification; today’s inner city will
differ markedly three years from now. Looming above all this is an open
question: Will the new Toronto be attractive enough to retain those
ambitiously seeking a truly liveable place?