Toronto has seen huge growth in the last decade. The challenges ahead are just as huge

When George Hume and his wife moved from their Rosedale house to a Distillery District condo 20 years ago people thought they were crazy.

Cabbies would say, “Where? We don’t go there after 9,” says Hume. He is only partly joking.

There wasn’t much to make the neighbourhood attractive back then but, for an industrial historian, the opportunity to overlook the old Gooderham & Worts distillery was a selling feature.

Now, of course, Hume finds himself ensconced in one of Toronto’s most desirable neighbourhoods. The once ghostly Distillery District is teeming with nearby condo residents soaking in the cosy Victorian vibe as they sip artisanal coffee, especially during the annual Christmas market. It’s so busy, Hume says the local residents are relieved to have new parking passes this year that help the police wave them through the traffic.

“I think the next 10 (years) are going to be the testing,” he says.

Two decades after George Hume moved to the Distillery District, the neighbourhood is lively with condo residents, shops and cultural events.
Two decades after George Hume moved to the Distillery District, the neighbourhood is lively with condo residents, shops and cultural events.Richard Lautens

There are three new residential buildings and an office going in, says Hume.

The Distillery District is among the most obvious examples of how the city’s growth has insinuated itself into once-overlooked spaces, repurposing former industrial areas and positioning residents in the clouds when there isn’t enough room left at street level, sometimes growing neighbourhoods before the city services are available to serve them.

Toronto has spent the last decade transforming into a global city, growing by about 300,000 people — the equivalent of Victoria, B.C., says chief planner Gregg Lintern.

Within that influx, he says, “the city has proven to be infinitely adaptable.”

Lintern’s not saying that we’re on a par with London or Tokyo. But we’re moving in that direction.

This is what Toronto’s success looks like: Between 2009 and 2018, there were 4,900 new buildings constructed in the city. They had a combined height of over 16,000 storeys — that’s 228 First Canadian Place towers. Most of those buildings were highrises incorporating the majority of 182,750 residential units — more homes than the 2016 Census counted in the City of Brampton.

TTC ridership grew by about 50 million between 2009 and 2018 — 521.4 million last year, compared to 471.2 a decade earlier, according to the Toronto Transit Commission’s 2018 annual report. The TTC added the equivalent of 20 per cent more kilometres of scheduled service during about the same period, says Scott Haskill manager of project development. That includes more subway and bus hours and the six new subway stops to Vaughan that opened two years ago carrying 90,000 to 100,000 people on weekdays.

A $780 million, five-year service plan released by the TTC in December is designed to make the TTC less reactive and more proactive in addressing growth, he says.

“We’re not generally caught that far out but, absolutely, we’d like to be in a position to plan further ahead and be more reactive to known and expected changes to ridership patterns,” says Haskill.

GO Transit ridership has also grown from 55 million to 75 million annual rides in the last decade. Add in another 4 million riders on the UP Express that opened in 2015.

Toronto has defied economic downturns with consistently strong employment for the last 20 years, says Lintern.

“The city feels more vibrant than it ever did,” he says. But that success isn’t being experienced evenly among residents.

“In donning this new set of clothes as a global city we have affordable housing issues and we have transportation and mobility issues … challenges to confront and take responsibility for,” he says.

With one in five Toronto households spending more than half their income on housing and 40 per cent spending more than the recommended 30 per cent, the problem has expanded beyond the traditionally vulnerable populations into middle-class occupations, says Lintern.

For those in the thick of the new vertical clusters — residents of Regent Park, Corktown, South Core, City Place and Liberty Village — there are other challenges, says Todd Hofley, who bought one of Liberty’s first condos about 18 years ago and helped collect the area’s condo boards into the Liberty Village Residents’ Association.

Back then, it was another old factory and warehouse neighbourhood that taxi drivers struggled to locate. Ten years ago, people barely dared whisper they had bought a condo, he says.

“It was like, ‘I couldn’t afford to go to New York, so I went to Pittsburgh,’” says Hofley. Now, he says, condo living is aspirational.

The early adapters of these new neighbourhoods have coalesced into communities, bound in part by amenities their neighbourhoods didn’t have when the towers went up.

“Liberty Village is an example of what not to do in urban planning because none of the services were put in ahead of time,” he says.

The King Street Transit Priority Corridor, that the city made permanent this year, ensures there is consistent streetcar service every three or four minutes. It has been “transformative.” But the service should have been there from the outset, says Hofley, who recently moved to Hamilton.

“We can’t just build these things and expect people to deal. We have to build them in concert with the actual developments so people have places to go and parks,” he says.

There are new condos being built on all four corners of East Liberty St. and Strachan Ave. but, he says, “The light levels are just nowhere near where they need to be. Our sidewalks are the minimum (width) required as if you had 15 houses on the street. We don’t have 15 houses on the street. We have 3,000.

“Whatever that sidewalk width is it’s just not acceptable,” says Hofley. Two strollers can’t travel side by side, he says, and that’s increasingly a problem as families form a bigger part of the community.

“These type of granular things weren’t on the city’s mind. In the past 10 years the city has learned a lot,” he says.

“We certainly face a dearth of daycare. We definitely need more parks,” he says. “Eleven years ago you didn’t see babies. You didn’t see people playing catch.”

Verticality isn’t limited to Toronto either, says Richard Joy, executive director of the Urban Land Institute, Toronto. One big story of the last decade is the emerging downtowns of 905-area communities such as Mississauga and Vaughan.

“We’ve seen greater intensification across the region in terms of residential development and a slowing down of the rate of sprawl, although it’s still a lot. These are major forces that are positive,” he says. “The Vaughan subway is spawning an incredible concentration of development.”

“We’re building neighbourhoods that didn’t exist, we’re enhancing neighbourhoods that didn’t have a there there,” says Joy.

But the news isn’t all good. Ten years ago, gridlock was a crisis. A decade later it’s worse, he says.

“We’ve seen huge developments in places like Liberty Village but we didn’t see the transit go there. Same on Queens Quay. We’re seeing significant bits of city building that has not been given a level of transit infrastructure that is required,” says Joy.

“Affordability was a conversation advocates and policy wonks were talking about a decade ago but it wasn’t the big story of the city or province the way it is now. Affordability is now a full-broil crisis that no one is quite sure how to fix and they’re throwing all kinds of ideas at it but we’re a long way from understanding how we’re going to steer that issue into something that looks like a solution,” he said.

Toronto is enjoying what Joy calls “a golden era of progressive urbanism,” particularly around transit. But when it comes to taxes, he says, “even the progressive parties have not really championed higher taxes.”

Lintern says the last 10 years have been a learning experience for the city, as well as residents. The new vertical communities have required and inspired ingenuity. People are living with less personal space so the public realm is paramount. It is the bones of the city that will attract people, he says.

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Toronto has transformed into a global city over the past decade, growing by about 300,000 people. Much of that growth has occurred in once-overlooked spaces such as the Distillery District.
Toronto has transformed into a global city over the past decade, growing by about 300,000 people. Much of that growth has occurred in once-overlooked spaces such as the Distillery District.Richard Lautens

Referring to High Park, for example, he says, “It still makes sense 150 years later and it will make sense 150 years from now.”

While condos comprise 35 per cent of Toronto’s rental homes, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., purpose-built rental development has languished. Market research firm Urbanation reports that there have been 458 condos with 118,246 units built since 2010. That compares to only 38 purpose-built rentals with 9,406 units.

“The market remains severely undersupplied, with vacancy rates below 1 per cent. We need to not only build at a higher level, but also at a more balanced mix between condos and rentals to meet demand, which has shifted strongly towards rentals over the last five years as population growth has surged and ownership affordability has eroded,” says the company’s president Shaun Hildebrand.

Most of those new apartments have been built downtown leaving a relatively limited supply in more suburban areas, even those with relatively good transit access, he says.

“Encouraging more rental to be built in the urban fringe areas of Toronto is one of the best things we can do to help housing affordability,” says Hildebrand.

Lintern agrees. He says that 60 per cent of the next wave of civic growth is slated for the 416 suburbs. It will happen, he says, with the redevelopment of the Bombardier lands at Downsview, the Agincourt mall, the old Mr. Christie plant in Etobicoke and the huge Woodbine entertainment complex. There are also about 20 plazas, many of them in those outer areas, that are ripe for redevelopment in the next decade, he said.

“If those inner suburbs have felt left out, I think that change is coming and it’s coming through transit improvements. The Eglinton (Crosstown) line is going to be transformative. In the next two years it will open, running right through the Golden Mile,” he said.

There will be housing opportunities but Lintern says the market will never provide the affordable rentals the city needs. That kind of housing will depend on the support of all three levels of government.

Developer Steve Diamond, who chairs Waterfront Toronto, says providing affordability to those in deepest need as well as middle-class workers like bus drivers and teachers, is the only way to keep the city vibrant.

“Increasingly housing in the core is not affordable to the average Torontonian,” he says.

Governments can incentivize housing development outside the core by reducing the fees and taxes that add 25 per cent to the cost of homes, says Diamond. Inclusionary zoning that requires residential buildings to incorporate some affordable units can’t be implemented by adding to the financial burden of homebuyers,” he says.

Respect for the city’s heritage grows

It might look like the city’s past is being swallowed whole by the rising future but the development boom has actually been accompanied by a greater awareness of built heritage, said Kaitlin Wainwright, director of programming for Heritage Toronto.

That appreciation isn’t entirely a result of growth. It’s also a product of global turmoil and an increasingly diverse population of Torontonians seeking connections to their city and meaning in the place they live through cultural, as well as built heritage.

One means of protecting that historical street fabric is called “facadism,” the practice of preserving a building’s facade while the guts are demolished to make room for a new tower needed to house more residents.

But these “facadectomies,” as Wainwright calls them, are a compromise. Heritage Toronto’s annual “State of Heritage” report says facadism “trivializes the city’s rich and diverse history.”

Wainwright points out, however, that heritage is a negotiation. The decade is closing out with two important heritage sites in play. The Richard L. Hearn Generating Station and Ontario Place are both worth protecting and reimagining, she said.

Ontario Place is both worth protecting and reimagining, says Kaitlin Wainwright, director of programming for Heritage Toronto.

Last year the province surprised the city by selling the Hearn to long-term tenant Studios of America for $16 million. The city subsequently moved to have the site designated as a heritage property over the new owner’s objections.

The province is also looking at long-term lease proposals for Ontario Place, which was included on the World Monuments Fund 2020 Watch of at-risk sites. To put its historic and cultural significance in context, Notre Dame Cathedral is on the same list, said Wainwright.

She says Toronto is a leader in adaptive reuse — taking a historic building, keeping its heritage features and transforming it from its original purpose. By way of example, she points to Maple Leaf Gardens’ conversion to a grocery store and the old Don Jail, now Bridgepoint Health.

The unseen aspect of the waterfront’s evolution

City of Toronto data shows Toronto waterfront communities have seen the most development in the past decade. Waterfront Toronto chair Steve Diamond said the tripartite government agency’s investments in Sugar Beach, Corktown Commons and the Queens Quay promenade have “redefined the public’s idea of what the waterfront is and what it can be.”

“What isn’t usually visible on the surface is how much has been achieved in terms of enabling infrastructure for waterfront neighbourhoods, such as flood protection and remediation of contaminated lands,” said Diamond.

People head to the Toronto Island on August 30, 2010.

On Queens Quay, outdated sewer, water and hydro infrastructure was modernized along with the public realm improvements, to support new homes and businesses and institutions such as the George Brown College campus.

“Flood protection measures in Corktown Common allowed us to create new, complete communities in East Bayfront and the West Don Lands, including hundreds more affordable housing units,” he said.

Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside proposal to build a high-tech test district will continue to be an important story in the coming decade but there are lower-profile “transformational projects” also underway, including the Port Lands Flood Protection project that “will make the biggest impact on Toronto’s future,” he said.

By 2024 it will protect about 300 hectares in neighbourhoods like Riverdale and Leslieville from potentially devastating inland flooding — a concern in the face of more frequent and intense storms. It will also open up land in the Port Lands and the Cadillac Fairview-owned West Harbour site, making way for new housing, jobs and green space.

Among waterfront projects on the horizon are a continuous promenade running from Bathurst to Parliament streets and an expanded Jack Layton ferry terminal.

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