In late 2015, there were 80 000 new condominium units under construction in Toronto. This number does not include the 130 projects that were outlined in a report that Emporis Research released in 2014. The Emporis report concluded that Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal housed (no pun intended) the most number of development projects in the country, making Canada the largest producer of condominiums per captia in North America. Let me put that into perspective a little bit better. The second largest condominium producer outlined by the report was New York City with only 91 projects under construction.
To understand Toronto’s condo craze and how it began, we need to travel back to the 1970’s when then Toronto mayor David Crombie helped to install a forty-five foot (or three story) height restriction on all construction projects. The ban was quickly overturned and was replaced instead with various height guidelines for different areas of the city. This explains why the downtown Entertainment District is literally covered in condos while other areas of the east end like Lesieville and The Distillery have comparatively fewer. This proves that there are guidelines in place that map out buildings and how the city’s skyline should look, but there is just that; guidelines, not law. Any developer can apply for a re-zoning amendment to approve a higher building.
Just in the last few years the old Four Seasons Hotel was refurbished into condos. One Bloor condominiums, which is still under construction, will be seventy-five stories, and will be amongst Canada’s tallest buildings after its completion. Many of the small businesses that have long lined Yonge Street’s strip towards Dundas Square have all been boarded up, awaiting demolition. Toronto’s landmark Honest Ed’s discount store will close in December 2016 and will get infinitely dustier as it waits to be transformed into high-rise condominiums.
When used in moderation, I can see the potential and the appeal of condominiums. They comfortably stack several hundred people or more up instead of across, fitting the same amount of people into a much smaller area. They act as an indication for a city that is maturing and growing. They mesh seamlessly with the lifestyles of those who want to live in urban areas, and many of them now come equipped with upscale amenities like pools and gyms.
But especially in Toronto’s case, there seems to be no grand scheme to the whole process. It sometimes seems as though developers just cruise the city looking for vacant spots as if they’re all playing a game of musical chairs, swiping up all the available spots they can until there are no chairs left. My fear is that if condo development projects continue to go up at the seemingly unstoppable rate that they are, we might discover that we unknowingly sacrificed some of Toronto’s most distinctive characteristics in the process.
The victims in this process will ultimately be those who live in these condos. The rate at which they are going up in the current housing market is a recipe for too many condos with not enough people to actually live in them. In late December 2o15, the Toronto Real Estate Board projected that the average price of a one bedroom condominium in the GTA will increase to nearly 600 000$ by the end of 2018. Those prices will increase for a two or three bedroom space or for units in upscale neighborhoods like Queen West, the Entertainment District or Yorkville. If overproduction is met with underselling, Toronto will be left with unused condominiums that will eventually become the city’s new rental slums. I haven’t even mentioned what an influx in condo owners will do to an already exhausted TTC system or for the city’s gridlock problem.
If you’re reading this from inside your condo and you think that I hate your decisions, don’t think that. I live in a high rise myself. Condos offer an extremely comfortable method of urban living, but if you told me that Toronto hasn’t already gotten the Guinness World Record for ‘most number of high rise condos in one city’, I would be shocked.
Last summer I went to the Just for Laughs Comedy Tour at the Sony Centre. The opening comedian was a man named Keith Robinson who had just flown in from his hometown of Philadelphia earlier that afternoon. When he came out, the first joke he made was about how many people he managed to high-five in all the condos that line the Gardiner Expressway from Pearson all the way downtown. The crowd erupted into so much laughter and applause, it was as if the audience collectively sighed relief thinking, “finally, somebody gets it.”