Sunday, June 23, 2013
Toronto heading skyward in unprecedented condo boom
We’re building more high-rise condominiums for more people for more money than any other metropolis in the western hemisphere.
Today’s count stands at a record 237-condo developments, most taller than 10 floors, heading skywards in an unprecedented GTA-wide boom.
That’s twice the number in New York City and helps put Toronto 10th on the global list of high-rise cities.
According to real estate research group Emporis, Toronto’s construction industry has never seen anything like it.
In October 2012, there were 15 highrise building sites more in Toronto than November 2011.
In New York City in the same period, construction of highrises decreased by just under a fifth, from 86 in September 2011 to 72 in October 2012.
Nowhere is this activity more evident than in the tight streets around the Rogers Centre that already are — or will become — one long condo canyon.
Building sites stand next to demolition sites. Holes in the ground one week become foundations the next. Each requires transit, water, hydro and sewage solutions to be worked into city services that are in many cases already stretched to the limit.
All in the shadows cast by completed towers housing thousands of people who have already swapped the traditional home in the suburbs for a lofty (pardon the pun) new space in the city.
These same people have to get to work.
According to the TTC, the King, Queen and Spadina street cars travel the busiest surface routes the TTC operates; they deliver upwards of 50,000 riders a day on all three routes.
That’s more passengers than the whole GO Transit system and will continue growing to meet the demand created by the highrise boom.
Below the surface, there is a single subway line running beneath the Yonge St. spine to handle ever-increasing amounts of commuters with no relief line in sight.
You have to ask if this frenetic building activity is creating a perfect storm of social dislocation for future generations of Torontonians to deal with.
Will the highrise problems we see today in places like Rexdale and Scarborough, Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park be the future once the newness has worn off downtown developments like CityPlace?
Critics say residential tower blocks with transient populations do not help to create communities. If the buildings do not work well, they rapidly turn into ghettoes.
It’s easy to confuse higher densities with greater liveliness as some City Hall proponents do in their ad hoc efforts to approve ever more condominiums in their wards.
Lloyd Alter teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design and is appalled at seeing so many high-rise condominiums in the one tight, downtown space.
“Rising towers with tiny balconies and floor-to-ceiling glass hardly represents ideal living for mixed communities,” Alter told the Toronto Sun. “What we are seeing is too many people forced into a small piece of geography in buildings that are less than efficient managers of energy.
“Lazy builders and architects are getting away with it. City Hall should be doing more to ensure the quality of the built environment rather than leaving it to future generations to grapple with its poor planning legacy.
“The glass towers just aren’t efficient. They have to be heated in winter and run air conditioning in the summer with no flow-through fresh air. They are also not being built to last.”
It all gets down to questions of quality.
Few of Toronto’s condominiums show consideration of scale or proportion or try to make a meaningful relationship with their surroundings. Nor is there anything special about their detail.
Is there consistency or integrity in their overall concept? Do they create handsome new public spaces at their base?
Does their internal planning produce the best possible living or working spaces while at the same time being built to last?
In too many cases, the answer to all of the above would be a “no” rather than an emphatic “yes.”
One critic even doubts whether the design qualities we’re seeing will let the designs last for longer than the original occupant’s stay.
Ted Kesik, a University of Toronto professor of building science, predicts an average shelf life for today’s glass towers of a mere 15 to 20 years, provoking a massive future problem of how to retrofit them.
The final question hangs on market sustainability.
An overbuilt and overpriced condominium market of less than stellar quality is posing a risk to all Canadian households, banks and the economy in general, the Bank of Canada warned earlier this month.
It cites Toronto as a bubble waiting to burst.
“If the upcoming supply of units is not absorbed by demand as they are completed over the next 12 to 30 months, the supply-demand discrepancy would become more apparent, increasing the risk of an abrupt correction in prices and residential construction activity,” it says.
“Any correction in condominium prices could spread to other segments of the housing market as buyers and sellers adjust their expectations.”
Which is banker speak for too much supply will kill the market for everyone.
You and I call that a crash.
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