Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Toronto gridlock has become so crippling that condo developers are increasingly finding the lowly parking spot a tough sell
For years, many of those historic brick boxes slipped into disuse as manufacturing declined or moved out of the city altogether.
It would take developers and innovative architects like Klein to find ways to give them new life through “adaptive reuses” that would convert outdated 20th-century factories into chic 21st-century urban homes such as the Toy Factory Lofts.
Klein believes that underground condo parking lots are the adaptive reuse challenge of the future.
Gridlock has become so crippling — and the cost of keeping a car in the city so crazy — that developers are increasingly finding the lowly parking spot not only a tough sell, but an undesirable amenity, in many urban condo projects.
Klein believes the car is becoming such an annoying albatross, especially in the downtown core where young professionals prefer to walk or take transit to work, that in another decade, whole P levels may be sitting empty.
That’s why Klein has started urging some developers, with projects still in the planning stages, to consider adding light and height to each parking level, beyond the two-metre height minimum required by city planners.
Down the road, empty space could be converted to, say, meeting and storage facilities or even — “this is blue-sky stuff,” he stresses — light manufacturing space or artists’ studios.
“They need big, flexible, raw, robust spaces,” says Klein, “and parking lots are nothing if not big, flexible, raw and robust.”
Klein is even thinking ahead on 905 projects, such as one he’s now designing for developer Plazacorp in the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre where an extension of the Spadina subway is slated to open in 2016.
Plans for Plazacorp’s condo tower, The Met, include a grand staircase from underground visitor parking into the lobby.
Plazacorp vice-president Scott McLellan loves how light will “waterfall” down the stairs into the parking lot and wow visitors as they step up into the lobby. Klein, on the other hand, sees the staircase as a way to bring light into space that could be repurposed if more residents than expected start shunning the car.
“I think the industry is still trying to sort the parking issue out,” says McLellan. “But I don’t think it’s going to be long before Zip cars are part of the 905 culture, too.”
In fact, McClellan is toying with having minimal, or no parking at all, for one-bedroom suites in the 860-suite project. (Developers agree that owners of two- and three-bedroom units still tend to want a parking spot, but even that demand is slowing slightly.)
Parked cars push moving vehicles wrong way: The Fixer
“Everybody says, ‘Are you nuts? This is suburbia, not downtown Toronto.’ And I say, ‘It’s 100-per-cent downtown Toronto because there is this thing going underground called a subway and it’s going to get you downtown in less than an hour. You can’t drive it in that.’ ”
Developers have been trying for years to get relief from parking requirements that, for the most part, date back to just after the Second World War when the city was overrun with cars. The required number of parking spaces per building varies wildly — from 0.6 parking spots per unit downtown to well over two spaces per unit in some suburban projects.
So far, just a one downtown project has been approved with no parking at all. A second, proposed for 2 Queen St. W. at the southerly corner of the Eaton Centre, envisions zero spots for cars, but a bike space for each of the planned 580 units.
“It’s getting harder to build parking, and people don’t want it,” says Jared Menkes, director of development for Menkes Development Ltd.
The cost and complexity of digging down deep enough on increasingly smaller downtown sites to meet the city planning requirements for parking means spots now cost about $50,000 to $65,000, making them prohibitively expensive for many buyers on top of unit costs that now average well over $600 per square foot.
“We’re seeing a huge influx of people coming into the city because they don’t want that power commute anymore. They don’t want to drive. They want to walk to work and step out of their condo to get groceries and dinner.”
There are some condo projects, conceived back in 2005 and 2006 and now up and occupied, where as many as half the parking spots have not been sold, he says.
Menkes has managed to keep its unsold spots to a minimum so far, he stresses. But the company has now started designing all its condo projects so that unsold spots can be converted to commercial, pay-per-hour or pay-per-day parking lots with their own elevators and stairwells, separate from those for condo owners.
Menkes is adamant that developers’ concerns around parking aren’t about maximizing profit but, rather, questioning the sense of supplying costly amenities that fewer and fewer people want. Even the notion that a parking space is critical to propping up the resale value of a condo no longer seems to be a given, he says.
“This is about a lifestyle change,” says Menkes, who prefers using the subway if he has to head downtown from his North York office.
He’s become a big fan of more upscale taxi services like Uber, which allow him to access a car, when needed, through a smart phone app.
“In the west end of Toronto, there is so much traffic now that you can’t get around. I want to see more bike and foot traffic — I want to see (financially troubled bike-sharing) Bixi stay — and we need more transit.”
But as for the future of all those underground condo parking spaces that no one may be using, Menkes sounds a note of caution.
“Repurposing of space” — or, as architect Klein calls it, adaptive reuse — “has been happening for hundreds of years,” says Menkes.
He’s even read about buildings in Tokyo where hydroponic farming is done in underutilized underground spaces.
But the fact that condo buildings have rules, and condo boards are made up of fee-paying owners who administer those rules, may be the single biggest barrier to turning empty concrete pads into thriving underground cities.
Even renting out your own condo parking space is technically illegal — although it’s commonly done — because it provides outsiders with fobs or keys that give them access to the entire building.
And then there is the even bigger issue: “The most expensive space in a condo project is below grade — all the excavating and shoring up.”
Building parking spaces higher and brighter is going to cost money on space that’s already a loss leader, says Menkes: “Who is going to pay for that?”
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