For Cam Miller, retirement opened the door to condo living in downtown Toronto.
Miller and his wife, Sandra, Canadians living in the U.S. at the time, sold their car and moved to a condo at Bay and Wellesley Sts., where they immersed themselves in city life. It was 1996, and services such as grocery stores weren’t readily available; but the Millers didn’t care; they wanted to be downtown.
It turns out they weren’t the only ones. Since 1996, an extended condo boom has pulled more than 41,000 people into the city core, based on 2006 figures compiled by Urbanation, a company that tracks the GTA condo market.
A city report earlier this year estimates that nearly 40,000 condo units in 155 projects are in the pipeline for the core, indicating that downtown’s attractiveness may still be on the upswing.
The good news for the Millers – who now live at King and Jarvis Sts. – is that the greater population density has helped create lots of new services, such as 24-hour grocery stores, food delivery and cleaning services specifically for condos.
There are also two auto-sharing programs, where members, who usually forgo car ownership, pay an annual fee to book a vehicle when needed from a pool distributed through the downtown.
“Before joining AutoShare a year ago, we’d rent a car if we needed it,” Miller says. “But with renting it’s easy to get up to the daily rate. AutoShare is generally less expensive than renting, especially if you only need the car for a couple of hours.”
Kevin McLaughlin, AutoShare’s founder and president, says the business has grown along with the number of urban condos.
“In 1998, when AutoShare began, there were three cars and a staff of 16 people,” he says. “Today, there are 170 cars and 6,000 members.
“AutoShare fits in with the condo lifestyle. We’ve calculated that you can save enough money from not owning a car to carry a $100,000 to $120,000 mortgage.”
AutoShare and U.S.-based competitor Zipcar are just two of many thriving businesses in the new urban economy spun off by the condo boom. The effect is creating new jobs and revitalizing older stores.
For Emily Cartwright, owner of a Yorkville dog daycare called Tire Biter Inc., the condo boom forced her a few years back to double her space to 4,000 square feet.
“I have 15 to 25 dogs every day in the daycare and I’m anticipating a further increase with the new condos being built now.”
Meanwhile, condo research consultant Barry Lyon says he’s seeing a “tremendous influx of at-home businesses” as more people choose to live and work downtown.
Among them is condo resident David Senater, a downtowner who six weeks ago started freshbread.ca. It’s a service delivering breads, baguettes and pastries from Micaelense Home Bakery and already has more than 250 customers. He sees 400 condo buildings as his market and is counting on the growing population to make his company a success. Orders can be placed through his website and the freshly baked goods are left, like daily newspapers, outside doors or at the front desk early in the morning.
“I’m not exactly making money yet,” Senater says with a laugh, “but I’m trying to create an economic model for this to work. If 20 to 30 people in one building buy bread every day, it’s worthwhile for a truck to stop. We’re the first company, I think in the world, that delivers bread just to condos. It’s going to be a growing market. In years to come, this will be a profitable and successful venture.”
Melissa Maker, meanwhile, launched Clean My Space last February. Like Senater, Maker owns a Toronto condo (as well as a condo-townhouse in Waterloo ) and is exclusively targeting the condo market. She thinks people like herself want clean spaces but don’t want to lift a finger.
“My company is the first one that specifically focuses on condos,” Maker says. “When I started, I did the cleaning myself. Now, I have a staff of four part-timers and 12 regular weekly clients, plus people who want one-time cleanings.”
Maker says that she and her staff are familiar with the finishings and fixtures prevalent in condos, so she can recommend cleaning products and knows what areas are in need of extra attention. Maker says she understands the lifestyle and is set up for online payments to make her service convenient.
Like Senater, Maker has high hopes for her business and wants to expand to Calgary , Vancouver and Montreal .
James McKellar, a professor of real property at York University ‘s Schulich School of Business, says people are moving into city cores across North America .
“People are not just returning to the city … it’s a lifestyle and we’re just at the start of the trend. There are 52 metro areas in the United States and all but two have seen inner city populations increase.”
McKellar also expects the urban boom to further fuel growth in high-tech jobs such as small graphic, biotechnology and software firms. He says the Telus building beside the Air Canada Centre and the MaRS Discovery District, a strip of College St. between Elizabeth St. and University Ave. dedicated to science and technology research, are proof that more people are moving downtown to stay.
“Twenty-five per cent of the highest paying jobs in the Greater Toronto Area are downtown,” he says. “And jobs always follow people.”
Lyon , of N. Barry Lyon Consultants, points out that while many downtowners used to have to leave the core to get groceries, he knows of at least 13 major supermarkets that have opened in recent years or are in the works. “And that’s not including several smaller food stores,” he says.
“I know of at least three new daycare centres, two new schools are planned, there’s the new Best Buy and Canadian Tire stores under the Ryerson business school. The Sobeys on Queens Quay is interesting in that it’s a walk-to store; there’s no parking lot.
“People are flocking to the core because downtown has become an amenity unto itself,” Lyon says, adding that, in turn, the new shops and services are creating more jobs.
Although residents seem to welcome most of the condo boom spinoffs, some new developments are seen as too big and commercial. Some residents still want more retail selection, but a proposal for a Home Depot on Queen St. W. near Bathurst St. has caused friction with residents and long-time store owners in the area.
“There have been three public meetings about this project,” says Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina). “The real issue is how to protect the street pattern and rhythm.”
He explains that real estate developer RioCan owns the land, which is currently a parking lot, “so there’s nothing we can do if they build within the allowable envelope.”
The final details of the plan, based on the city’s approval, call for a multi-use, seven-storey condo building facing Richmond St. and three storeys of commercial, including a Home Depot storefront, along Queen St. Underground public parking would be available, but details about the number of spaces are undecided. Vaughan expects the final approvals are at least three months away.
“To RioCan’s credit, they’ve come up with six different storefronts and changed the elevation on Richmond St. from three garages to two, and there would be a warehouse art gallery,” Vaughan says.
“While we can’t stop Home Depot, we can shape it and make sure the architectural rhythm is sustained. One thing that makes Queen St. W. so magical is the small storefront. If we have large retailers, we remove the opportunity for small, inventive businesses to start.”
In the end, as the downtown population rises, more services will be needed. Some, like car sharing, are sure to be embraced by condo dwellers such as the Millers. Big-box stores such as Home Depot appear to still be searching for an urban identity.