Monster jam: Jan Wong on the tear-down real estate trend in Lawrence Park

Monster jam: Jan Wong on the tear-down real estate trend in Lawrence Park

In my neighbourhood, century-old houses are being knocked down to make room for super-sized faux chateaux. Something is lost, and something gained

(Illustration: Emiliano Ponzi) 

When I was house-hunting in Toronto in 1994, my real estate agent routinely pointed out the highlights of each prospective property. At one house, she said helpfully, “There’s a Chinese family next door.” I grimaced. I’d just wrapped up six years working as a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Quite frankly, I’d had my fill of squeezing up against a billion or so neighbours who looked just like me.

What I yearned for, after living in a soulless concrete apartment inside a bleak walled compound, was a bit of green. Lawrence Park, with its wide lawns and winding streets, was the polar opposite of Beijing. I snapped up a 1938 four-bedroom Cape Cod–style house with eight towering oaks and a 95-foot frontage (which was affordable only because it faced Lawrence Avenue and needed lots of work). From my front door, I could see the Don River ravine, and from my kitchen window, I could glimpse a gigantic willow a block away at Cheltenham Park.

I was keen on meeting my neighbours, a statistically improbable percentage of whom were blond. When I went for walks, almost no one made eye contact, except the Filipino housekeepers. Had I made a mistake? There was one friendly neighbour, who, a year or two after I moved in, invited my family to swim in her pool whenever she wasn’t using it. I took her up on her generous offer but, somewhat puzzled, asked why she had singled me out. “I extended the same invitation to all the neighbours, but you’re the only one who ever came. You must not be from Toronto,” she said, smiling, adding that she was from B.C. She was right. I’m originally from Montreal.

Why was Lawrence Park so unfriendly? I suspect it has something to do with the way the neighbourhood was designed. It was laid out roughly a century ago by an English-born loan-company executive named Wilfrid Dinnick. Inspired by the way developers in England had begun creating suburbs for middle-class families, notably Letchworth and Hampstead, Dinnick saw potential in Lawrence Park’s rolling hills. He bought up the land and planned a 400-acre development, hiring a team of landscape architects to create gardens, croquet lawns and terraces. Dinnick sold lots in the area and imposed strict regulations about the style of houses that could be built. He gave them garages, rather than stables, because the automobile age had arrived. And he insisted his development be strictly residential, without a single shop, church or school. In 1909, Dinnick’s first homes went on sale, and the area he called “a garden suburb” was born.

I did eventually meet a few neighbours—in a quintessential Toronto moment. We had been allotted the same time slot to dispute our property taxes. Now when we have the occasional dinner together, table talk inevit­ably turns to our rising property taxes. The other big subject: the neighbourhood’s million-dollar tear-downs.

Like so many uptown neighbourhoods, ours has attracted developers. Lawrence Park has some of the biggest lots south of Steeles. In the rush to have more—more bathrooms, more closets, more square footage—Dinnick’s vision of a halcyon garden community is vanishing. It seems that every time an older house is sold, a construction fence goes up. Soon there’s a gaping hole that extends to the property line. I feel disoriented, guilty and sad all at once because I can’t even remember what was there before.

I’m not sentimental about the past. I like new. But I am against super-sized homes and ever-expanding footprints. From what I’ve seen on my neighbourhood strolls—OK, from peeking into windows of homes under construction—the marble-and-granite-filled rebuilds of Lawrence Park have all the warmth of municipal parking garages. To optimize prime ground-floor space for those huge kitchens and family rooms, developers have sunk the garage, which raises a house by 13 steps. Twelve-foot-high ceilings add to the loom factor.

Staring up at these faux chateaux, I yearn for the architects of the past who valued function (and style) over size. Mies van der Rohe kept his elegant, airy, two-bedroom units along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive under 1,000 square feet. On a trip to Paris a couple of years ago, I visited Villa La Roche, the curving white residence designed by Le Corbusier. The rooms were surprisingly small, but the layout and large windows imparted a sense of fluidity and spaciousness. At Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architectural school in Arizona, his small bedroom did double duty as a study. Its low ceilings forced the eye out to the desert landscape.

My house is more than spacious enough at 2,800 square feet. If money were no object, I doubt I would go big. Here’s what I would do instead: I’d tear it down to build a Lumenhaus, a modestly sized prefab home designed by a team from Virginia Tech that recently won the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe competition in Madrid. Inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Lumenhaus has sliding exterior walls and a modular design that allows it to expand and shrink with a family’s needs.

I wonder what giant, sprawling new homes are doing to the family unit itself. What are the repercussions when a one-child family occupies a four-bedroom home, when a child’s bedroom is her castle and that ensuite bath the new moat? When kids have a choice between a family room, a media room and a basement rec room, aren’t they often playing in solitary confinement?

I put all those questions to Carl Honoré, the U.K.-based Canadian author of Under Pressure: Putting the Child Back in Childhood, and he said, “Too much space dilutes the bonds of family life. A big house allows us to pick family life like a buffet, to choose the smooth and escape the rough. Family life is messy, tangled and sometimes annoying, but that is real life. There is a glorious joy in resolving problems.”

In mammoth houses, we live differently. We work out alone on a rowing machine. We watch a video while someone else in the family is in another room watching something else. My family isn’t immune, either. Here’s a confession: I e-mail my husband even when we’re both at home.

A study published in 2006 in the American Sociological Review suggests that the spread-out way we live now reduces the number of friends we have. Two decades ago, the average American adult had three people in whom to confide. Today that figure is two. In fact, one in four adult Americans has no close confidants at all. Researchers speculate that living in the suburbs, working longer hours and tuning out with electronic toys have all contributed to these depressing stats.

Today, I no longer have a view of the Don River ravine. A luxury condo rose to the northeast, and then the private school across the street added a three-storey addition. My partial view of Cheltenham Park is gone after someone bought the charming Tudor cottage behind me and tripled its size. Am I bitter? Not completely, because there is a bright side to all this upheaval: as Dinnick’s original English cottages come tumbling down, so too are the invisible barricades to this once WASPy enclave. I did end up with lovely Chinese neighbours, who moved in a couple of years later. And just the other day, a white stucco sidesplit behind me was fenced off for demolition. The bad news is that a new monster home is going up. The good news is that a black couple is moving in.