The Divided City: Toronto’s gilded age never made it to the suburbs
When the bottom fell out of Toronto’s real estate market back in the early 1990s, it inadvertently produced a piece of sculpture that symbolized a comatose economy: the Stump, a six-storey concrete skeleton, the remnant of an abandoned office development at the corner of Bay and Adelaide. The project was finally revived in 2005 and completed in 2009, and the Bay Adelaide Centre was welcomed as the city’s first new major office tower in nearly 20 years.
Since 2000, some eight million square feet of new office space has been built in Toronto and another six million square feet is currently under construction, according to Altus InSite, a private-sector research firm that tracks commercial buildings across Canada. More than 85 per cent of that is arriving downtown, and there will be no shortage of tenants. The rebirth of office construction in Toronto is an adjunct of the condo boom, the sleeping quarters for the creative class that will occupy the offices by day. Figures compiled by the condo-tracking firm Urbanation show that, since 2000, a total of 80,762 condo units have been built or are under construction, while nearly 72,000 more are in the planning stages. And all of that construction is located in an area measuring less than 25 square kilometres (roughly from Bathurst to the Don River and the Dupont railway tracks to the waterfront, plus Liberty Village).
Imagine all of this not in terms of construction cranes, housing units or square footage, but money. The new downtown office space represents a total direct investment of $7 billion. Those 152,000 condos, once completed, will reflect a downtown cash injection well in excess of $25 billion.
This is global capitalism’s vote of confidence in downtown Toronto. Our city’s core has become one of the most powerful money magnets on the planet, a wealth-generating engine of vast potential. Downtown Toronto is a real estate mogul’s twist on an old fraternity prank: how many dollars can you stuff into a phone booth?
Meanwhile, across much of Toronto’s remaining 616 square kilometres, it’s as though the Stump were still in place. The city’s official plan designates four other development hubs. Three of them—Etobicoke Centre, North York Centre and Yonge-Eglinton Centre—have roughly 5,000 housing units each in the planning and development stages. City hall hasn’t received an application to build even a single residential unit in the fourth hub, Scarborough Centre, in over four years.
The disparity is more pronounced when it comes to office construction. Throughout the resurgence, there has only been one major office development built in the inner suburbs—the 21-storey Transamerica Tower in North York. The inner suburbs are a white-collar dead zone. No new office space in these neighbourhoods means no new, well-paying jobs there, which would bring the added benefits of shorter commutes and less congestion, plus the many economic spinoffs that come from more wealth being generated and spent locally. So while Toronto’s downtown is getting beamed gloriously into the 21st century, the inner suburbs are living a true-life version of Groundhog Day: every morning people there wake up and it’s still 1991. In many cases, the only new commercial development these neighbourhoods have to show for the last decade of prosperity is big retail boxes and the low-wage jobs within them.
The dearth of private capital flowing into the suburbs isn’t that surprising. Young people want a vertical-living lifestyle with lots of amenities available on foot or via transit. But reinvestment is essential for any neighbourhood to remain vital: if your neighbourhood can’t attract new development, the city’s bureaucrats have no special incentive to upgrade your local parks and community centres. That leaves the work to get done though the city’s regular budget process—the infrastructure equivalent of a welfare queue.
It gets worse. As the downtown core grows, its need for public investment multiplies: there are more sewers to install, more public spaces to tend for the people living in shoebox-size condos and more transit upgrades and emergency services required. The money coming from developers still doesn’t meet all those needs, and there’s not enough tax money to do everything at once. The suburbs need money to arrest a 20-year decay. Downtown needs it to keep its economic engine running full tilt. Where should the priority lie?
This dilemma is, or at least should be, the crisis of conscience gripping Toronto’s urban progressive movement. The basic tenets of progressive political thought include an abiding concern for equality and a corollary willingness to use public policy and public money to assist the disadvantaged. Twenty or even 15 years ago, those political commitments tended to focus attention, rightly, on the development-challenged, worn-out state of downtown. Now the tables have turned: the downtown still has its issues, but they have no basis in any sort of disadvantage. On the contrary, they are the result of a colossal embarrassment of riches.
Rob Ford’s mayoralty has had the woeful effect of focusing our civic conversation on the cultural disparities between Toronto’s latte-loving downtown core and its double-double-drinking inner suburbs and all that crap. The true disparity isn’t cultural, it’s economic. This is what we don’t talk about when we talk about Rob Ford: the money and wealth that are pulling this city apart at its amalgamated seams, and which will not abate whether he stays or goes.
For the better part of a decade, we’ve been fixated on a single solution: transit. It even gets framed as a kind of metropolitan social program—a means of providing subsidized access from the 416 hinterlands to downtown’s bounty. But city hall’s responsibility to keep all our neighbourhoods vital reaches beyond the TTC. Transit-as-a-social-program isn’t the only answer. A superior one would be to locate more and better jobs in the inner suburbs. If the 905 can fill office towers, so can the outer 416. A good place to start would be North York Centre, where new condos along the Sheppard subway will soon house their own army of creative-class workers who’d surely welcome a shorter commute.
Mayors can’t do much to create jobs, but they can exert influence over where new jobs are located. David Miller pulled lots of strings—a $132-million loan, plus more than $25 million in direct investment from the city—to get the 500,000-square-foot Corus Quay built in East Bayfront. That office development and the many others sparked under his watch stand as one of Miller’s greatest achievements: he ended the downtown office drought. Toronto’s next mayor ought to stake his or her tenure on bringing job growth back to the inner suburban desert.