Hotels, restaurants, parks and other cool new attractions are coming to downtown

Hotels, restaurants, parks and other cool new attractions are coming to downtown

It may not feel like it now, but good things are on the horizon. The first in our series on the post-pandemic downtown rebound

This $500-million spaceship stadium will host VR events, concerts and e-sports tournaments

As a vice-president of MLSE in the late 1990s, Chris Overholt helped launch one of Toronto’s biggest venues, the Air Canada Centre. Now, amid a pandemic that’s halted live sports and entertainment, he’s developing another: a $500-million complex on the Exhibition grounds that includes a 7,000-seat hall in the shape of an undulating spaceship, as well as a 400-room hotel and, if all goes according to plan, a restaurant from the people behind the Chase.

Overholt—the president of OverActive Media, a company partly owned by the Weeknd—believes that when live entertainment returns to the core, premium acts will once again need to compete with the Leafs and Raptors for dates at Scotiabank Arena. He sees his venue as a solution, able to immediately hold 200 events a year: concerts, product launches and e-sports tournaments. As such, the hall will be outfitted with futuristic tech infrastructure like digital walls, virtual reality and whatever other sci-fi-calibre inventions emerge by opening day in 2025.

Two glitzy new hotels will welcome tourists back to town

When travel finally returns, CN Tower–weary tourists will need somewhere cushy to lay their heads—and two luxe hotel chains are stepping in to provide the necessary TLC. First up: the city’s inaugural W Hotel. Housed in a former Marriott, the hotel received a $40-million makeover from Architects Alliance and SidLee, with funky interiors that riff on Toronto’s architecture and graffiti. It now has 254 rooms, 3,300 square feet of fitness facilities, 4,800 square feet of meeting space, and a professional recording studio for local musicians and podcasters dubbed the W Sound Suite. (Studios at other W hotels have hosted St. Vincent and the R&B singer-songwriter Yuna.) There’s a Mediterranean-inspired rooftop bar and restaurant from Chopped Canada winner Keith Pears, who is overseeing the W’s coffee house and bar program as well.

Also reopening soon—hopefully along with the border—is the fabled Park Hyatt in Yorkville, a notorious literary hangout; past regulars at the rooftop bar include Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood, who even namedropped the hotel in The Edible Woman and Cat’s Eye. The patio was shrunken down during a ’90s renovation, but Oxford Properties is restoring the bar to its former grandeur—it will now be dubbed the Writers Room, and the developers are currently scouring eBay for rare Atwood first editions to display. The heritage south tower, meanwhile, will house luxury rental units, and the north tower will contain 219 hotel rooms and a new Stillwater Spa.

The East Bayfront is getting a massive lakeside brewpub

Great Lakes Brewery has been supplying thirsty Torontonians with ales, lagers, pale ales and all kinds of experimental one-offs since 1987. They’re basically the city’s original craft beer nerds. After starting off in the suburbs, GLB is finally expanding to the downtown core at the ripe old age of 34. The GLB Brewpub is slated to open at Queens Quay and Jarvis, which means locals will no longer have to hoof it up to King or Queen in search of lunch or a pint. Spread over 6,000 square feet of the Daniels waterfront building—in the footprint of the Guvernment nightclub—it will house an on-site brewery producing both flagship and exclusive beers, a retail shop for to-go purchases, a kitchen and two big patios.

The new brewery wasn’t exactly a pandemic-born project—owner Peter Bulut looked at around 40 locations before landing on this one back in 2018. Then you-know-what held things up a bit. When the doors finally open (this fall, fingers crossed), GLB will introduce Toronto to frühschoppen, the German tradition of gathering for a beer-based meal with friends—and we’ll all need a little liquid brunch when this is over.

This boozy pleasure palace is reviving the King West nightlife scene.

In the before times, King and Portland was the heart of Toronto’s downtown nightlife—a buzzing hub of clubby restaurants, rooftop swimming pools and chic hotel lounges. And when the time comes for us to return to our pre-pandemic nocturnal pursuits, Vela will be one of the newest kids on the block. The 4,000-square-foot space—designed by restaurant starchitects Partisans—is the brainchild of cocktail wizard Robin Goodfellow of Bar Raval and former Alo general manager Amanda Bradley. “Vela is a hotel lobby bar without the hotel,” Bradley says. “We want to see live music punctuated by the sound of champagne bottles being popped and laughter spilling out of booths, and people dressed in their most stylish attire.”

The pandemic drove them to invest in more outdoor space, including a 2,000-square-foot covered patio, where guests may soon be able to grab dishes from a menu designed by executive chef Jeffrey Lapointe. Bradley envisions a shoulder-to-shoulder champagne bar, and guests sipping coupes of fizzy cocktails. “We expect to be here for a very long time.”

Yonge Street is transforming into a pedestrian paradise

Anyone who’s walked the busiest stretch of downtown Yonge Street during rush hour knows that Toronto’s main artery wasn’t designed for distancing. Its sidewalks are narrow and congested, its intersections thronged. Post-pandemic, it will only get denser. With dozens of condo towers slated for completion, the city expects the downtown population to nearly double in the next 20 years—a reversal of the Covid exodus and then some.

That’s part of the reason why council recently approved yongeTOmorrow, a monumental makeover of the strip between College and Queen. The street will lose two lanes of traffic to make room for wider walkways, bike lanes, planters, street vendors and sidewalk patios, encouraging commuters and condo dwellers to hang out on Yonge, not just squeeze through it. The finer details—designs, materials, potential one-way and pedestrian-priority zones—will be settled before the project’s expected completion in 2025, by which time we hope distance is a luxury, not a public health requirement.

This breezy park includes a floating restaurant, boat shares and swim-friendly lagoons

Between the freight ship traffic and the mysterious odours that linger after heavy rainstorms, even the bravest swimmers wouldn’t dip a toe in Toronto’s industrial inner harbour. But a proposed park from Waterfront Toronto aims to change all that. Inspired by Copenhagen’s Harbour Baths, the Parliament Slip park will feature self-contained swimming pools in Lake Ontario. Designed by West 8 and DTAH—the landscape and architecture firms behind the three undulating wave decks along Queens Quay West—the park’s design features a new wave deck surrounding the pools, docks for kayaks, canoes and electric boat shares (think Zipcar, but for boats), a pier with concession stands, an amphitheatre and a floating restaurant. If all goes to plan, construction could start in two years and the whole project could be done in four.

This epic new Liberty Village fitness centre is Disney World for wellness junkies

Spanning 89,000 square feet across two floors, Altea is a lavish new fitness centre in Liberty Village catering to the self-care crowd: expect a 75-bike cycle studio, five boutique fitness studios, a lap pool, hydrotherapy jet pool, cool-down ice room, 2,500-square-foot hot yoga studio, golf simulators and a Himalayan salt lounge. For those who’d rather socialize than sweat, a smoothie bar, restaurant and cocktail bar will also be on the premises, plus meeting areas for condo residents living that cramped WFH life. Opening any new business during a pandemic is a risk, and then there’s opening a business that involves heavy breathing and shared equipment. But the owners of Altea have rigorous cleaning protocols in place—including UV air sanitation in every studio and one-to-one fresh air exchange—and trust that Torontonians will be clamouring to show off all their new athleisure gear in real workout settings.

The city is building a tropical beach in the Port Lands

Toronto is developing a reputation for turning its most desolate patches of land into inviting public spaces, whether that comes in the form of a skating trail under the Gardiner or lush marshlands in a former brownfield at Corktown Common. The next miracle transformation: morphing an oddly sliced parcel of industrial land next to a concrete plant into a Baywatch-worthy beach. Designed by Claude Cormier and Associés—the landscape architecture firm behind the whimsical Sugar Beach and Berczy Park—Leslie Slip Lookout Park will feature a public beach, forested dunes and an open-air pavilion where visitors can gaze at boats entering the shipping channel. The park will also create a long-planned green corridor connecting the Martin Goodman Trail to Tommy Thompson Park, whose entrance is also getting a snazzy new redesign.

The cultish Farm Boy franchise is invading the downtown core.

For years, Farm Boy, the grocery chain known as the Canadian Trader Joe’s, taunted Toronto with its cultish private-label goods: lemon-garlic dressing, chocolate-covered almonds, crispy pita chips and oven-ready flatbreads. But it never opened a store in the core. Then, in 2018, Sobeys’ parent company bought Farm Boy, allowing the brand to branch out into the big city. It’s not that Farm Boy didn’t want to move downtown earlier—it’s just that now they can afford the rent. Since then, the chain has opened up at College and Bay, Yonge and Soudan, and Front and Bathurst, with one in the works inside the Maritime Building on Queens Quay. Jeff York, a Farm Boy partner and special advisor to Sobeys, is confident the aggressive expansion will pay off. “We’ve never closed. We’ve been chugging through, and our staff have been showing up like troopers every day. The faster we get back to normal, the more Farm Boys we can get downtown.”

This museum displays dollhouse-size renditions of the Rogers Centre, Distillery District and Gardiner

The city’s newest museum is a miniature model of the country, sprawled across two floors of a building in Yonge-Dundas Square. The project took $25 million, 200,000 hours and dozens of full-time employees to make—and it shows in the hair-splitting detail. Hot Wheels–sized cars drive along the 401 in tiny Toronto. GO and TTC trains rattle under Union Station, only 87 times smaller. Under a luminescent 15-foot-tall CN Tower, the Rogers Centre dome opens every night (and night comes every 15 minutes, in mini mode) to reveal a Jays game complete with cheering fans and a functional jumbotron. Little Canada offers a surreal yet hopeful vignette of a bustling city undisturbed by—or perhaps recovered from—the pandemic. Covid permitting, it will open by July 1.

A boutique coffee chain is taking over those vacant Starbucks locations

As Starbucks shutters dozens of shops across the city in favour of a pickup-only model, Good Earth Coffeehouse—a Calgary-based chain with cozy, down-to-earth vibes and an extensive food menu—is betting on the longevity of the sit-down coffeehouse experience. The brand plans to fill the vacuum left behind by Starbucks and move into multiple abandoned locations—including prime spots in the downtown core. The cafés will have communal seating, Italian espresso and classic coffeeshop fare like scones and muffins baked on-site, plus breakfast bowls, soups, salads and their ever-popular loaded mac and cheese, with topping options like tuna and cheesy bacon. Co-owner Michael Going has no doubt the coffee crowd will be back post-pandemic. “A lot of cities tend to quiet down after work hours, but not Toronto. In that way, it’s the envy of many cities throughout North America, and a major traffic-generator,” he says. “There’s a pent-up demand for all of us to get back out there and reconnect with people, and we think a true coffeehouse is a community gathering place.”