The Blandification of Toronto

Crews on a construction site in the Corktown district of downtown Toronto
Photo: John Zada

The city of Toronto is in the middle of a demolition-construction boom. To be a resident here is to experience something of what it was like to live in Dubai during the first decade of its 21st century building explosion. Cranes vie with high-rises across the cityscape. Entire city blocks of older, architecturally iconic two-story mixed commercial-residential buildings are being demolished to make way for stands of utilitarian beehive glass condos. Road intersections are being barricaded for years to build underground subway stations.

In my own neighbourhood of Corktown, on the eastern flank of Toronto’s downtown core, such crucial amenities as a large affordable supermarket, drugstore, and gas station have been, or will be, demolished to create evermore space for this aesthetically bland repertoire of overpriced and unimaginative structures.

There are reasons, of course, for this bullishness in the construction sector.  There is an acute housing shortage in Canada and a need to update a simplistic transit and subway system in Toronto. And, of course, there is money to be made. The companies at the forefront of these city reconstruction schemes are undoubtedly raking in profits.

A construction application notice sign in Toronto
Photo: John Zada

Ontario premier Doug Ford’s uncomfortably close ties to the construction industry combined with the City of Toronto’s desire to claw-in evermore property tax revenue, has resulted in a seemingly unlimited number of projects being green-lit across town simultaneously. You can’t walk anywhere in Toronto now without seeing a notice board beside a building announcing a pending demolition-construction in a pre-existing structure or block.

Of course, it’s unreasonable and unrealistic to expect, or advocate for, no change. With vision, creativity, and forethought such projects could aesthetically and functionally improve the city. The prospect of urban renewal and the creation of new spaces could even be exciting. The effort to convert the moribund Toronto Port Lands industrial district into somewhere liveable is one attempt in that direction.

But the question of balance—how much development is enough at any given time and what is the correct planning and aesthetic that would improve quality of life—seems to not be under discussion. Beyond the chaos on the ground owing to these innumerable and uncoordinated projects, there are deeper issues and questions that seem invisible to the city’s bureaucrats and the passive screen-distracted masses. They likely apply to other cities going through the same convulsive growing pains. I want to bring some into awareness.

This rash of condo building in Toronto is resulting in the slow, piecemeal blandification of the downtown area.

When these new buildings go up, in some cases replacing older commercial brick structures with small storefronts, independent businesses are being forever driven out of the community. The ground floor commercial spaces in the new condos, large and exceedingly expensive to rent or sell, become occupied by franchise and chain businesses, or smaller high-end businesses. These alter the feel and experience of living in a neighbourhood. They include: dentist offices, nail salons, bank branches, pet stores, expensive boutique grocers and the usual suspects that are Starbucks, Circle K, A&W, Cobbs Bread, Subway et al. The list goes on.

Although being touted as “urbanization,” The Yonge-Sheppard corridor in the Willowdale district of north Toronto has been rendered into the perfect hi-rise condo-meets-chain store community—a clinically sterile development model which is now being implemented downtown. Even with tall residential buildings that mimmic the downtown, its commercial spirit remains deeply suburban.

As this Dubai-zation or Vancouver-ization of Toronto (also happening in other world cities) proceeds at a clip, whole sections of commercial storefronts are being turned to rows of what I call “mini big box stores.” Gone are the smaller, quirkier, businesses: the indie bookstores, family groceries, small restaurants, antiques shops, bakeries, clothing boutiques, novelty stores, butchers, indie coffee shops, small bars—places that are more likely to be staffed by owners and which are more conducive to human conversations and interactions that define community living. To find these people and their wares, we increasingly have to go online.

There is little recourse for citizens to understand or be involved in the development decisions that alter Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

New hi-rise condos under construction in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Photo: John Zada

Ask anyone how these real estate development decisions are made, who approves them, what is the entire process from A to Z, and chances are you’ll get a blank stare and shrugged shoulders. Beyond the requisite and largely ritualistic town-hall type “community consultation” meetings held for locals to express their gripes or misgivings about proposed neighbourhood construction projects, there is not much knowledge about the stages of development green-lighting, and where the citizen can be involved. Not only is the process not transparent to the commoner, but even the local news media, whose job it is to hold municipal officialdom to account, seem to be entirely in the dark and/or largely uncaring about questions of urban planning.

There has been, as far as I know, little tradition of robust investigative journalism that looks closely at the business practices around construction, development and real estate. The need to sell lucrative advertising to these companies has likely precluded making them the targets of news stories or investigations.

It’s also laborious journalism. It requires very good scoops and much digging. Well-paid bureaucrats are reluctant to be sources, or whistle-blowers. With the exception of some good reporting done in recent years around foreign money laundering schemes in the real estate market in Vancouver (something that also reputedly occurs in Toronto and has impacted the national housing market), there has been little word from our media.

Nowadays, publications like The Toronto Star and the increasingly gossip mag-like Toronto Life would much rather publish more sensational local stories about the adventures and misadventures of home buyers and home renovators in an inflated real estate market.

Will a runaway Ontario construction sector continue to demolish Toronto in piecemeal to maintain its mass building contracts ad infinitum?

Will we see Toronto’s inflated construction sector—given carte blanche by politicians and driven by evermore profits—continue to wantonly buy up and demolish whole sections of older city blocks to erect their glass and concrete mediocrities that block out the sky and force-feed us the bland storefronts that neutralize our more human interactions?

A demolition and construction site for condos in the Corktown neighbourhood of Toronto
Photo: John Zada
Commercial storefront space being turned into dentist offices in Toronto.
Photo: John Zada
Commercial storefront space being turned into dentist offices in Toronto.
Photo: John Zada