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What Can Ottawa Learn from Toronto’s Condo Boom?

What Can Ottawa Learn from Toronto’s Condo Boom?

04.04.2013.
Photo by Marc Massie - www.marcmassie.com

Photo by Marc Massie | marcmassie.com

By Adam Slight

It seems like there’s nothing that Ottawa residents like to gripe about more than the OC Transpo, road construction in the city, the prospect of condo skyscrapers in our skyline, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Strangely however, all four of these things are very closely connected–yes, even the Leafs.

Ottawa’s population is growing by the hundreds of thousands, and the times are a-changing. The city has finally committed to a plan to implement an LRT system, but only after years of nervous delegation. There will be major over-hauls of Queen Street, Rideau Street and more to accommodate this new sustainable infrastructure. The City of Ottawa is polling the public on its opinions regarding city development and infrastructure, meanwhile developers are proposing the construction of condo towers in neighbourhoods like Little Italy, much to the chagrin of some residents. The city is growing, yet struggling to figure out how to do so.

So if you’re keeping track, I’ve mentioned the OC Transpo, road construction, and condos. How do the hated Leafs fit into all this?

Well the Leafs represent Toronto. And as you probably know, Toronto is currently knee-deep in many of the issues that Ottawa is facing right now.

Toronto is experiencing an unprecedented condo boom–bigger than any city in the world. It’s true. There is no other city in the world with as many high-rises under construction than Toronto. Toronto was once a low-to-the-ground city like Ottawa, with only 146 condominiums in the entire GTA. Now some say Toronto is all grown up.

Toronto has experienced many changes over the past several decades thanks in great part to it’s condo boom. Some of these changes have been observed as beneficial to the city, while others only promise future headaches. While Ottawa is a very different city than Toronto and maybe shouldn’t aspire to be Toronto, I think we would be foolish not to look to our neighbour and learn from its growing experiences.

ottawa condo

Photo from canada.condos.com

The Good:

You may be thinking that nothing good can come from generic, drab, sky-high housing that does nothing but block out your view of the neighbourhood, the Ottawa River, or the sun, and bring trust-fund hipsters and yuppies to your old-Ottawa neighbourhood–but rest assured, there is plenty of good in building condos in your city!

Ecological Benefits:

Discussing the condo boom in the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume writes:

As it turns out, many inhabitants of those despised structures help ease congestion by walking and biking to and from work. As they colonize the city, their vehicular needs have been cut to the point where they rent a car, like any other piece of equipment, by the hour.

His statement is telling of the benefits of building “up” instead of “out,” a preferred strategy implied by Ottawa’s self-imposed Greenbelt–a stretch of undeveloped land encircling the city meant to prevent the endless development of suburbs. The Greenbelt is proof against the argument that Ottawa was “just not meant to have tall buildings.” The Greenbelt doesn’t really do any good however, since suburbs have only appeared on the other side of the belt in Kanata and Orleans forcing commuters to drive just a little bit further from their pristine backyarded property to get to work.

In Toronto, condos are allowing people to own property in the heart of the city at a comparable cost to a suburban home. It is making downtown life accessible and removing the need for many to even own cars or put added strain on the public transportation system. Condos in Ottawa would allow aspiring property owners to own a home inside the city rather than forcing them to buy so far from the city centre.

Cultural Stimulation:

Having more people living in the core stimulates downtown economy and stimulates local culture. With dense urban living comes restaurants, entertainment, boutiques, and other urban attractions that give a city its flavour. If there were condos downtown, the Byward Market, Sparks Street, and Elgin Street would be constantly bustling with young, culturally savvy consumers, and the shops, food joints, and entertainment would be there to greet them with open arms.

The condo boom did this to Toronto. As Hume suggests, “Before the condo, Toronto was a big town; now its a city.”

Now hold on one minute!

You’re probably one to praise big town Ottawa. Maybe you believe that Ottawa is not fit for metropolitan status. But I bet you’re also one who praises Ottawa’s unique culture, and wishes to see it grow. If Toronto can be held as an example, then higher urban density in Ottawa’s city centre can only extrapolate Ottawa’s local culture in ways that a lazy downtown casino couldn’t even dream of doing.

The Bad:

Sure, condos represent an ideal way to build a city–reducing its foot-print and encouraging community living–however, this is not always the end result when a condo moves into the neighbourhood. What is wrong with the condo?

Safety Concerns:

During Hurricane Sandy many New Yorkers struggled to escape from their 78th floor condos when the elevators shut down. If something goes wrong, and you’re up in the sky, you’re truly at the mercy of human engineering, and that isn’t always a comforting thought. When Hurricane Sandy had completed its attack on North America’s maritimes, it was the older brownstone buildings that survived the havoc while some condos suffered irreparable damage. This may be important to consider in the lieu of possible climate changes in the near future.

Ryerson University professor Lloyd Alter, who specializes in sustainable architecture, cautions a “Goldilocks theory of density”–that is, condos that are not too high so that they are risks, not too low so that they do nothing to promote community. They’re just right. This does give some credence to Ottawa’s famous building height restrictions. If Ottawa does intend to pursue the condo route, perhaps it should keep height restrictions intact.

They Can Be Unsightly:

There’s something to be said about a condo that appropriates existing infrastructure for aesthetic purposes versus a steel-grey tower blocking your view of the Parliament Buildings. One drive down the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto can pretty much substitute a reading of 50 Shades of Grey (I assume the book is about colours). While condos have cropped up in some aesthetically pleasing structures in Torontos–abandonned factories, derelict churches–this hasn’t prevented dozens of cookie-cutter loft-imitations from following them.

Ottawa has taken the right step with its condo on Gladstone and Bank–utlizing local infrastructure (the face of an unused church) to beautify its exterior–if condos are to be loved in a city rich with historical structures, it must embrace that aesthetic.

The Ugly:

 There’s an ugly side to Toronto condo boom that Ottawa needs to be warned about. Ottawa, please avoid these uglies at all costs!!

Unaccountable Developers

Toronto’s condo boom has created an insatiable hunger in developers who have perfected the art of fragmenting the division of labour gone into building, maintaining, and selling condos, all while reducing the cost to build these towers. Residents of course end up suffering for it.

Some condo developers build condos that are cheap as hell mimicking the “industrial chic” condos found in shelled out factories by simply cutting corners and insisting that apartments without ceilings or flooring are “sexy.” Real estate agents go to town selling the condos, and before the structure is even completed the developers have made a tidy profit. Once people are living in the condo, which is managed by a separate management company at this point, the condo starts to fall apart, and the development company has already closed shop and re-opened under a new name to avoid accountability (much like some clubs in Ottawa).

The Condo Starts to Fall Apart

Plenty of residents in Toronto have condo horror stories, and they aren’t isolated incidents. Many apartments and storage rooms have been flooded by burst pipes within a year of construction, and I’m certain everyone has heard the tales of panes of glass falling from Toronto skies, shattering on streets below sending pedestrians fleeing into traffic. Law suits against developers are common, however many also hesitate to publicly complain about their building for fear that their property value will go down.

In light of these faults, the provincial government has taken to tightening its laws regarding condo construction quality, which thankfully would apply in Ottawa if we were to experience a similar condo revolution.

Not All Condos are Built to Last

Toronto Star contributor Antonia Zerbisias suggests that condos are by no means built to last. Again quoting Ryerson Professor Lloyd Alter, “There’s only one reason why all these buildings have floor-to-ceiling windows: it’s because architects and builders are lazy.” Brick buildings reqire masons, and that is expensive. It is much cheaper to build with concrete and cover the building with brick-styled vinyl siding. The statement Alter makes is meant to suggest that condos aren’t built to endure, but rather to sell quickly. And evidently many are not, as noted in the previous point. The worst of it, suggested by Zerbisias, is that many new condos aren’t even built for renovation in the future. They are awkward beneath the surface, and difficult to mend. This begs the question, are all condos just future slums?

So What Can Ottawa Learn From Toronto’s Condo Boom?

Honestly, despite two “bad” and three “ugly” points versus only two “good” points, I think condos represent a step towards a more responsible, sustainable, and community-oriented city. With quality condo housing, the OC Transpo would be less taxed, arriving on time more often, and our streets would remain in better conditions with less vehicular traffic wearing them down. The Keyword being “quality.” Condo development must be modest, controlled, and strategic–three adjectives that find themselves home quite often in Ottawa. Developers must have serious restrictions in what they can and cannot do when building a condominium in the city. I think Ottawa would be missing out on an opportunity to stimulate itself by resisting condos altogether, but on the other hand, some resistance is a good thing as demonstrated by Toronto’s seemingly unbridled condo explosion.

Wisdom only comes from experience and we must take this wisdom where we can find it.

Most importantly I’d like to know what you think. Comment below.

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