As anyone who lives in Toronto knows, the condo has taken more from the city than it’s given. The economics of building, not to mention the culture of industrial development, civic planning and municipal politics, have left us more focused on minimum requirements than maximum expectations. We have carefully created a system that leads to urban and architectural ordinariness. And on those rare occasions when developers are willing to do more than they must, it’s because they’re chasing luxury buyers.
The idea that the approving and building of condos could be approached as an act of city-building has been all but forgotten in the rush to cash in on the boom. That’s why the appearance of The Plant, a 10-storey condo at Dovercourt and Sudbury Sts., is especially interesting. It may even mark a turning point, though that’s probably overly optimistic, if not downright naive.
Still, the project stands out from the competition in a number of important ways. To begin with, it takes retail seriously. In most condos, of course, the street-level shopping rarely goes beyond the standard-issue Shoppers Drug Mart, Tim Hortons or bank branch. Developers prefer these sorts of tenants not only because they can sign a lease years in advance, but also because they have the sort of deep pockets that make a banker’s eyes light up.
Then there are construction concerns. The easiest — and cheapest — method is to fill the ground floor with load-bearing sheer walls that leave little room for flexibility. Because this isn’t conducive to fine-grained retail, developers make spaces large to suit the needs of large global chains.
The results have been deadly; Toronto is becoming a retail desert. Lined with the usual outlets, its streets are more generic, anonymous and boring than ever.
By contrast, The Plant is designed specifically for small — read local — retailers. Focused on sustainability, healthy living and urban agriculture, this mixed-use project features relatively large units and balconies big enough to make growing your own food possible. Then there’s the communal kitchen and greenhouse; clearly this is a condo aimed at people looking for something different. It may not meet everyone’s tastes, but The Plant sold out in weeks.
“People want to live in a healthy place,” says Alex Spiegel, partner at Windmill Developments, which, with Curated Properties, is behind the building. “People want a comfortable, well designed place. And if it’s sustainable, that’s great too.”
Curated Properties has experience building in the Queen West neighbourhood; Windmill has a background in commercial development. Between them, they believe they have the ability to bring a retail mix that goes beyond the same old, same old.
By Christopher Hume Urban Issues and Architecture