A neighbourhood without children

Saturday, March 20, 2010 – Globe and Mail

Carol Finlay’s friends and family think she’s crazy. A neglectful would-be mother. An urban masochist.

Her audacious proposal? To move downtown to raise a family.

“[They say,] ‘You can’t raise a family. … That would be neglectful to children … it’s not enough space to raise children, it’s dangerous.’ ”

Ms. Finlay, 29, and her husband Charlie are moving in August from North York to a loft near the corner of Queen and Dovercourt, which they hope to convert into a three-bedroom condo. “Ninety per cent of our friends are going in the opposite direction.

“[But] our life is in Toronto and it didn’t make sense to us to spend so much of our time commuting,” Ms. Finlay says. “In North York we weren’t part of the community there as much as we would like to be. … We would like to start a family and that becomes even more important to us.”

And the city of Toronto wishes there were thousands more like them.

Surging demand for prized downtown real estate in a white-hot market has buyers snapping up new condos as fast as developers can build them – 951 high-rise units sold in January of this year, compared with 184 the year before and 508 during the market’s last peak in 2008.

For the most part, the city is on board with the onset of a hyper-dense metropolis of vertical neighbourhoods. But the people buying those $600,000 condos are young singles and couples and, to a lesser extent, retirees. This migration upward coincides with an exodus of families from the downtown core. In the 2006 census, children under 15 made up only 8.4 per cent of Trinity-Spadina’s population, compared with 16.3 per cent in the rest of Toronto.

The city is trying to change that. For months, Councillor Adam Vaughan has been working with developers on a social engineering project: to lure families into gleaming condominium boxes in the sky.

The to-do list is deceptively simple – families need space and services with an affordable price tag attached. Achieving that in one of the priciest real-estate markets in Canada is another story altogether.

It has been done elsewhere – notably Vancouver, which has seen its population of downtown children more than quintuple since 1986.

But developers shy away from the drastic measures and the minimum three-bedroom requirement Mr. Vaughan would like to see – they are skeptical as to whether this social-planning ploy will work.

If you build a kid-friendly condo, will families buy it?

Planning and growth

The city’s official plan to house more people in the downtown core calls for increasing density to take eco-conscious advantage of scarce urban space. But if Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods are going vertical, argues Mr. Vaughan, those 30-storey elevators should have kids inside.

“You can’t sustain a city with a monoculture; you can’t segregate singles from families and seniors from young people. What we need when we build these buildings is to build vertical neighbourhoods, and that means we need to sustain economic diversity and social diversity.”

In November, the city’s planning and growth committee proposed requiring large developments to devote at least 10 per cent of their units to three-bedroom condos. The report was branded as unrealistic and restrictive by the development community. So industry representatives and the city have spent the past four months trying to hammer out a compromise.

Mr. Vaughan has high hopes for the finished product, which goes before committee next month. As well, he’d like to see more high-rises with family-oriented services such as daycares.

Ed Sonshine remembers Mr. Vaughan pestering him to include family-friendly units in summer of 2008, when Mr. Sonshine was designing a property with Tribute Homes at the corner of Queen and Portland. And the RioCan chief executive officer did – about 10 per cent of the 90 condos on sale have three bedrooms.

But there’s a catch: Less than 18 months before opening, “we haven’t sold any yet.”

“They’re a little bigger, so as a result they’re more expensive,” he says. The three-bedroom units start at $600,000. “And, you know, I’m not sure that people necessarily have it in their heads yet here that bringing up kids in a downtown environment is a good thing to do.”

The other 81 units, on the other hand, are almost all spoken for.

It’s not that Mr. Sonshine thinks the push to move families back into the downtown core is a bad one. “I’m just not sure it’ll work.”

For success stories, the city need look no further than Vancouver, which two decades ago began a push for family-friendly downtown condos: The city stipulated that all new developments had to be at least 25 per cent two-bedroom units or larger, and allowed them to build taller in exchange for parks, playgrounds and daycare facilities.

The result? The peninsula’s under-18 population soared to more than 7,000 in 2009 from 1,365 in 1986.

“It was a deliberate part of the vision from day one,” said city planning director Brent Toderian. He says Vancouver is the only North American city opening new elementary schools in its downtown core.

“Don’t give up on families downtown. They do want to live downtown, and our surveys have shown that if you design it well, they will choose the downtown over other options.”

affordability IS key

The catch is affordability: Vancouver’s Yaletown townhouses and False Creek condos aren’t cheap – and the families buying them can afford the higher price point. Mr. Toderian admits financial accessibility is something the city is still grappling with. If Toronto wants to make its downtown condos accessible to those that can’t afford half-a-million dollars, the city has its work cut out for it, says Stephen Deveaux, vice-president of land development for Tribute Communities. Mr. Deveaux has been working with the city on a family condo policy. It’s not crazy to try to move families downtown, he says. But it’s not easy.

“Affordability is the main issue, and if that could somehow be solved, perhaps we could find more of a market,” he said.

“What we build is market-driven. And if there were a market for three-bedroom units, we could deliver.”

Mr. Vaughan would love to see third parties help to make the homes more affordable – pension funds, for example, that would come in and take out second mortgages on units to help lower the purchasing cost for would-be inhabitants.

‘Close living’

David Michael Lamb considers himself a profoundly urban person: He works in the city. When he goes on vacations, he visits cities. As a CBC radio reporter and producer, he covers Canada’s largest. And living with his wife and daughter in a condo in west-end Liberty Village was an almost perfect fit.

But it was a very, very snug one: The storage locker quickly filled with baby clothes; they had to shop for small furniture that didn’t turn their tiny condo into a cramped cave.

“It’s close living,” Mr. Lamb said, but they made it work – until they were getting ready for a second child. Another, larger condo – one with a second storage locker, a third bedroom and a park nearby – would have been ideal. But they found nothing remotely suitable or affordable. The small Roncesvalles house where they’re living now is nice, he says, but he believes the city should take it upon itself to diversify a denser downtown core.

“If the city doesn’t somehow make sure that families can live downtown, then they will move out. And it’s not a healthy city when only one kind of person lives there.”

Ms. Finlay and her husband lucked out: As a saxophone player, he got a coveted loft at an Artscape development. The initiative provides affordable work and living space for the city’s artists. Five years from now, Ms. Finlay sees herself living in walking distance from parks, school and summer camps, and with a short commute. She’d rather not be the only one.

“I’d like to see less of our friends move away because they thought [it] was their only option.”

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