* Condo developers still keen on Toronto, despite warnings
* Canada's central bank worries about pace of development
* Increasing density strains the city's infrastructure
By Russ Blinch
TORONTO, Dec. 19 Barry Fenton walked to the bank
of floor-to-ceiling windows in his 30th-floor uptown Toronto
penthouse suite and declared, "This is the best view of the
To the south, a mass of steel-and-glass skyscrapers glinted
in the bright autumn sun. Several cranes were in motion on
unfinished buildings, a common sight in a city in the midst of a
residential building boom.
"If you look around the core, every building you look at has
a different look to it, a different ambience," said the
energetic co-founder of Lanterra Developments, one of the city's
most active builders. "That's important."
Fenton, 56, says he is confident the city's condominium
market will remain strong -- despite warnings that it is all
moving too far, too fast -- and has an ambitious lineup for
future development. And he is not alone in his optimism.
Toronto's seams are bursting with new condo and hotel towers
designed by star architects like Frank Gehry and built by famed
developers like Donald Trump.
But Fenton and others who see Toronto emerging from its
"pokey" past -- as a columnist in the Globe and Mail recently
described it -- face some formidable obstacles: an
infrastructure buckling under soaring density rates, the laws of
supply and demand and preservationists who says too many new
towers are destroying the city's character.
Canada's central bank drew a bead on the city of 2.6 million
this month in its weighty "Financial System Review," warning of
"potential future supply imbalances" in the condo market.
The Bank of Canada noted that the number of unsold
condominiums in pre-construction has doubled, to 14,000, over
the past year.
Greater Toronto home sales have slowed after years of
steady increases. Sales fell 16 percent in November from the
same month a year ago, according to the Toronto Real East Board.
So far, however, prices are flattening, not falling, as some
analysts have predicted.
In defiance of warnings by the central bank and economists,
two mega-projects were unveiled within days of each other in
October -- a three-tower condo complex to be designed by Gehry
and a multi-tower office project that includes a massive casino.
RACE TO THE TOP
More skyscrapers -- 147 of them -- are being built in
Toronto than anywhere in North America, according to Emporis,
the German data provider. That is twice as many as in New York,
a city with about three times the population.
Toronto is getting taller fast. Fifteen buildings that will
be more than 150 meters (492 feet) high are under construction,
more than anywhere in the western hemisphere.
The recently completed Trump International Hotel topped out
at 277 meters, just shy of Toronto's tallest skyscraper, the
72-story First Canadian Place, which is 298 meters. That height
could be exceeded by a couple of major projects on the drawing
boards, including the Mirvish project.
(The city's tallest freestanding structure, however, is the
CN Tower, which soars over Toronto at 553 meters.)
"Toronto is creating a very sustainable future by building
condos downtown," said Daniel Libeskind, the American
architect, who was in Toronto in October for a ceremony for one
of his latest projects, the 57-story L Tower, with its sweeping,
curvaceous, design that rises above the city's modernist Sony
Center for Performing Arts.
"It fights urban sprawl and brings people into the heart of
While building in big American cities and in Western Europe
cratered following the financial crisis four years ago, Toronto
never stopped booming. Demand for residential space has been
strong, and while the office market has also been healthy, most
of the new developments have been for condo projects.
Lanterra's Fenton said his company has built some 9,000
condominium units in Toronto over the past 10 years and now has
"in the hopper" up to 6 million square feet of property in
downtown Toronto that is being rezoned for new projects.
Lanterra gained prominence over the past five years for the
development of Maple Leaf Square, which included two condo
towers, a hotel and office space, near the city's hockey shrine,
Air Canada Center, on land that had sat vacant for years.
Now it is "one of the hottest places to be," said Fenton.
"ONE TOWER LEADS TO ANOTHER"
Some worry that Toronto can't handle much more development.
"We have accumulated a serious infrastructure deficit,"
wrote Ken Greenberg, a Toronto architect, in the Globe and Mail
in October. " W e have failed to make the investments in public
transit that are urgently needed. Our narrow sidewalks and
poorly designed streets are already jammed."
He criticized the city officials and developers for a lack
of coordinated planning. "One tower leads to another," he said.
Despite decades of debate about transportation policy,
Toronto has just two subway lines, a fleet of charming but
lumbering streetcar lines and crumbling roadways.
Commuters in Toronto spend at least 80 minutes in traffic a
day, on average -- worse than what commuters face in London or
Los Angeles -- according to the Toronto Board of Trade.
Toronto's City Planning Department did not respond to
numerous requests for comment.
There is also concern about soaring neighborhood density
rates. The city's waterfront area has seen the most growth. Its
population has soared 134 percent in a decade and is up 66
percent in the past five years, to 43,295, according to city
Toronto's aging energy grid is strained. In July, downtown
Toronto endured an eight-hour blackout after a transformer blew
due to high demand. There was a similar outage last January.
Now two of the most ambitious projects the city has ever
seen are being floated.
First out of the gate was theater impresario David Mirvish,
who with his father, the late Ed Mirvish, helped create
Toronto's vibrant arts and theater scene.
In early October, Mirvish unveiled a plan for three
condominium towers, with up to 85 floors each, that would be the
city's tallest buildings.
A podium at the buildings' base would house two museums,
including one for the Mirvish family's contemporary art
The Mirvish buildings would be designed by Gehry, the
celebrated Canadian-born architect whose 76-story 8 Spruce
Street residential tower was just completed in New York.
"These towers can become a symbol of what Toronto can be,"
the 83-year-old Gehry said at project's unveiling. "I am not
building condominiums, I am building three sculptures for people
to live in."
Two weeks later, Oxford Properties Group, a Canadian
developer with a $20 billion global real estate portfolio,
announced a $3 billion makeover of the downtown convention
center, just south of the Mirvish and Gehry project. It
envisions a casino, two hotel towers and two office towers that
would be among the tallest in the city.
Adam Vaughan, a city councillor whose district would
encompass both projects, said a lot more planning is needed. He
had kinder words for the Mirvish proposal -- "it's a
transformative and astonishing proposal" -- than for Oxford's
project, which he called "all out of proportion."
"It's time to have a really smart conversation about how we
are building this neighborhood because there is a hell of lot of
density arriving not just with this project but with all the
projects that have been approved," he said in an interview.
AT THE KIT KAT
Al Carbone, owner for the past three decades of the Kit Kat
restaurant, doesn't think people like Vaughan are listening to
him, as the councillor and other politicians are not heeding the
growing concerns about the rapid pace of development.
He said buildings are springing up too close to lot lines,
creating jammed sidewalks and alleyways. And the sun does not
shine on the streets like it once did.
He supports the Mirvish project, which would preserve his
street, known as Restaurant Row. But he is battling a separate
47-story building that would go up steps away from his
The plan, which still must be approved, would retain the
historic facades of buildings on the street, which Carbone
believes will destroy the character of the row.
"It's a tough battle," said Carbone, who launched the
website SaveRestaurantrow.com to drum up support in opposition
to the project. "You can't have a condo on every corner."
WHERE IS TORONTO HEADED?
Some believe Toronto is at a crossroads as developers,
politicians and citizens debate the rapid changes the city's
The Globe and Mail's Marcus Gee dismissed the idea that the
development was somehow bad for the city in a column in October,
saying the condo boom "has transformed our once-pokey downtown
into a vibrant, around-the-clock urban community."
David Lieberman, an architect who also teaches at the
University of Toronto's architectural school, agrees the new
developments have been good for the city, but he is not sure the
city's citizens are ready for it.
"We have such an excellent opportunity to get things right,
but there is the Canadian conservatism," Lieberman said, sipping
coffee in his studio in an old downtown Toronto house.
"Canadians in their city building are not risk takers."
(Reporting By Russ Blinch. Editing by Janet Guttsman and