I am looking out the windows of my gym here in midtown Toronto and what do I see? Another new condo going up…yes, another one – one of scores of condos that have sprouted in the past decade. Condo madness is everywhere. Nary a major intersection in the city’s core is without a condo today.
For anyone who has visited Toronto lately, you can even see condos lining the Gardiner Expressway – condos literally butting up against the highway, so close to the guard rails you have to ask yourself who would be so crazy to buy there? And just how do real estate agents sell these units? Maybe they play up their unique features – freeway facing balconies where you can sit and listen to the zen-like pitter patter of cars zooming by only a few yards away…or enjoy Sunday brunch while inhaling all the fumes and air pollution your little lungs desire. Think I’m exaggerating? Just keep your eyes peeled to your right side, next time you’re on the Gardiner heading into the downtown. Don’t forget to wave to the people who live in those units too. They can see you, you know.
Nothing stands in the way of another condo project here. Nothing is sacred. Not even beloved landmarks. For anyone who knows downtown Toronto, you may know of, or even visited one of the city’s most cherished retail emporiums, Honest Ed’s – a quirky and fun deep discount department store in business for over 60 years (see more here). It’s part of Toronto’s history. It’s part of the fabric of this city. If you live in the city, chances are you’ve shopped there at least once. Everyone loves Honest Ed’s. Everyone except developers that is. All they love is the land Honest Ed’s sits on. Which is why even Honest Ed’s cannot escape the wrecking ball. As of 2016, Honest Ed’s may be no longer. In place, there are plans for…..I can’t even say it…. a condo.
So what does this have to do with Buffalo? A lot. Buffalo can learn from Toronto’s condo boom. Where Toronto sacrifices historical buildings for yet another architecturally nondescript metal box in the sky, Buffalo is not only reclaiming and repurposing century old buildings for a new generation of Buffalonians, but in doing so it is respecting and valuing its past – something Toronto does not do. Granted, I know a lot of Buffalo’s historic landmarks have also met the wrecking ball, but there are still enough gems in the Queen City to make it the envy of Toronto. And yet, these shimmering glass boxes, for all the derision they receive, have done something great for the city. They’ve created a downtown density that has added even more life and vibrancy to it – more pedestrians, more bikes, more stores – all the things that Buffalo needs more of too.
The rehabilitation of Buffalo’s old warehouses and factories into upscale lofts and apartments is nothing short of amazing. That so many beautiful structures have been brought back to life to create new neighbourhoods, new momentum and new enthusiasm, is a testimony to the vision, the energy and zeitgeist of a new Buffalo. That so many of these converted loft buildings are almost fully rented before construction is even completed, speaks volumes for Buffalonians’ pent up desire for urban living.
But amidst all these impressive restorations, something is missing. That something is condos – shiny, glassy, condos. Why? With all the momentum happening in Buffalo these days, especially around the Medical campus, there needs to be a range of housing options for all the new people moving to Buffalo, or moving from Buffalo’s suburbs. Simply put, not everyone who embraces urban living wants to live in a loft or a converted hotel…not withstanding how beautiful these edifices are. Some people may want to live in a shiny, glass curtained condo – the doctor, the nurse, the researcher, the entrepreneur who has just been recruited to Buffalo from New York or Chicago, San Francisco or Boston, where they may have lived in a brand new condo and want to maintain that style of living in Buffalo.
Yet, save for the Avant and Waterfront Village, there are no other new, or repurposed condo buildings to be found. The time is now for Buffalo to add some new condo buildings to its urban housing renaissance. Several years ago, one of Buffalo’s prominent developers announced plans for what was in my opinion, a very tasteful and very needed condo building near Gates Circle (above). The plan was visionary. The plan was sensible. The plan was ahead of its time. The plan, unfortunately, was also squashed by neighborhood opposition and later, a down economy. What a pity. Imagine if it had been built. Buffalo today could claim to already have at least one modern residential condo tower up and ready to greet the many newcomers looking for a 21st century styled place to live. With so much momentum now happening in Buffalo’s housing market, it’s time to revisit the idea of building a new condo tower…or two…or three.
Where Toronto can learn from Buffalo about the value of saving historic structures, so too can Buffalo learn from Toronto about what a new condo building can do to attract new residents and all the benefits that new residents will bring to the downtown core.