Nothing demonstrates the glaring difference between Toronto and Buffalo than the sad fate of one of Toronto’s most beloved discount stores – Honest Ed’s. If anyone from Western New York has ever visited this Toronto institution, you’ll know it was a one-of-a-kind experience – from its kitschy sale signs to its corny slogans; from its Las Vegas-eque honky-tonk exterior, to its dizzying array of household products to its ridiculously cheap prices.
Honest Ed’s was one of those rare landmarks that made Toronto unique since its founder Ed Mirvish, opened it in 1948 until its untimely and unfortunate closing in 2016. Over the decades it was the “go-to” store for thousands of Torontonians outfitting their first home, or students outfitting their dorm rooms. But five years ago, it all came to an end, when Honest Ed’s was torn down to make room for what has become a symbol of Toronto’s out-of-control growth – a condo complex. Today in place of this iconic emporium, stands another architecturally bland condo building amongst a sea of hundreds of other similarly uninspiring new condo buildings that have overtaken the city’s skyline and created condo canyons where once stood beautiful, tree-lined neighborhoods. And herein lies the difference between Toronto and Buffalo – how each city views its past with an eye towards to its future. Where Toronto tears down its history, Buffalo (now) embraces it. Hopefully that sentiment will continue as Buffalo begins to grow – preserving what is left is key.
In Toronto, the condo building frenzy has spun out of control. I used to joke to myself that I would not be surprised if a condo developer knocked down an existing condo that was put up a mere five years ago. But now, that’s no joke. Only a few weeks ago did I read that a condo developer plans to remove a row of new townhouses that were built (as part of a larger condo project) only five years ago! And those few elegant old buildings that have not been demolished completely, often survive by becoming the pedestals for 40 story condo towers – shadows of their former grace and function.
Contrast this to Buffalo which honors its past by restoring and repurposing its older buildings, not tearing them down. Granted, there are significant factors between both cities that account for the difference in approaches to revitalizing neighborhoods. Toronto’s continuing explosive growth means that new residential units have to be built to accommodate the influx of people arriving from across Canada and especially from overseas. And with a significant expansion of the city’s light rail system along major thoroughfares, scores of condo towers are going up along these new transit lines to create a needed density to prevent sprawl. But the staggering number of condos that have been and continue to be constructed in Toronto, are in my opinion, destroying not only the history of the neighborhoods, but their character too. When sixty, seventy, eighty year old trees are bulldozed in a matter of minutes to clear space for a mega condo project, more than just a tree is lost – the soul of the neighborhood is lost too.
In my old neighborhood in midtown Toronto near Yonge St. and Eglinton Avenue – a priority neighborhood for density development due to the new light rail line along Eglinton Avenue – so many trees and near century old homes have been torn down, replaced by 40, 50 story condos, that I decided to move away – not only because my street is no longer recognizable to me, but my old street and surrounding streets have ceased functioning as a human scaled place to live. Front porches have been replaced by balconies half a mile high in the sky. Once leafy backyards are now barbeque and leisure patios for the area’s new condo dwellers. The condo canyons of Yonge and Eglinton are not neighborhoods. They are mere places for condo residents to live. How can people living 50, 60 stories above ground level feel any sense of connection to the area they live in? And in a building with thousands of residents, how can you feel that intimate sense of neighborliness?
Thankfully, Buffalo does not have to deal with the loss of neighborhood after neighborhood. In fact, I surmise that the opposite is happening in Buffalo. With the re-purposing of so many old factories and warehouses into human scaled dwellings, neighborhoods are actually being revived and coming back to life again, not being displaced as they are in Toronto. For this, one need not look further than downtown Buffalo, the Larkin District and now in Black Rock too, with a proposed redevelopment project that will bring new apartments to this historic neighborhood.
Which brings me back to Honest Ed’s. It could have been salvaged. There is a way to preserve historic buildings as part of a condo project. Honest Ed’s could have remained intact with a condo tower perched on top of it – preserving the old but accommodating the new. Tearing down Honest Ed’s obliterated a significant part of Toronto’s cultural and architectural history. Fortunately, Buffalo’s approach to residential development is far more respectful of the city’s history – an approach that no longer erases its past (for the most part), but rather finds new ways to incorporate its past into the present and future needs of the city. Be careful what you wish for?
Lead image: Buffalo’s new Braymiller Market with the historic Hotel @ The Lafayette as a suiting backdrop. It’s important to have a mix of historic architecture, along with smart infill moving forward.