Toronto today is starkly different from the sleepy, mid-sized city that existed just a few decades ago. Affordable bungalows that were built on the edge of town in the nineteen seventies are now sitting on centrally located properties worth millions. Subway and streetcar lines that used to serve the city adequately, are now congested and overcrowded with an expanding mass of commuters.
But the biggest difference can be seen looking out at Toronto’s skyline. Everywhere you look, from the lake shore all the way up to North York, luxury condominium towers have popped up on nearly every available plot of land, and some surprising developments are re purposing older buildings and using existing historic facades. See below, Waterworks at 505 Richmond St W (at Augusta Ave).
Situated perfectly between the pedestrian friendly King St and the culturally rich Queen St there are several interesting projects. Above we see Waterworks, but just 1/2 block west is 543 Richmond and 520 Richmond is happening across the street. These projects have a lot of interest because of their location.
The rapid increase in condominiums along Queen Street makes perfect sense; Toronto’s population has increased dramatically in the last decade and now more people then ever before need better places to live. As a result, condominium towers have become a staple of Toronto’s architecture.
While the thought of living in certain neighbourhoods in Toronto has always been more aspiration than practical for the average resident (hello Yorkville and Rosedale), Queen St blends rich and poor folks together, business people with the artists, students, and every one in between.
But this has left some people wondering, what happens when the urbanization of Queen St is complete? And more importantly, what can we do to ensure that the culture, the residents, and the architecture that makes Queen street has today, that very thing that makes it cool, doesn’t fade away?
The architecture of the old buildings on Queen St. in Toronto
A huge part of what makes Queen so cool is the atmosphere. While the diversity of the people walking and working and living on Queen certainly contributes to the laid-back vibe of the street, another one of the main factors is the architecture. Graffiti Alley runs behind Queen St W and ends at Portland St.
Graffiti Alley is a good example of how Queen street is a mix of old and new. There is now about a kilometer’s worth of wickedly independent art on the walls of varying quality. CBC Comedian Rick Mercer used the alley as backdrop for his famous weekly TV Rant (and other alleys farther along) for many years. The alley is still frequently being repainted, but of course each artist must now present a portfolio of previous works when they ask the permission of the building owners.
Queen Street is still pretty low-rise and low key. While the eOne building soars high above the rest of the neighbourhood at Queen and Peter, the quiet presence of the historic Campbell House and venerated music halls like the Rex and the Horseshoe Tavern used to anchor and foster the culture that manifests on the rest of the street. And the cycle is complete with fancy shops.
See above the corner of Queen and Strachan is now so hip that even the Starbucks coffee shop on the corner wasn’t cool enough – its a Bailey Nelson retail store now. These are super-fancy shops. While there’s certainly room to build more condominiums on the street, it’s important for Toronto to maintain the careful balancing act that exists between increasing the amount of living space available to residents while still protecting the cultural hipness of the venues, shops, and restaurants that make Queen St so unique in the first place.
Trinity Bellwoods Park extends the fancy shops and high value real estate right up to Shaw St which has become a north south bicycle thoroughfare and one which motorists are now beginning to avoid as the route is frustratingly slower due to the cyclists. The coolness remains on Queen St west past Ossington.Moving farther west, The Drake Hotel, Death & Taxes bar on Beaconsfield, and The Gladstone Hotel on Gladstone Ave are all venues with good vibrations. But this is a really sensitive area as many new condominiums have been built on the south side of this block, on Abell St.
The fact of the matter is, Toronto is more populated than ever. People need places to live and those places need to be centrally located. But there’s a way to create more living spaces for people without tearing down older buildings and replacing them with condo buildings that clutter up the skyline.
One of the best ways to do this is to regulate which condo proposals are approved by the city. New housing developments approved by the city shouldn’t just blend in with the existing infrastructure, they should stand out and be works-of-art and unique in their own right. Someday years in the future there should be activists eager to protect the building from the wrecking ball.
Unique architecture and a style of décor that’s visually appealing and offers something to engage the eye is just the beginning. From rooftop gardens to restaurants and cafes, the new condos on Queen should incorporate other experiences and culturally relevant ideas into their blueprints that are accessible to the public and that mesh well with the rest of the city.
Candy Factory Lofts and The Drake Hotel launched cool on Queen Street
In the year 1999, the Candy Factory Lofts project along with the relaunch of the Drake Hotel marked the beginning of the modern age of cool on Queen Street. Both projects were difficult to accomplish and started the trend of making condos on Queen. The white brick facade of the Candy Factory made it especially appealing to renovators and it stood out among numerous other rustic older buildings that are full of charm and character that could easily be converted into new living spaces. Right beside the Candy Factory, which is a legitimate Heritage building, is the Chocolate Factory which is a faux old building. The Chocolate Factory Lofts is a purpose-build five story condominium complex that borrows some design from its neighbour.
Regardless of old or new buildings, an author could make the argument that these two condominiums really helped change the entire neighborhood for the better, and they helped transform what was perceived by the public as seedy and made it sensational.
The Candy Factory lofts at 993 Queen Street West are now considered one of the ideal living spaces in the city, epitomizing the lifestyle of West Queen West. But back in 1999, it was difficult to get anyone on board with the redevelopment.
Although it was named after the candy factory that last occupied the space from 1963-1988 (Ce De Candy Co. – the makers of Rockets, a trick-or-treating staple every Halloween), the building’s history begins over a hundred years ago. The structure was originally erected in 1907 as a garment factory.
Ce De Candy Co. occupied the building for a quarter century before finding a new location in Mississauga in 1988. The building remained empty until the mid-1990s when a developer discovered the site and had the idea of converting the vacant space into a series of lofts inspired by the Tribeca neighbourhood in New York City.
But without a solid plan in place, it seemed like the condo conversion would never happen. This was a big building with over a dozen spacious units on each of the six floors. Issues ranging from financing woes to strife and acrimony among the partners plagued the project, but the building project was eventually completed in the year 2000.
The next major issue developers would face? Attracting investors and tenants. While potential buyers found the rich history, the character, and the overall aesthetic of the lofts incredibly appealing, they were hesitant to come to an agreement because the general vibe of the neighbourhood hadn’t quite caught up to the appeal of the building. West Queen West was still rather rundown and a little unsafe back in the early 2000s.
So, while the average buyer was wary of putting down the money to live in what used to be a dodgy neighbourhood, the psychologists, doctors, and other mental health professionals working at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) right down the street were quicker to see the benefits of living so close to work. Once they had purchased units, other buyers began putting in offers as well. But it still wasn’t enough.
What finally tipped the scales in the Candy Factory Lofts’ favour was police officers. In addition to the doctors and psychologists from CAMH purchasing property, local cops were another early adopter of the Candy Factory Lofts because they saw the appeal of the uniquely renovated industrial spaces and weren’t concerned about how shady the neighbourhood was. Any other potential buyers holding out were assuaged by the sight of police cars regularly parked out front and no longer felt concerned about their safety. And now two decades later there are dozens of new restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops and thousands more residents.
While there is no parade or street festival for Queen Street West, it has just as much culture as College and Dundas St. More importantly, it has undeniable national-level fashion credentials and that makes it a destination for Millennials inside the City of Toronto. The stretch of fancy shops from Bathurst to Trinity Bellwoods park gives the street a new economic importance at City Hall. Everyday and with every permit issued, urban planners and property developers foster this excitement for tourists who make their way east and west, while ensuring that the street still meets the needs of the locals.
In a city that’s rapidly becoming inaccessible for the average person to afford, Queen Street West is one of the rare neighbourhoods that houses people of every age, background, and income bracket. The diversity of occupants living and working on Queen Street provides the foundation for what makes it so cool, and that’s why it’s so vital to ensure there’s affordably priced housing for everyone. See above the Summer Works Theatre Company which is pay-what-you-can but yet somehow has the funding to distribute an expensive program for free.
A little farther down the street however and we encounter the knife’s edge. At Queen and Dufferin there was once a business called the West End Food Coop but now, as of August 14th 2018 that is gone.
Above is the Grand Closing of West End Food Coop at Queen and Dufferin. Not many photographers are around to capture the moment that the proprietor closes her shop forever. The rent has gone up (doubled) and the business is being forced out by the landlord who has other plans for the space.
Gentrification is often the beginning of the end when it comes to taking formerly ‘cool’ neighbourhoods and stripping them of everything that makes them unique. While condos aren’t solely responsible for gentrification, they are a symptom of a bigger problem. Cultural homogeneity is the biggest threat to Queen Street’s cool factor, and we can already see it playing out in various neighbourhoods across Toronto from Parkdale and the Junction in the West to Regent Park and Leslieville in the East.
Dollarama is the end of cool on Queen Street.
Queen street in particular has always been known for its high concentration of artists, musicians, performers, and other creative types; it’s no surprise, of course, that most of those struggling creators and ‘starving artists’ are not pulling in the kind of income needed to afford mortgage payments on a condo. Residents who used to be able to afford housing are being priced out to make way for those who can afford to spend thousands of dollars a month buying or renting a condo.
Parkdale in particular has been under a microscope lately as residents are being evicted from their homes but can’t afford to live anywhere else in the city; as a result, many of them are forced to relocate to cities in the suburbs surrounding Toronto.
City Hall needs to protect and foster the diversity of residents on Queen street because it’s that diversity that makes Queen so cool. Without an eclectic mixture of residents, Queen street will lose the catalyst responsible for its growth and its culture and it will risk stagnation and eventual decay.
Yes. Queen can absolutely still be cool with condos on every corner. The key is to ensure there’s a balancing act in place that respects the existing architecture, and the lower income residents and especially the artists who inspire and who are inspired by the Queen Street community. Multi-purpose condo buildings and other visually appealing housing options can be used amplify and energize makes Queen Street West so unique.