Downtown Toronto is not in a death spiral, not yet anyway. But the city needs to get its act together right now according to some experts.
A study showed that Toronto is lagging behind other major cities in recovering from the pandemic.
We checked in with urban theorist Richard Florida and former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat to shed light on the path forward for this iconic city core.
“So we have lagged behind other jurisdictions across North America in terms of returning to the office. Everyone’s kind of been waiting on pins and needles to see whether in September there would be a really big bump. And the banks, of course, had been trying to encourage people to get back to the office,” said Keesmaat, highlighting the uncertain landscape of downtown offices post-pandemic.
This shift has intriguing implications, as it intertwines with Toronto’s challenges in affordable housing and transit capacity. Many individuals, influenced by the remote work option, have chosen to live further out in the region, leading to extended daily commutes. Hybrid work arrangements, blending office and remote work, are becoming standard.
“I think one of the things that is beginning to stabilize in our employment world is that working partly from home and partly at the office is something that’s now getting written into contracts. So I don’t think that’s going to change,” she said. “And what that does is it opens up an opportunity to really think about how we use space in the downtown.”
Florida agreed that Toronto needs to step up its game and stop behaving like a behemoth central business district of olden times.
“Toronto is very much behind,” said Florida, acknowledging the challenges that the city’s downtown has been grappling with. He offered a pragmatic approach to adapt to the “new normal.”
One of the standout features of Toronto’s skyline is its towering office structures that have long defined the city’s business district. Florida sees untapped potential in these edifices.
“Some can be turned into apartments. And lord knows we need more and more affordable housing,” he said. “Some can be repurposed into other uses. And some will just have to come down.”
However, the challenge lies in repurposing office towers for residential use. Keesmaat acknowledges the difficulties involved.
“The challenge is it takes a very specific building floor plate to adapt for residential without it being overly costly,” she explained. The unique HVAC systems and floor layouts of office spaces can pose hurdles in conversion. While some smaller or mid-rise buildings have successfully made the transition, it remains a costly and complex endeavour. A study by the Urban Land Institute suggests that, in most cities, only a fraction of the housing stock, approximately seven to 10 per cent, can feasibly be adapted from former office spaces.
Florida also emphasized the pivotal role of families in the downtown renaissance. “We need to start building condos and apartments with more bedrooms and outdoor space,” he said.
Drawing from global examples, he highlighted the necessity for a family-friendly urban environment. “New York does it. London does it. Hong Kong does it. Paris does it. We have to do it.”
He sees the traditional central business district, dominated by offices, as an area that needs re-evaluation.
“We now need to rethink how we integrate residential into the downtown core,” he emphasized.
A prosperous downtown, according to Keesmaat, should maintain its vibrant 24/7 atmosphere, characterized by a diverse mix of residents and activities.
Florida added that, with a residential component playing such a key role in the future health of the downtown core, public safety is also paramount.
“It’s huge. I am an American. I’m old enough to remember when American cities were safe,” Florida said. “The good thing is Toronto does not have a lot of gun crime. But other sorts of crime — what you might think of as small-scale nuisance crime — is growing. Car theft is off the charts. We had two cars stolen. Nearly every single family I know has had a car stolen. It seems much worse than any U.S. city I have lived in. Then there is all the stuff that is happening on the TTC, which is scaring people from using it.”
Florida said this feeds on itself and erodes peoples’ perception of their family’s safety.
“There is an important theory of crime called ‘broken windows.’ It says that when small things like this go unaddressed, it creates a cycle which deepens crime,” he explained. “I fear this is the cycle we are now in. We have to take steps to stop it in its tracks before it gets worse.”
In light of these challenges, the path forward for Toronto’s downtown renewal becomes increasingly clear. The city must embrace its role as a 24/7 hub, catering to the diverse needs and preferences of its residents.
As Toronto adapts to the new normal of hybrid work, the city has the potential to create a vibrant and inclusive downtown core that caters to a diverse population. By reimagining the use of space, integrating residential areas and embracing adaptability, Toronto can embark on a transformative journey toward a revitalized, resilient and inclusive city centre that continues to thrive in the face of change.