Downtown attractions, short commutes and affordability appeal to families
Vince Talotta / Toronto Star
With mom Wai-hin Chan and dad Kirby Hom in the middle, 5-year-old Aaron gets a hand over to brothers Carson, 7, and Preston, 10, on the sectional in their downtown condo. "We've grown to love and appreciate the convenience," Chan says about city life in their 1,385-square-foot home.
It’s rare that Wai-hin Chan works from home, but this day the research manager and mom of three is waiting on delivery of a new sofa.
Such effort for a sofa purchase, even if it is a pretty blue-grey sectional, may seem overdone to some but for Chan, her husband Kirby Hom and their sons, the right sofa can make or break the living area of a downtown condo.
Chan preps dinner as she talks about the pros and cons of living en famille in 1,385 square feet. When they bought in 2001, the couple had differing viewpoints. “I could envision having a family in a condo downtown,” says Chan. “But I think Kirby always assumed we would move when we had children. We’ve grown to love and appreciate the convenience, though, and don’t ever want to move.”
There are downsides, she admits, like being very close to noise-sensitive neighbours. As if on cue, the three boys burst through the front door, chattering excitedly about the new sofa, then descend on a cake sitting on the kitchen counter before Chan pushes a plate of veggies and dip in front of them.
Perched on kitchen chairs, the boys give their opinions about life downtown. Ten-year-old Preston thinks the view is great. Everything to 5-year-old Aaron is “good.” And 7-year-old Carson is gleeful: “ACC, Rogers Stadium, sports!”
While Chan and Hom are not unique in living downtown with children, the number of families grows slowly. But Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan, who’s been using political means to secure larger family units, sees change: “It used to be when I ran into constituents who were pregnant, they’d be moving out. Now they’re staying — and looking to effect change for a more family-friendly downtown.”
The incentives are there. With the building boom of the past decade (50,000 condo units are being constructed south of Bloor St.), the increased density is attracting everything a family needs: grocery stores, restaurants, green space, events, libraries, schools.
A big incentive is time. Chan figures she saves at least 90 minutes a day by living closer to work. One of her friends, who lives in Markham, spends four hours a day commuting, what with daycare drop-offs and taking the GO train and buses. Another, who lives east of the city, leaves work an hour before Chan but arrives home later.
The trade-off for lifestyle and time saved is the high cost of space, although this isn’t just a condo issue. With the price gap between lowrise and highrise at $226,000 (in 2004, it was $75,000), and lowrise home prices in the GTA expected to increase 30 to 50 per cent over the next decade, condos offer about the only entry point for most first-time buyers. Condos now account for 69 per cent of home-ownership rates, up from 60 per cent in the 1970s.
Bryan Tuckey, president and CEO of Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), says land price is only part of the affordability issue. Government fees levied on new housing developments, which help pay for infrastructure, ultimately come out of the homeowner’s pocket. “BILD estimates that more than $1 billion in development charges was paid by new home buyers and collected by municipalities in the GTA in 2012 alone,” he says.
Developers have looked to design for answers. “If units are well designed and well thought out, families can live comfortably in a more compact space,” says Gabriel Leung, vice-president of Concord Adex. He’s found that flexible layouts — a bedroom open to the living room by day and closed off at night — are particularly efficient.
Developers have also begun reducing maintenance fees per square foot on townhomes, which are popular with families because of the larger size, says James Parakh, a city of Toronto urban planner. “Townhouses don’t use the more expensive services, like heating and lighting of common hallways, and upkeep of elevators, so it’s fair to discount them on a square footage basis.”
But developers still find that creating enough family space in an affordable footprint isn’t easy, says Martin Blake, a Daniels Corp vice-president. Recently, Daniels went to the families themselves for input, inviting them to a design charrette.
What the developer heard was that families want more steak, less sizzle — functional space over sexy space. So rather than a dining room, a kitchen incorporating prep and dining space; living rooms large enough to accommodate family and friends; foyers large enough to park a stroller. Smaller bedrooms are OK, but they need windows, so none on the suite interior.
It’s roughly the same prescription Chan and Hom came up with when they renovated in 2009. Walls came down in the principle areas to make room for a wall of solid bamboo cabinetry. There’s now a front entry closet with built-in storage bench, a generous L-shaped kitchen with centre island and table extension, and a wall of built-ins that accommodates books, TV, homework workspace and toys. Reconfiguring walls in the bedroom areas gave them even more room in the large master, where the boys sleep, a separate walk-in closet and one new bathroom. Chan says it works perfectly for now, but as the boys head into teenage years, she knows they will need more bedrooms.
Chan finds that smaller spaces can work in a family’s favour, forcing them to self-regulate on shopping and to regularly edit. It’s also helped teach the boys how to negotiate living together — they don’t fight over space, but stuff: who gets to watch what TV show, or whose turn it is to play with LEGO
But kids also need space to run, play and climb, which means common amenity space in a condo is important.
An Internet lounge, for example, where teenagers head to do their homework, says Daniels’ Blake. Or games rooms where they can play pool or video games. At Concord Adex ’s current project Newton, amenities includes a film studio, art studio, recording studio, a children’s playroom, and space has been set aside for a Montessori school.
Kids need schools, too. In anticipation of more children in the downtown core, the city has set aside land for both a public and a Catholic school east of Cityplace’s Canoe Landing Park and has rebuilt Regent Park’s Nelson Mandela School (Toronto’s oldest school).
Many of the physical constructs are in place and on their way, but public perception lags behind. Frequently Chan is the recipient of “overt statements that children don’t belong downtown. At the Berczy Park revitalization meeting . . . I was appalled at the attitude towards our kids’ request to have a playground. It’s frustrating, not because I need their approval, but because it means the needs of families and children aren’t at all considered.”
Leung, however, believes those attitudes are changing. Some of his staff live at Concord CityPlace with young families: “As the current generation of young urban professionals gets older, and starts families, they will find it hard to give up this lifestyle to move to the suburbs,” he says.
The city needs families, says Vaughan, noting anywhere would be bleak without children but a city’s health relies on its diversity. “Other cities have just one demographic, but the great strength of Toronto as a downtown city is its extraordinary demographic diversity.”