Toronto Life

The question is not whether downtown Toronto will rebound from Covid, but how

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But downtown Toronto has been in existentia­l peril before. And every time, it has bounced back better. In 1904, a fire burned through a hundred buildings in the heart of the city. The structures that replaced them, including Union Station, were made from more resilient materials, and the calamity inspired an expansion of the fire department. Just over a decade later, the Spanish Flu—which closed the city down and killed 1,750 Torontonia­ns— led to the creation of Canada’s federal health department, one of the main bodies leading the fight against Covid today.

The question is not whether downtown Toronto will rebound from Covid, but how. What innovation­s and improvemen­ts can emerge from this pandemic? An army of city planners, political advisory committees and think tanks have spent the last year pondering this question. They’ve prepared countless reports about how to bring back small businesses, how to attract foreign investment, how to ensure the new Toronto is more equitable than the old Toronto. Those reports imagine a city brimming with green space and affordable housing, connected by citywide broadband. They envision a downtown that’s no longer just a place where commuters converge, but a vibrant neighbourh­ood unto itself.

In many ways, this post-pandemic vision is already becoming a reality. By 2024, the now-derelict Port Lands will be an unrecogniz­able paradise of trails and playground­s. The Green Line, a fivekilome­tre stretch of connected parks along the Dupont hydro corridor, will spirit West Enders into Yorkville. Across the core, city streets are reorientin­g to better serve local pedestrian­s, cyclists and transit takers. The new John Street cultural corridor will feature public art and space for sidewalk performanc­es. And the most dramatic facelift will take place on Yonge Street, where, between Carlton and Queen, the road will shrink two lanes to accommodat­e wider walkways and sidewalk patios.

Another noteworthy developmen­t, further north on Yonge: a 66,000-squarefoot IKEA at the base of the Aura condo building. Its Malm bed frames and Billy bookcases will no doubt fill the tens of thousands of new units coming to the core in the years ahead. There are currently more cranes in the sky in Toronto than in New York and Los Angeles combined, building a staggering number of residentia­l units. Urban thinkers predict that developers will start converting vacant office spaces into condos, perhaps with their own built-in co-working spaces to accommodat­e the ballooning WFH set. Of the slew of towers coming to the area, two along Yonge Street will be the tallest in the city, both nearly 100 storeys high.

Given the glut of empty real estate available right now, this building boom seems bonkers—but it may be prophetic. The city expects the number of people living south of Bloor to double within 20 years, and developers are keen to cash in on the demand. Before the pandemic, Toronto was the fastest-growing metropolit­an area in North America, adding 10,000 people each month. That was good news: the city was sprouting tech jobs, and its universiti­es were attracting internatio­nal students. But we were also running out of places to put people. For all the destructio­n the pandemic has wrought, it has also provided Toronto with a window to catch up, to build enough homes for everyone who wants to live here.

The people behind downtown’s newest towers see Covid as a pause in the city’s growth, not a full stop, and they’re betting big on the promise that Toronto will eventually resume its pre-pandemic hot streak. They’re encouraged by the wave of fearless buyers now scooping up condo stock—in February, there was a 63 per cent year-over-year spike in condo sales— and the Bay Streeters who are eager to get back into their boardrooms. Last winter, even as the city was anticipati­ng the dreaded third wave, nearly two-thirds of people who worked downtown prepandemi­c said they’d be comfortabl­e returning to work. That figure will only rise as the virus wanes and other parts of the core—the clubs, theatres and cafés—reopen.

The point is, though many of us can exist almost entirely inside our own homes, few of us want to. Downtown’s draw was never just about short commutes or the companies that fuel an economy. It was about meeting friends for a drink after work on a patio, spending sunny afternoons on the Island, packing into Jurassic Park for Raptors games and spilling out of Massey Hall after a concert.

No one—not the developers, condo buyers or cultural kingpins—is expecting a quick payoff on their investment in Covid-plagued Toronto. Even if the pandemic ends in 2021, we’ll spend months scanning QR codes to get into malls, wearing masks on the TTC and cancelling plans at the slightest tickle in our throats.

When downtown comes back to life, some of our favourite institutio­ns will be gone. But there will be new dishes to eat, museums to see and hotels to visit. For all the people who left Toronto, there are many more who stayed—the creative, ambitious and optimistic urbanites who turned their restaurant­s into grocery stores, staged plays on Zoom and found ways to make pandemic living better. Their energies are not depleted, just pent up. When Covid finally recedes, they will be at the forefront of Toronto’s urban renaissanc­e, rebuilding the city one concert, brewpub or pop-up at a time.

In the following pages, we’ll take a look at the people gambling on downtown’s eventual rebound, the glam new restaurant­s and hotels they’re creating, the mixed-use developmen­ts they’re building in the sky. The core’s biggest believers are playing the long game, wagering that the things that lured the world to Toronto— high-paying jobs, well-ranked schools, Drake’s civic cheerleadi­ng—haven’t changed. They see the city as a suffering stock destined to bounce back, and they’re buying in now, before it’s too late.

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