What's Becoming of Toronto's Yorkville District
Toronto has a love affair with the condo, with 28,466 new-build units purchased in 2011. Thousands more are planned. Suite size, price, amenities and architecture are important, but more and more, a building’s neighbourhood is being considered the ultimate draw. The second part of a lengthy series examining the GTA’s new condo ’hoods.
Bob Saunderson may know when Hollywood’s biggest names are strolling through his neighbourhood, but don’t ask him to point them out.
The British-born Yorkville resident says word spreads fast when a celebrity is in town, with the concierge at his Bay Street luxury condominium quick to divulge where the actors are wining and dining. Still, Mr. Saunderson can’t always keep up. In fact, he spent several mornings in a row chatting about soccer with a friendly young chap at one of the area’s eight Starbucks coffee shops. When the barista divulged that it was actor and Dancing with the Stars contestant David Arquette, “I still didn’t know who it was,” the 70-year-old chuckles. His friends are still ribbing him about it.
Though star sightings may be why many Torontonians flock to Yorkville — especially during September’s Toronto International Film Festival — people like Mr. Saunderson simply call it home.
The area has long been a coveted destination for the rich and famous, with residents tucked into swanky condos and million-dollar Victorian houses. Yet amidst the shoppers perusing the high-end boutiques, the professionals grabbing lunch between meetings, and the growing number of luxury hotel and condo projects in various stages of construction, the neighbourhood is trying desperately to hold on to its village feel.
The firehall, built in 1876 beside the long-gone town hall, still stands proudly on Yorkville Avenue and bears the original coat of arms (circa 1853). Nearby is the 105-year-old Yorkville Public Library, the 130-year-old Gothic revival Church of the Redeemer and the historic Heliconian Hall.
There’s a plaque on Pink Tartan’s boutique pointing out that it was once the sheriff’s house and the local jail. There’s still a hint of history at home and decor store Teatro Verde, where the first Mount Sinai Hospital once stood. Several houses along the attractive side streets reveal signs designating them heritage homes. And while Canadian singers such as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and Neil Young moved on long ago with the rest of the hippie generation, the steps in front of Over the Rainbow jean boutique still conjure up feelings of nostalgia for those on the cusp of midlife.
John Caliendo, co-president of the ABC Residents’ Association (an acronym for the boundaries of Avenue Road, Bloor Street and the CPR rail tracks), moved from New York into his Berryman Street home in the 1990s and has been carefully watching the dramatic changes taking place outside his door ever since. Though Yorkville was a popular place before he got there, he says the area was experiencing “a downturn in terms of its attractiveness” when he moved in. One “mega nightclub” was particularly irking residents and the area was losing its cachet.
But in the past few years — particularly when Whole Foods opened on Avenue Road — Mr. Caliendo has noticed new life in the air “that has completely revitalized traffic in Hazelton Lanes” and its surrounding streets. While many people living in the houses are singles or couples, he says parents working in the money management business have begun to move in. In a nod to the new kids on the block, the developer of the new Four Seasons Hotel is contributing funds to improve the playground and soccer field at the local elementary school that are used by students and the community.
Empty nesters, such as Mr. Saunderson, are also the new normal, drawn in by the dozens of condominium projects on the go or in planning stages. The buildings come in all shapes and sizes, from luxury low-rise structures like seven-storey 36Hazelton (rumour has it that actor Mark Wahlberg bought a place there) and 19-storey MuseumHouse (nightlife impresario Charles Khabouth is part-owner) to the 32-storey New Residences of Yorkville Plaza (the site of the iconic Four Seasons Hotel, which closes in March) and the long-awaited 70-storey One Bloor. Many dub themselves as luxury living, with suites priced into the millions of dollars.
Judging by sales, there seems to be no shortage of buyers, with many swapping large homes in such tony ’hoods as Rosedale, Forest Hill and the Bridle Path for a piece of the downtown action. They’re loyal to the local businesses, gathering at L’Unita restaurant for a midweek bite, Pangaea restaurant for Saturday lunch, and Zaza Espresso Bar for hot drinks and conversation with the sociable owner. They enjoy walking their dogs or people-watching in Cumberland Avenue’s Village of Yorkville Park, and they join visitors at the annual Icefest (taking place next weekend), at summertime’s Music in the Park, and at the fairly new exotic car show held in June.
“Our first-generation shoppers are moving down here, and our second and third generation shoppers are coming to visit them,” says Over the Rainbow owner Joel Carman, who has spent 37 years watching the changing landscape from the window of his landmark store. “In some cases, it’s a big circle, what comes around goes around. There’s only one Bloor Street and only one Yorkville.”
Sure, it hasn’t all been rosy for residents and businesses given the construction of the past two years that gave the main thoroughfare a facelift. The Bloor Street Transformation Project from Avenue Road to Church Street — a $20-million initiative fully funded by area businesses — has resulted in wide granite sidewalks and curbs, planting of 134 London Plane trees and 20,000 tulip bulbs, a sustainable soil cell system to promote optimal growth, and new bike rings and benches. A $1-million permanent art installation will go live at the Bloor/Yonge intersection later this year. Briar de Lange, executive director of the Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area, calls it “the icing on the cake.”
“It’s a gift to the city from the Bloor Street community,” says Mr. Saunderson, chair of the Bloor Street Business Improvement Area that was formed exclusively to secure funding for the transformation project.
Now that the beautification project is complete, residents and businesses are continuing to focus their attention on the residential construction. Ms. de Lange says her group is monitoring the new developments to ensure they are “human-scaled buildings” that lessen shadow and impact to create a pleasant pedestrian-friendly look and feel.
“The challenge is maintaining a village charm,” she says of the high-rise construction.
Being a tight-knit bunch, both businesses and residents alike credit the BIA for its tireless efforts.
Mr. Carman is thankful for “some very bright and optimistic people” who are working hard to retain the area’s warmth and vitality. And it gives him hope that his stomping ground will maintain its allure into the future.
“If things are done properly and in scale and thoughtfully, I think Yorkville in five years can [still] be a wonderful area with great shopping, lots of vibrancy and outdoor cafes,” he says.
*Another great article from the National Post