One of the first things a visitor from Toronto notices when he arrives in Detroit is the downtown parking lots – big, sprawling expanses of asphalt, right in the centre of the city. They stand out because, back home, they have all but disappeared. This remarkable and welcome change says a lot about how Toronto has grown.
Forty years ago, downtown Toronto had a completely different look. The first big skyscrapers stood shiny and new in the financial core. Around them were acres and acres of parking lots. Many old warehouses and manufacturing buildings had been torn down as industry declined or moved out of the centre. Parked cars filled the empty space.
Over time, that space has filled up with buildings. Chock-full condominium and office towers rose where bland parking lots used to be. The convention centre, Metro Hall and Roy Thomson Hall rose to the west, the St. Lawrence neighbourhood to the east. More recently came the booming King-Spadina tower district and the South Core district between Union Station and the harbour.
The transformation is still in progress. The big dirt lot that used to sit next to the old Globe and Mail building at Front and Spadina has been consumed by construction for the Well, a giant multipurpose development between Front and Wellington. The lot northwest of City Hall is becoming a new provincial courthouse complex.
It’s happening outside the core, too. A big lot next to a supermarket at Dundas and Bloor is about to be developed. So is another at the Galleria Mall at Dufferin and Dupont. Even lots at busy intersections in the suburbs are being snapped up as developers move to exploit the city’s unquenchable thirst for more housing.
A new report by mapping aces William Davis and Tom Weatherburn on the MapTO site illustrates the extent of the change in the city centre with aerial photographs. The black-and-white photo from 1978 shows great swaths of parking. The colour photo of the same area from 2019 shows thickets of new buildings. Much of downtown’s parking has gone underground, buried storeys below those buildings.
The authors estimate that Toronto has added 15,000 storeys and 230 million square feet of building space. That is the equivalent of more than 200 buildings the height of First Canadian Place, the huge white bank tower, and of more than 300 buildings the size of Metro Hall on King Street West.
Other recent studies confirm what is often called the Manhattanization of Toronto, quite obvious to the naked eye as its scans the skyline. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat says the city now has 67 skyscrapers (buildings 150 metres or taller), with 31 more being built and another 59 proposed. Soon it will pass Chicago to take second place to New York on the list of cities in North America with the most tall buildings.
Not everyone will cheer at these astounding figures. Tall buildings are still looked at askance by many Torontonians. They don’t like the ceaseless construction and they don’t like seeing glass towers everywhere they look. They may even pine for the days when you could coast into a surface parking lot and pay the shivering attendant in the little booth for your ticket. They shouldn’t.
The old city of bountiful surface parking was a pretty dreary place. Crossing a forbidding, wind-swept lot at the end of the day to fetch your car was no picnic. All those parking lots deadened street life and sucked the energy out of downtown. They are still having that effect on dozens of less dynamic places. Visiting Detroit and other American cities with acres of downtown lots makes a Torontonian feel fortunate indeed.
We have a healthy downtown where people are flocking to live and work. To accommodate them, we need plenty of tall buildings. Far better to build them on parking lots than on greenspace at the city’s edges. Tall buildings are an antidote to urban sprawl. Parking lots are a symptom of it.
As Mr. Davis and Mr. Weatherburn put it, “from our current perspective it is clear that Toronto now has a much more vibrant downtown with more space dedicated to housing, employment, commercial activity, pedestrians, cyclists and all sorts of recreational activities. It is positive to see the city reclaim this space from such an inefficient and one-dimensional use and it will be fascinating to see what happens with those that are left.”
Let’s hope they disappear like all the others.