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Dead space

A rendering of The Carnaby on Queen Street West in Toronto. Condo owners had to wait almost two years before the Metro on the podium level opened.

As more bricks-and-mortar retailers in Toronto fall victim to e-commerce, it seems the only tenants that can afford the commercial podium spaces are large chains

When realtor Alexandra Cote bought an apartment in the Carnaby, Streetcar Development's mixed-use condo at Gladstone and Queen West, the company's sales pitch made a point of enticing buyers with a promise of a new Metro supermarket in the podium, on the ground floor. "It was a selling point," Ms. Cote says.

Indeed, like almost all condo projects, the marketing materials included renderings showing vibrant ground-floor shops.

The reality was that owners such as Ms. Cote had to wait almost two years before that Metro opened. "A lot of residents were disappointed that it took so long."

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It's an oft-told story and one that's linked to the broader sense of disappointment about the retail/commercial space in many new mixed-use condos. "The commercial," muses architect Alex Speigel, a partner for Windmill Developments' Toronto office, "is a bit of an afterthought."

But not for the municipality's planning department. For years, the City of Toronto has required developers to add retail space to animate the base of new buildings and soften the way they meet the sidewalk.

But these spaces can be surprisingly difficult to fill and have a hard time recreating the gritty, organic ambience of an older retail strip. In fact, the planning department's stated policy goal of enlivening the public realm can be thwarted when developers lease those spaces to well-known chains or by tenants that turn a curtained eye on the sidewalk, such as dentists' offices or medical labs.

Store fronts sit empty along Dundas Street East near Sumach Street, March 17 2016. The city is trying to encourage builders to create more affordable commercial spaces to create a tenant mix that isn’t dominated by chains.

And while there's nothing new about the sight of empty retail spaces at the base of some condos, the stakes on this type of commercial space have risen recently as so many bricks-and-mortar retailers fall victim to e-commerce.

The city is now working on a "retail best practices" policy to encourage builders to take a more expansive view of designing these spaces, including higher ceilings, more flexible floor plates, and mezzanine levels for offices, studios or co-work spaces.

According to Lynda Macdonald, the acting director of community planning for Toronto and East York, the city is also looking at ways of encouraging developers to create more affordable commercial spaces to create tenant mix that doesn't just include chains that can afford the more expensive leases new projects typically offer. "The city has to turn its mind to this," she says.

Some older condos do tend to have more mom-and-pop type businesses that have close ties to local residents. Cheryll Case, an urban planner who grew up near Dixon Road, in Etobicoke, recalls frequenting the local convenience store in a local high-rise condo, which also had a hair salon on the main floor. Such retailers, she says, "help to create more complete communities," especially in somewhat isolated high-rise buildings, where most of the occupants are tenants and newcomers.

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According to Mr. Speigel, Windmill is trying to bring a more local flavour to a 74-unit Queen West condo, whose at-grade tenant mix, he says, will include a "curated" mix of indie food retailers and possibly a bike store instead of the more typical array of supermarkets or chains.

A rendering of Windmill Development’s The Plant condos on Queen Street West.

That promise may seem like a predictable element of Windmill's come-on to buyers who are drawn to Queen West/Parkdale's lively retail scene. But the project, as with a growing number of other mixed-use condos, also includes another non-residential element – a second floor with 11,500 square feet of open space suitable for commercial tenants such as professional offices, fitness studios or even retailers.

Combining retail, small office and residential space is hardly a new idea: Many fifties and sixties strip malls have precisely that kind of mix.

Daniels Waterfront, a two-building project on Queens Quay East, is pushing the notion of a thoroughly mixed-use development a large step further. One building is earmarked for offices, an arts incubator and retail uses, while the other has both at grade retail and a 53,000-square-foot mezzanine space that will also be leased to office tenants. "When you throw all those uses together," Daniels vice-president Don Pugh says, "you have truly a 24/7-365 use of the community."

From a development perspective, Mr. Pugh says, such projects bring a range of planning challenges that more conventional mixed-use condos don't have – for example, providing an appropriate amount of parking for both occupants and those who work there and only need spots during the day.

Indeed, a thorough mix of residential, retail and office remains something of a rarity, although Daniels is adding office space in two other new buildings, including one in Mississauga. "Does every single building want it? Maybe not. But in some places, it's a natural thing to do."

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But if developers such as Mr. Speigel are scouting around for new types of non-retail tenants that fit well into the neighbourhood mix, they'd be wise to think about daycare centres. "I'd like to see more daycare or family-oriented services," Ms. Cote says, noting that a growing number of downtown condo dwellers are now young families who can't afford to move out of apartments that they purchased as starters.

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