Lifestyles

The best of both worlds

For convenience and culture, more Canadians are choosing to live downtown

Patricia Chisholm November 1 1999
Lifestyles

The best of both worlds

For convenience and culture, more Canadians are choosing to live downtown

Patricia Chisholm November 1 1999

The best of both worlds

For convenience and culture, more Canadians are choosing to live downtown

Lifestyles

Patricia Chisholm

Sometimes Patricia Wilkinson wonders why they didn’t do it sooner. Last spring, after five years of daily four-hour commutes between their home in Gibsons, on British Columbia’s sleepy Sunshine Coast, and their jobs in downtown Vancouver, Wilkinson, 40, and her husband Walter Low, 42, decided they needed a change. They traded their 225-square-metre house with hot-tub, pool and huge garden for a relatively modest 76.5-square-metre loft-style condominium about a fiveminute walk from Wilkinson’s job as a marketing consultant in the heart of the city’s downtown. And even though it may seem contradictory, the couple say the move reduced their stress levels and improved their quality of life. In fact, by downsizing and living close to work, they now have far more time and money to pursue other interests. “It’s not for everyone,” Wilkinson says,

“but for us it’s a great way to live.”

Like Wilkinson, whose 18-year-old son recently moved to Hamilton to attend school, a growing number of Canadians without children at home are passing up the green, open spaces of suburban and rural communities in favour of the bustling cores of Canada’s largest cities. While suburban growth remains strong, the final years of the decade are seeing a miniboom in buyers looking for highquality downtown housing. Many of the new downtowners are baby boomers with grown children; others are childless Gen-X’ers who prefer commuting-free living and funkier neighbourhoods. But families are getting in on the act, too. As a result, according to a recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. study authored by Ottawa housing analyst Alain Miguelez, downtown residential building starts are on the rise in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, as more people choose convenience and cultural diversity over the larger homes and slower pace of suburbia.

Many city planners applaud the trend. Tighdy packed neighbourhoods make more efficient use of expensive infrastructure like roads and schools, and slow the environmental ravages of suburban sprawl. Planners also point out that healthy downtown neighbourhoods keep city centres from turning into sterile commercial zones, as has happened in so many U.S. cities. There are problems, of course: in places such as Toronto, some experts say that mushroom-like clusters of condominiums and townhouses are sometimes built at the expense of parks and other public amenities. But those are quibbles compared with the advantages, they say. “Canada fits into a strong North American movement towards renewal in downtown areas,” notes David Baxter, executive director of Vancouver’s Urban Futures Institute. “It’s being driven by many factors coming together, and it’s likely to continue for at least another decade.”

The trend has been a lifesaver for some Canadian cities with fading but charming and historic downtown areas. Valerie Folk, real estate broker and manager of Royal LePage’s offices in Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford, N.S., says bachelor and one-bedroom condominium units in one renovated building in Halifax’s south end, adjacent to the harbour, now

go for about $100,000, up from about $70,000 a few years ago. “As soon as they’re listed, they’re sold,” she says. “That’s a big change from a few years ago.” One downtown condominium buyer, Debi Colquhoun, 24, a restaurant supervisor, says she wanted to get into the housing market early because rental costs are soaring in the neighbourhoods where she prefers to live. “I love walking everywhere and being close to shops and restaurants,” she says. “And I wanted a mature kind of environment— I’m not keen on having a lot of small children around.”

That’s not to say that kids and the big city don’t mix. Longtime downtowners are of1 ten loath to head for the subo urbs after they become parents ! and many are finding that giv! ing up a yard and a basketball ! net over the garage is not that ° tough. Musician Bill Mahar, 39, has lived in St-Henri, in southwest Montreal, since 1982. He and his wife, Jennifer Bell, 37, don’t own a vehicle and decided to stay in their three-bedroom condominium even after their children, 4, and 6 months, were born because of the huge convenience of walking or biking to the places where they work in the downtown core. And while the recent arrival of their second child has them considering a car, they are still resisting the idea. With a row of cafés, shops and an openair market all within a few minutes walk, there is hardly any need. “It’s urban in lots of ways,”

Mahar observes, “but it’s also like living in a small town.”

The trend is also contributing to a rising demand for downtown office space after years of sluggish demand.

In general, businesses tend to flee high-cost centres in favour of the suburbs, where both real estate costs and taxes are lower. But analysts say some companies are returning to downtown areas in spite of the costs,

partly because that is where their clients want to be, but also because a growing number of skilled employees actually live there. That, says Toronto planner and architect Frank Lewinberg, is another reason to applaud the proliferation of reasonably priced downtown condominiums. “It was really kind of worrying during the last recession when so many jobs shifted to the suburbs,” he says. “We’re hoping that a strong concentration of young people in the centre will attract more employers back downtown.”

There is an ugly side to the trend. Longtime downtown residents complain that too often, the qualities that attract people into city cores in the first place—historic architecture, unique shops, lively neighbourhoods—are marred by illsuited redevelopment. Lezlie Lowe, a 27-year-old music magazine editor, has rented an apartment in the south end of Halifax for eight years. She says she can live with the demolition of graceful old buildings and the price hikes that mean she will probably have to move to another neighbourhood when it is time to buy her own home. That is just part of a city’s natural evolution, she says. It is the architectural blight of some new buildings that disturbs her. “They tore down a beautiful old naval building near my home and built hideous new condos,” she laments. “The peach siding is just awful.” On top of the esthetic assault, there can be other problems. While he is a strong proponent of denser cities, Lewinberg points out that more residents mean more pressure on services. That can be a good thing if it leads to more funds for necessities like mass transit, he notes. But it can also mean that in the race to build ever more high-density housing, cities often miss opportunities to develop other amenities, like parks, that greatly improve the quality of life downtown. “After all,” Lewinberg says, “they’re the lungs of the city.”

For those who can find the right perch, though, city living doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the outdoor experience. Former school administrator and business education teacher Keith Jacka, 60, and his wife, Noreen, 58, were living in Orillia, 90 minutes north ofToronto, but bought a spacious condominium in the city’s Harbourfront district a dozen years ago to house their three sons while they attended school in Toronto. Two years ago, with their children’s education completed, the parents took over the space themselves.

And why not. From their l4th-floor condo, the Jackas can walk or take transit almost anywhere they need to go in the downtown core, including to their new jobs as educational consultants. And the Toronto Islands, a favourite I destination for walks, are only a f short ferry ride away. Best of all, I Jacka says, are the views. “We can see I south over the water and the is| lands—it’s very relaxing,” he says. I “On the north side, we have the 1 whole city to look over.” Downg town, it seems, can be the best of J both worlds. ES]