Retail podium

Depending on your politics, there is much to gripe about when discussing condo development in Toronto. Some qualms are knee-jerk reactions to a lifestyle of hyper-consumerism not cared for. Other criticisms are directed toward the financing of the buildings — reported to be fuelled by international real-estate investors that care little about the quality of a condo’s building materials or its contribution to the city. 

I think one of the greatest failures of recent condo development in Toronto is the homogeneity of retail podiums that seem to be planted at the bottom of every new construction. About a decade ago developers finally got the memo from post-Jane Jacobs planners that mixed-used development makes good city. Retail at street grade, residential above ensures that the messiness of city commerce enlivens a streetscape, creates spaces for social interaction, and fosters citizen surveillance and propriety over city space. 

Retail podiums are certainly a good feature, when done right. Something, however, has gone terribly wrong. The square footage of space provided by retail spaces at street level in new condos is typically so huge that only Shoppers Drug Mart, TD Bank and Starbucks are the only retailers wealthy enough to afford the rent. In the very technical bylaws that now require retail at street level, a bit of urban magic has been lost. The guidelines do not specify minimum or maximum square footage, so in the interest of efficiencies and obtaining reliable tenants, major corporations and banks are the go-to to fill the (very) large retail square feet vacuum. 

There are a number of reasons why this isn’t a great situation. First, it creates a suburban kind of inner-city monotony, where the same landscape constantly repeats itself. The store fronts are so large and corporately sanitized that walking by them feels drawn out, bland and boring — not conducive to the messy, fine grained rhythm of constantly punctuated, organically grown urban space. Second, it doesn’t allow small businesses to thrive. Small businesses ensure localized economic benefits, plus spill-over benefits such as entrepreneurs that care about, and thus contribute to, their neighbourhoods.  

I am always genuinely peeved to see a perfectly fine condo building tarnished by retail that’s too big for anything but Shoppers Drug Mart. That’s why my heart skipped a beat when I saw that “Bari’s Fine Food” had just been opened in the podium of 530 St Clair West at Bathurst (that is, re-opened — it apparently occupied the building that was demolished to make way for the new condominium). Bari’s is a local business, feels unique and at home in its location and is a welcome contrast to the TD Bank and Starbucks that share the condo’s podium further east. 

While the  phenomenon of retail at street level in new condominiums is a welcome step in making good city, it would be all the better if the bylaws went the extra step to assure space is made for small businesses. This would accomplish the above-mentioned goals of increasing local propriety of city space, investing in local economies, and achieving a fine grain of vertically articulated urban space — Imagine a city of sparkling new condo towers, with messy, niche, and unexpected store fronts animating the street and contributing to the city with their hard work — and what a pleasure it would be to walk by.

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