Tuesday, 23 April 2013

South Etobicoke: Suburban No More?




I was in Etobicoke today with a photographer for a listing I have coming out this week. It's a sleek, modern condo in the Network Lofts. Really great finishes, and incredible value, I believe, for a conversion loft that is on the subway line. But don't worry, this isn't a sales pitch for my listing, but it is about my photographer's thoughts on South Etobicoke.  Turns out she grew up in this former suburb. When she arrived to take her photos, she was surprised that so much of the Bloor and Islington area had changed from vacant waste-land to high density living. "It doesn't even feel like the suburbs any more," she said.

And she sure is right. Etobicoke ain't what she used to be, particularly south Etobicoke running from the Kingsway down to the lake. This area was once undeniably suburban in a 1950s to the 1970s kind of way. It was the passover place between downtown Toronto and getting to the airport.  At amalgamation, Etobicoke had the lowest population density compared to the other former Toronto boroughs or towns. For a long time, it maintained it's suburban-ness with houses spread out on big lots.

You can still  find neighbourhoods like Alderwood in this part of town with large bungalows and two story detatched homes. This neighbourhood has a huge tree canopy. It's quiet and green. It's the peaceful life you dream about if you pine for the suburbs. The only sound are birds and lawn mowers.  The Kingsway has been a fancy part of town for the wealthy set for a long time. And then there's the parks. Lots of them from James Garden to the series of parks along the lake including the Humber Park nearby Humber College where the asylum used to be. 

Of course, South Etobicoke has shown the negative side of suburbia as well. That means, historically, a lot of poor planning, and an odd mix of box stores and anywhere franchises. It is mostly built for drivers. Public transit is patchy, at best. And there is a lot of industrial lands, some in use, some not.  

But the truth is, South Etobicoke is undergoing quite a transformation from former suburb to a new urban beast, but this process has only just begun. And it's coming about in three ways:

1. More Densification: We have already seen the condo development along Bloor and Islington, close to the Bloor subway lines. This will continue. We are also seeing some development along the Queensway. This street can be a real mash-up of urban/suburban design from Costco and Burger King on the main drag mixed with mid-rise, very cool condos, like the Hive condos. 

Then there's the brownfields and open spaces. Previously industrial areas ready for new development. Some worry these areas will be filled with poorly planned, giant condos. Some fear they will mimic the condos along Etobicoke's waterfront that have not blended well with with the surrounding community, forming a kind of curtain to the lake. But things may be getting better. South Etobicoke is still keen to sell their lands to developers, but now they have a design review committee to encourage smarter development. 

2. Improved Transit. As I mentioned, transit isn't the greatest around here, though there is the subway line and a few GO stops. Streetcar lines, like the Queen car, also connect you to the core, slowly but surely. It's really not much. Nonetheless, there are plans under way to make this area more transit-friendly, as it densifies. Who knows where the money is going to come from, but the intention is certainly there. It is part of the big realization that all of the GTA is waking up to. This megaregion needs better transit soon from Oshawa to Hamilton. 

3. Urban Villages forming. Parts of South Etobicoke are forming urban neighbourhoods that function very much like a Toronto neighbourhood such as the Annex or the Beach. Traditionally, suburbs are low density. That means, unless you're a mall or a destination box store, then main street is going to be pretty low on human traffic. Plus, the design of most main streets in South Etobicoke are setup to be pedestrian repellant. But this is not the case throughout this area.  Mimico, New Toronto and Long Branch have an improving, viable commercial strip along Lake Shore Blvd. You could drop by independent coffee shops, an incredible home-made ice cream store, or a place that sells some of the best empanadas in Toronto. 

There's still a way to go yet, but the transformation is well under way. It looks like it's mostly for the better. Many suburban areas  like the Kingsway and Alderwood will  keep their quiet suburban charm, but there is no denying that this ex-suburb will be a different place in twenty years. I would be curious to hear what my photographer would say then.


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