Chances are your local green space was designed and built by a developer, not the city
By Robin Doolittle
Originally published in the Toronto Star, November 10, 2012
On a recent Thursday afternoon, a tricky media request landed on the desk of Gary Short, the manager of planning design and development with Toronto’s parks and recreation division.
It was a seemingly simple question that turned out to be much more complicated.
When was the last time the City of Toronto built a park? A week later, he still wasn’t sure.
“I was asking around here: ‘When was it that tax dollars were paying for parks?’ and the answer was ‘pre-amalgamation,’ ” Short said — at least 1998, but actually, no one can even remember.
As cash-strapped local governments struggle to afford even basic infrastructure repairs, cities have gotten out of the business of building public green spaces.
Today, that job has been downloaded to the development industry, particularly those that work in highrise construction.
Last year, seven new parks opened in Toronto. All were built by developers.
This is typical, says Short.
The majority are simple green spaces with some children’s play equipment and typically cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million.
Those in the industry say the shift began about 15 years ago. What’s changing is the way developers view the job. More and more, builders are not only embracing their new role, they’re going above and beyond what is required.
Take the Remington Group’s IQ project in Etobicoke for example.
Here, the developer has anchored a six-tower new build community, located at Islington Ave. and The Queensway, around a park design.
In fact, Phase 2, which just opened its sales office, is called Park Towers.
In stunning soon-to-be-built Zorra Park, designer Janet Rosenberg and her team have dreamed up a lush urban wonderland that blends the feel of Toronto’s hip downtown with the calm of the suburbs.
When finished, this 2-acre picnic paradise will feature an amphitheatre, flowering apple orchard, ultra-modern fountain splash pad, pathways lined with ornamental grasses and outdoor art installations.
Like most highrise builders in the city, Remington has constructed neighbourhood parks in the past, but this is the first time the group has decided to go all out.
“It’s different from the sort of cookie cutter approach that developers have taken in the past. Typically a park is sort of a green space with a slide and that’s that. This isn’t just a place to walk your dog,” said Remington’s highrise president, Michael Bratty. “We’re incorporating the park as a gathering place for the community.”
The final price tag will well exceed $2 million.
It’s a costly gamble that real estate agents predict is going to pay off.
Barbara Lawlor is president of Baker Real Estate Inc., which is handling sales for IQ.
“We’ve only just started to sell Park Towers and already the response has been really positive,” she said. “Buyers are attracted to a community that offers them lifestyle, and lifestyle is not just the amenities in the building. It’s the amenities that surround the community.
To have a park that is architecturally designed and lush with landscaping is a real bonus.”
Lawlor said Toronto may be moving towards a vertical city, with more and more residents opting to choose condo living, but that doesn’t mean people are willing to sacrifice outdoor space.
“It’s really hard to sell a unit in the city without a balcony. People want to have access to the outdoors,” said Lawlor. “Having a huge park next door is something people are going to be really attracted to.”
Rosenberg said when she was creating Zorra Park she always kept in mind that the space was really the owners’ backyard. She envisioned couples having lunch under an apple tree and children eating ice cream on a park bench.
“The goal here was to re-establish a level of urbanism and not to have a park that’s about swings and children’s playgrounds. It was about a catalyst for the neighbourhood,” she said.
What’s happening in Toronto is happening all over the country, she said. As cities get higher, planners are thinking more and more about what it means to be a community and what elements pull people together.
Sidewalks are getting wider.
Restaurants are spilling onto the street. And developers are incorporating public space into their design. “I think a shift is happening now and we’re seeing it in so many cities.
People want it. We’re putting them in smaller and smaller condos and people need somewhere to go,” she said.
Stephen Upton, vice president of development with Tridel, said in recent years his company has taken on the construction of about five parks.
“Really what we’re creating is a community,” he said. “This space is really meant to be an ambiance to the building lifestyle. And you want people to be able to enjoy it. If we left it up to the city to build — and maybe they wouldn’t be able to for budget reasons — it might not get built. The city doesn’t have a lot of money to maintain parks, let alone build them.”
The city is still involved in parks construction; it just doesn’t pick up the tab.
With every construction project, developers pay a variety of fees to the municipality. Some of that money is earmarked for park development and acquisition. It’s a negotiation process with several options.
Developers can pay the charges in full, or construct what’s called an “above base” park, which is essentially a bare-bones space that the city will later finish using the remaining park development fees. Increasingly, builders are opting to just handle the construction themselves.
One, it’s better for buyers. Developers will finish the park long before the city — which is currently working through a lengthy construction backlog — gets around to it, if ever. Two, it’s more likely to fit with the aesthetic vibe of a project.
And three, some builders have learned these potentially throwaway parkettes can actually be used as a selling feature.
In September, Tridel held grand openings for the reveal of two parks associated with developments in North York and Scarborough. “Tridel wants their communities to have it all,” the news release began.
Metrogate Park, which is near the tower of the same name at Kennedy and Highway 401, is an eco-friendly space partly built using reclaimed materials from the condo construction.
This sustainable green space is equipped with high-efficiency lighting, special storm-water facilities that replenish the local aquifers, and easy-to-maintain plant life. Avonshire Park, located off Yonge St. near Hwy. 401, features a large children’s playground and open lawn area.
Remington is still a good three years away from its own big reveal at Zorra Park in Etobicoke. And while those plans continue to be refined, the company will be looking to push itself with future projects.
“It’s fair to say this is the first time Remington has brought this type of creativity to a park (design) and it’s something we plan on continuing with future developments,” he said.
For more information on ParkTowers, go to parktowersatiq.com or visit the sales centre is located at 1061 Queensway.