Answer: Subway. Rabba. Dry cleaners. Starbucks. Or a bank branch.

Question: What retail inevitably shows up in a new condo development?

In many threads on UT, forumers lament the ubiquity and lack of interesting, independent retail that pervades places like CityPlace, Southcore, and in other neighbourhoods with a new tower. We long for some variety and soul, like what you'd find along all of Queen Street, or Roncesvalles, or, of course, on Yonge Street. Why do these new retail spaces usually only have large chains?

Occasionally you see some mom & pops open up, such as Crepes-a-go-go in 18 Yorkville or Red Rocket Coffee in Verve Condo on Wellesley.

Verve condo retail, photo by dt_toronto_geekVerve condo retail, photo by dt_toronto_geek

Why does this happen? As it turns out, this is neither a new phenomenon nor a Toronto only issue.

One simply needs to go have a look at that old standby The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs for a solid explanation. It seems nothing has changed in 50 years:

[Businesses] that support the cost of new construction must be capable of paying a relatively high overhead. If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. (p. 188)


So what this tells us is that we probably shouldn't worry too much about these new buildings and developments. They will likely come around and a street like Bremner Boulevard between the Air Canada Centre and the Rogers Centre will surely grow into a sports fan's paradise with unique bars and restaurants. Or the retail in all the new buildings along King St West will develop and cater to the expanding population there.

We should also be careful not to place too high of expectations on the West Don Lands or Lower Bayfront communities. It may take time for these burgeoning neighbourhoods to settle beyond the inevitable Rabba, Subway, dry cleaners and Starbucks that will likely initially move in.

We also need to keep pressure on developers and architects to ensure that the pedestrian level details are not overlooked and that the retail spaces are designed with great flexibility in mind. A good example of this is the Bloor Street frontage of One Bedford where there are entryways every 20-30 feet. Eventually that BMO branch or Shoppers might turn into five or six small independent boutique shops, extending Bloor's retail towards St. George Street.

One Bedford retail, Bloor Street side, photo by Drum118One Bedford retail, Bloor Street side, photo by Drum118

Will developers see the potential in ensuring that their buildings will support independent small business? Do buyers respond? Right now, condos downtown are being sold no matter what retail lies at pedestrian level. But that may not always be the case. 

There is great potential at Five Condo for reintegration of independent small businesses in the restored buildings along Yonge Street. The developer has hinted at such possibilities.

Five Condo, Yonge Street retail, photo courtesy Mod DevelopmentsFive Condo, Yonge Street retail, image courtesy Mod Developments


The Distillery District is an excellent example of what can happen when chains are not allowed to come in to a new development. Well, the Distillery was not entirely new, of course. It had the rackhouses and other historic buildings that support Jacob's quote above: an immediate vibrant atmosphere was created by lots of artists, galleries, and restaurants that reused these old buildings. And the condo sales followed. 

Cities need old buildings and eventually our current crop will be the old ones. Perhaps there is hope for CityPlace after all.