A proposed mixed-use development in Toronto, currently the site of a flourishing car dealership, may be a harbinger of the city’s postcar future.
The project at 1075 Leslie St., near Eglinton Avenue East, features five towers, ranging from 13 to 49 storeys, with 1,846 housing units and commercial and retail space wrapped around a green, pedestrian-oriented public courtyard.
It’s still early days for the 278,000-square-foot site; a community meeting is being held on Feb. 15 and the developers expect it will be years before city planning and zoning officials finish going through the details. But the ideas for the plan are significant – the development would alter the property’s past and present dependency on cars.
“The view for a while has been that you can transform areas in dense, downtown urban areas into less car-dependent developments, but the reality is that you can do it here, too,” says Sami Kazemi, principal at BDP Quadrangle, the Leslie Street project’s architect. Though the site is in Toronto, it’s 13.5 kilometres – and many traffic jams – from the central intersection of Yonge and Bloor streets.
The proposed project also points to changes coming to the car dealership business, raising the question of whether dealers will continue to occupy large properties in cities where land values keep rising and sites are in demand for commercial development and housing.
While a 2021 automotive consumer study, conducted by Deloitte, showed that eight out of 10 customers in Ontario still prefer to buy cars in person from one of the province’s 1,606 dealers, traditional dealerships face challenges from online marketing and the growing popularity of electric vehicles, which don’t need the same servicing that dealers’ garages offer.
“The whole business model for dealers needs to be rethought,” says Wes Neichenbauer, co-president of Rowntree Enterprises, the Leslie Street site’s lead developer, which has built its business on establishing sites for car dealerships.
“It comes down to land values. A dealership is really several services – new car sales, used cars, service, parts, body shop and leasing,” he explains. “The inventory of cars on the lot, the service centres and the showrooms take up a lot of space.״
The realization that all this space isn’t needed anymore to sell and fix cars points to a shift in land use. ״People already can go to a shopping mall and buy an electric vehicle that can be serviced without having to bring it in and put it on a hoist,” Mr. Neichenbauer says.
“We’re thinking about how you build for peoples’ mobility using all forms of transportation, not just car ownership.— Sami Kazemi, principal at BDP Quadrangle
For now, the site, at the crossroads of two major arterial roads and near the Don Valley Parkway, is still home to a Toyota and Lexus dealership, its history steeped in car lore.
Earlier, the site was home to Inn on the Park, a flagship Four Seasons Hotel built in 1963 as a getaway within the city, which hosted world leaders, royalty and celebrities. Though there were bus stops nearby, it’s safe to say that most guests and visitors got there by car.
The original Inn was demolished in 2006, and since around then the site has housed the dealership – making it even more car-centric. Mr. Neichenbauer and Mr. Kazemi say the property is ideal for housing and some commercial retail development because it’s across the street from some 400 acres of parkland (Serena Gundy, Ernest Thompson Seton, Sunnybrook and Wilket Creek parks) and will eventually be served by high-speed transit.
The city’s new Eglinton-Crosstown LRT line will have a major stop at the foot of the hilltop property (though the line’s builder, provincial agency Metolinx, has delayed completion several times with no word on a completion date). Mr. Kazemi says the development plans will include walkways and sheltered areas to make it easy for people to come and go to the new Sunnybrook Park LRT station. There will be less emphasis on catering to cars.
“We’re not predicting the end of people using cars, just less dependency on them,” Mr. Kazemi says. “We’re thinking about how you build for peoples’ mobility using all forms of transportation, not just car ownership.”
The shift toward a less car-dependent society shows up in design decisions such as forgoing huge parking areas or underground garages, Mr. Kazemi says. In 2021, the City of Toronto got rid of rules that required developers to provide a minimum number of parking spaces for each housing unit they built (requirements remain the same for the number of visitor and accessible spaces and for spaces with electric-charging stations).
This not only helps new projects and communities orient away from cars, it’s also good for the environment, Mr. Kazemi says.
“When you build underground parking, the concrete produces embodied carbon,” he explains.
Embodied carbon refers to emissions released primarily during the relatively short construction period and, to some extent, during a building’s life cycle, producing at least 10 per cent of all global energy-related emissions.
The controversial proposal for Ontario Place on Toronto’s lakeshore calls for a taxpayer-funded $450-million underground garage that would serve a private development and accommodate more than 2,000 cars.
It will take time to wean cities off cars and for dealers to rethink their locations and marketing, but Mr. Neichenbauer believes it will happen.
“If you look at larger cities, you see intensification and people walking, cycling and taking transit to get their groceries,” he says. “Toronto has fought that and stayed in love with the car, but getting away from that is a natural progression.”
author: DAVID ISRAELSON originally published here 1 February 2023