Vertical City

How builders, city planners are trying to create more family-friendly Toronto condos

Condo dwellers used to be a pretty equal mix of first-time buyers and empty-nesters, but more young families are now making condos in Toronto their homes, forcing developers and city planners to respond.

More families are opting to stay in downtown condos, which is forcing a design shift

The Goodtimes family is embracing small space living. They share their one-bedroom condo with their two daughters. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

The Goodtimes hope they'll be able to live in their Queen West condo forever, but even they admit squeezing their life into a 730-square-foot space is not without its problems.  

The biggest issue for the artist couple with two young children is "the stuff," Lindsay Goodtimes told CBC Toronto.

"Everyone has more stuff, so you have to get the reins on all the stuff," she said. The other challenge is finding enough living and playing space.

"I think it's important to try and better utilize the space outdoors for the community. It's about finding space and grass that you can use for your backyard," said Goodtimes. Negotiating dog and children's play spaces can also get difficult.

The Goodtimes family constructed a small bedroom for their daughters, just wide enough to fit a bed. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

With the average price of a detached home in Toronto well above the $1-million mark, the housing dreams of families like the Goodtimes wanting to live in the city have undergone a radical shift in the last 10 years — posing a challenge that developers and city planners are only just beginning to tackle. 

Condo dwellers used to be a pretty equal mix of first-time buyers and empty-nesters, but many people are now choosing to stay in condos, says Mimi Ng, vice-president of sales and marketing at Menkes  Developments Inc.

"You're not considered a have-not if you live in a condo these days," said Ng, who says more and more residents are what she calls "move-out" buyers — people who are moving from one condo to another.

Jared Menkes, the vice president of highrise residential at Menkes, travelled the world with his team to see how other cities are accommodating family living in condos. (CBC)

Buildings that were originally designed to accommodate a more mature, adult lifestyle are now being forced to change — as those young adults are starting to have families.

"Today, everyone is living in condos and it's a lifestyle shift, not just for financial reasons ... People love living an urban lifestyle," said Jared Menkes, VP of highrise residential at Menkes.

Menkes, who is the third generation to work for the family's development company, says since their start in the 1950's, they've built "50,000 condos and millions of square feet" of living space.

He is embracing the idea of kids living in condos by designing kids rooms at the planning stage — a growing trend among all developers.

Many developers are introducing kids rooms at the planning stages of new condos in Toronto, including this kids room, planned for the new Garrison Point development near Fort York. (garrisonpoint.ca)

"You have a checklist when you build a condo; a theatre, a gym, a boardroom … and we said, 'Why don't we have a kids room?'" said Menkes. "We're living vertically now and people are living vertically all over the world, so how do you allow those people to live an easy lifestyle?"

Menkes, who himself started his family in a condo, says the most difficult part of having families in condos is creating a vertical community, or as he puts it — a "front porch." One solution has been to introduce recreation coordinators who put on parties, kids shows, movie nights and yoga classes, allowing people living in the building to interact.

Menkes and team members travelled all over the world to get inspiration. He recalls visiting Hong Kong in 2013, where every building he visited had a kids room. He wants to apply those lessons to Toronto and its growing condo culture.

"The city is realizing we're becoming a world class city," he said. "You look at cities all over the world in Asia, Europe and South America and people are living vertically."

'Growing Up' in Toronto

The city of Toronto has also been studying family living in highrises.

In "Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities," the planning department is looking at how multi-unit housing in high-density communities can better accommodate households with children.

The Eglinton, a development by Menkes, will include a kids room like the one pictured above. It's one of the developer's priorities, having seen a shift to more young families raising kids in condos. (Menkes)

According to city data, 32 per cent of households with children lived in mid and highrise buildings in 2011.

"We want to ensure that we're not just building buildings, but that we're actually creating wonderful places to raise families in vertical communities," said Jennifer Keesmaat, the city's chief planner.

The study is looking at the design of units, buildings and neighbourhoods to "ensure all three components will be great for family life," she said.

Perhaps not surprisingly for parents, stroller parking has been a big issue, the city has heard.

Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and her team have undertaken a study of family life in vertical communities. The report is due out in the coming days. (CBC)

"You can't leave it in the hallway, not on the balcony — so lots of families have improvised and put the stroller in the bathtub, for example," said Keesmaat.

The chief planner added that many condos are embracing the ideas of families and she's even seen condos with craft rooms. Some developers are compensating "for the fact that people are living in a small personal space."

Like Menkes, the city looked at case studies in other municipalities and countries around the world, including France, Sweden, England and New York City. The "Growing Up" study staff report and recommendations are due to be released in the coming days.

The biggest challenge for condo living, according to the Goodtimes, is the lack of outdoor space. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Embracing vertical living

Meantime, the Goodtimes family is embracing vertical and small-space living. 

The family has constructed a small room in their one-bedroom condo for their two daughters. And Lindsay Goodtimes says making it work is all about compromise.

"If you're going to live in a condo, you have to have a little give and take. Yes, kids are going to make noise; yes, people are going to throw parties … if you have to live in such tight quarters, you have to give a little," added Goodtimes.

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About the Author

Alexandra Sienkiewicz

Journalist and Producer

Alexandra Sienkiewicz is an award-winning TV producer with over a decade of newsroom experience. She started her CBC journalism career covering national news before moving over to the fast-paced world of local. She believes every news story starts at the local level and those are the stories she most loves to tell. In her off-time, Alexandra​ dabbles in food and wine, furthering her education ​as a sommelier​.