London·Home Values

London's new downtown crowd: Not just young singles

A London condo builder says retirees, not young professionals, form the bulk of buyers as the city's downtown becomes more vibrant.

Retirees and empty nesters are leaving their snow shovels to live in a downtown condo

At 29-storeys high and 198 units, the Azure condo building at the corner of Talbot and Dufferin Streets is about 75 per cent sold. It's slated to open late next year. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Picture the typical condo buyer and an image might form of a young, childless, career-focused single man or woman who'd rather sip wine at a downtown bar than worry about the R-value of their attic insulation. 

But as London draws more residents to its downtown core, a different kind of condo buyer is emerging: the recently retired empty nester —  couples and singles — eager to leave behind the hassles of home ownership to savour downtown living. 

"It's a bit of a misconception that it's only young professionals wanting condos," said Adam Carapella, vice-president of operations at Tricar, developers of some of London's largest condos.

Carapella said he sees about a 40/60 split between young single buyers and retiree/empty nester types looking to downsize. 

"It's not that they can't afford a single-family house but to them it's lock your door and go hit the walking paths, go to the park, go to a restaurant, or catch a show."

Within that condo-buying demographic are people like lifetime Londoners Debby Rae and her husband Wayne. 

A model suite inside the sales centre for the Azure condo building shows the kind of finishes available to prospective buyers. It's estimated less than 7,000 Londoners call downtown home, but that number is expected to grow. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

For 40 years, they raised three kids in the same southeast London suburb. Now retired and with their kids fully grown, they've bought a suite in Tricar's Azure condo at the corner of Talbot and Dufferin streets. 

The 29-storey, 198-unit building won't be completed until late next year, but the Raes can't wait to move downtown. 

"We love walking," Debby told CBC London. "We're going to be very close to Harris Park. We will have a good view. We talked it over with the kids and they all said 'You've got to go downtown, you love downtown.'"

The Raes have long been downtown devotees. They're regulars at concerts and Knights games at Budweiser Gardens and they enjoy taking in downtown festivals in the summer. When the weather's good, they also enjoy spending time at their recreational property on Lake Huron. 

Playing host to the OHL's London Knights and dozens of concerts each year, London's Budweiser Gardens has helped make the downtown a more attractive place to live. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"For a lot of people this kind of move might not be for them, but it is for us," said Debby Rae. 

Teacher Heidi Warner is moving into the same building. 

At 49, she's making the move after owning — and almost constantly renovating — an old house in Old South for the past 10 years. 

"I was ready to change my lifestyle," she told CBC London. "I wanted something smaller scale, less maintenance."

More room to grow downtown

London's downtown core is catching on as a place to live, though experts say the city still has plenty of room to add more density to its core. 

Back in 1996, about 2,500 Londoners called downtown home.

By 2011, about 4,000 people resided in the core. And today? City officials who spoke to CBC London estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 people live in the heart of downtown, an area roughly defined by:

  • North: Princess Avenue and Kent Street.
  • South: The CN railway tracks.
  • West: Thames River at The Forks. 
  • East: and Colbourne Street. 

A 2015 report about the downtown's future found that 80 per cent of the city's office space was located in the core. But most of those workers fled for neighbourhoods and suburbs once the working day was done. 

Key to keeping those workers in the core past working hours were Covent Garden Market (revamped in 1999) and Budweiser Gardens (completed in 2002). 

Carapella calls those investments a "catalyst" that have helped nudge along a downtown condo market he calls "slow and steady" not "scorching."

City planning analyst John-Paul Sousa agrees. 

"The growth in residents downtown is a continuation of a trend that started in the 1990s," he said. 

Sousa believes London's downtown can handle another 10 to 20 condo towers, which could raise the downtown population to about 15,000 people. 

"Any time you have a residential tower, it takes one to two years to build, and then another year before you start getting at full capacity, so the end of that third year is when you notice that population jump." 

Carapella said developers prefer a sure-and-steady approach to taking on new projects. 

"We're certainly never going to see anywhere in the vicinity of what Toronto prices are at," he said.

The city recently approved a new Tricar building, a 24-storey, 240-unit building at 40 York St. Carapella said it's possible the yet-to-be-named building will be rental only. He first wants to see what the market will bear. 

Covent Garden Market was fixed up in 1999, an investment one developer calls a catalyst to spur interest in living downtown. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Although the city and developers like Tricar have laid plenty of important groundwork, there are still challenges to downtown living. 

One missing element remains the lack of a large downtown grocery store. 

Gerald Gallacher is an architect and the chair of Downtown London, which represents business owners and those interested in improving the core. 

He says the population will likely need to hit 20,000 before a grocery store comes downtown. 

"They won't come until you hit that formula," he said.

Carapella believes too much has been made about the lack of a grocery store. A downtown resident himself, he picks up his groceries at Covent Garden Market. 

For him the key is continuing to encourage more residents downtown. Once they arrive, the businesses will come to serve them. 

"You need residents down there, you need people in the downtown after 5 p.m. when everyone else has gone home after work. Feet on the street is the best way to ensure you have a vibrant downtown."