More on why old buildings matter: New buildings create a corporate monoculture.

Toronto street view
Screen capture Nothing but banks and chain stores to be seen on this street/ Google street view

It's strange. You would think that with all the young people moving back into cities and renting apartments or buying condos, that you would bet businesses starting that cater to them, particularly restaurants and bars. Given that their apartments are so small and their days so full of work, that the restaurants would be their dining rooms. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead, you get pretty much a monoculture of corporate chains and non-food services. Amy Pataki explains why in the Toronto Star:

Developers, property managers and individual businesses who own the retail spaces — condo corporations don’t — have their own concerns. “Bringing in a restaurant is usually a headache. Insurance goes up. Venting costs money,” says one development consultant.

Lenders who finance construction don't like mom and pop restaurants either; as the developer of perhaps the most obnoxious condo in the trendiest part of Toronto noted unsurprisingly, "Let’s say McDonald’s came to us. The likelihood of McDonald’s paying the rent is dramatically different than a one-off restaurant owner."

Where Jane Jacobs noted that new ideas need old buildings, I have written that "young people need old buildings". You don't find a vinyl record store or a tattoo shop in these new towers. Chris Hume picks up the story:

The streets of Toronto have become a reconfiguration of the expected brands, logos, colours and signs. Subway, Starbucks, Tims, McDonald’s, Shoppers and, at every corner, another bank branch have washed across the city like some tsunami of sameness, and condos are their enablers.

Besides the banks and the developers, he blames the condo owners too. Afraid of noise, smells, and people who are not condo owners like them, Chris says "each condo is a NIMBY fortress and every management board its own Spanish Inquisition." He quotes former city councillor Kyle Rae on the lack of diversity and choice:

They don’t want noise. They don’t want smells. They don’t want cooking on the premises . . . So you get the Tim Hortons, Starbucks and so on; they just truck in the supplies they need.

Preservation green lab/Screen capture

I have made the case before that "the creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods because they are generally more interesting and fun to be in and you don't have to eat lunch at McDonalds." As Chris notes,

The most vital streets in Toronto are those lined with small and often unremarkable two- or three-storey buildings that have two huge advantages: one, they are flexible and, two, they are older and, therefore, the mortgages tend to be paid off.

I know that many would put me in Felix Salmon's class of "nostalgists and NIMBYs", afraid of density and development. That's not true; density is necessary and desirable. But there are ways to do it right and there is what I call the Goldilocks density. I am simply warning that monocultures are bad in nature and development, whether they are a monoculture of tiny glass condos in Toronto or ultra-luxe skinny towers in New York. Good cities need both.

Tags: Cities | Preservation | Urban Life

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