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Condo plan for major downtown Toronto site may include a park

A developer that has just beat out a number of rivals to buy a much-coveted piece of land on Wellesley Street West near Yonge Street is now in talks with the city about scaling down its condominium plans to make room for a park.

As a result, Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is now confident her long-held desire to see this particular parcel of land become home to some sort of green space, something local residents have also pushed hard for, will be realized.

The turn of events comes after Ms. Wong-Tam fought a losing battle last year to persuade Infrastructure Ontario to let the city lease the land and build a park, potentially with an underground parking lot to raise revenues for both governments. Infrastructure Ontario was selling the two-acre-plus site in order to raise money for the province.

“We would have loved to have been able to purchase it from the province, but the province invited the city to bid on the land in competition with developers,” Ms. Wong-Tam said in an interview. “And we were not successful at being creative and creating a new working relationship with the province because they wanted maximum dollar, and there’s just no way the City of Toronto could compete with deep-pocket developers.”

After two rounds of bidding, the site went to Lanterra Developments, whose CEO Barry Fenton says the company paid $65-million, more than original estimates of what the site would go for. Mr. Fenton said that when the company acquired the nearby Sutton Place Hotel on Bay Street, which it is now turning into The Britt Condos, it paid $58-million. “But it came with a building in place and a lot of infrastructure. This site is barren,” he said in an interview. “It’s a lot of money to spend for 21/4 acres of land.”

He added that his understanding is that the province received numerous offers from condo developers, office developers, pension funds and other real estate players.

Now Lanterra is planning to submit an application to the city this week to obtain about 950,000 square feet, enough space for two condo towers. But Mr. Fenton and Ms. Wong-Tam are in talks about doing something different on the site.

“We are in fluid discussions with the city councillor, and the game plan is to see if we can work something out over the next few months that provides more of a park concept with one tower, and that’s something that we would look to do,” Mr. Fenton said.

Ms. Wong-Tam suggested she’s optimistic.

“The province was suggesting to developers that they can develop the site by putting in two to three condominium or office towers,” she said. “Lanterra has been put on notice, and I did tell them that I would expect to see a park as soon as possible.”

The land was once supposed to become home to a ballet and opera house, but governments withdrew the funding for that project in the recession of the early 1990s.

Ms. Wong-Tam said the neighbourhood is one of the most dense parts of the city and there are few remaining opportunities to create park space. “As we lose all the infill sites, opportunities to create new community amenities and new community spaces are lost forever,” she said.

“I believe the end result will be a win-win,” Mr. Fenton said. He expects condos won’t be completed on the site for five or six years, with marketing likely to begin more than a year from now after the zoning application is approved.

He remains a believer in the strength of Toronto’s condo market, despite falling sales across the city and the warnings of economists who suggest the market is overvalued. “I’m spending a lot of money on something when people are telling us every day it’s doom and gloom,” he said.

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The Globe and Mail

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