CONDO FORTRESSES

Indoor pools and cafes remove condo owners' need to live within their neighbourhoods. Rating: NNNNNin the lobby of a tall.


Indoor pools and cafes remove condo owners’ need to live within their neighbourhoods. Rating: NNNNN

in the lobby of a tall glass building steps from the water, the ideas of “welcome” and “home” are becoming disengaged. There are handsome leather benches and healthy-looking plants, but it’s not the kind of place you sit around in. In fact, if you’re only a visitor you won’t even be invited to wait in the lobby. The waiting room here is just for show — a simulated welcoming environment in a simulated version of our city that is being sold in safety packaging by condo developers.

Beneath the dizzying sheen of marble counters and stainless steel appliances lie the concrete fences and the surly sentries who patrol the condo lifestyle, where residents pay for the privilege of having a door that not just anyone can knock on. Many experts believe the isolation fostered by Toronto’s fortress-like condo developments is cutting people off from their neighbours and communities.

John Miron, a professor in the geography and planning program at the University of Toronto, sees condo security as a classic example of an increase in private governance that threatens the level of service to the general public. “This is the traditional argument (of those supporting public services), that the moment you get all these voters who are in private-governance situations and they go to elect municipal councillors, they say, “Why are you spending all this money on swimming pools? We’ve got a swimming pool. You’re building a swimming pool for poor people.'”

And indeed, why vote to bring back community policing when you already pay condo fees toward a security force?

Toronto’s new condos — 10,250 units were built in the last two years — offer the benefits of city living as well as insulation from its less desirable characteristics. But in many cases, amenities such as built-in clubs and private shopping are removing the homeowner’s need to live within his or her own neighbourhood altogether.

The problems Toronto faces with the current wave of massive condo development — many of which are bought by first-time homebuyers because they are an affordable option — go beyond gentrification. The shape of the city is changing from one made up of integrated neighbourhoods to one made up of “lifestyle communities” — zones created by socio-economic differences and locked in by security. Without a concerted effort to better integrate these new urban designs into their surroundings, many say, condos will quickly become little more than exclusive vertical suburbs.

“Condo owners can get away from the neighbourhood we can’t, it’s in our face,” says Louisa Quarta, president of the board of directors of the Jenny Green Co-op. The co-op, located at Dundas and George, is nestled among long-established areas of poverty and drug trafficking — and is minutes away from an increasing number of gentrified condo developments such as the Merchandise Building and the Pantages Tower.

Rather than bringing new vitality to the neighbourhood, though, Quarta says condo development has had little positive economic impact in the area. The Merchandise Building’s idea of community involvement is to build a private espresso bar on the fourth floor so that none of the residents need patronize any of the local establishments on their way to the subway.

“The greatest thing for our community has been the opening of Dominion (the grocery store inside the Merchandise Building),” Quarta says, “but Dominion is very expensive. A lot of residents will still do their shopping in Cabbagetown.’

Buildings like the Merchandise Building or the Candy Factory at Queen and Shaw are prime examples of high-end lofts that cater to a clientele, not a neighbourhood. Both are relative islands in economically depressed parts of town, and both are designed to limit interaction with their environments.

While on the one hand developers are positioning the Toronto experience as one of limitless trendy nightlife, on the other they’re selling a lifestyle based on total retreat from that same urban setting. The Web site for Tridel, one of the city’s most prominent developers, offers “escape” as its primary bullet point under the header “Condo Living.” What better way to draw a thick line between city and sanctuary than with walls and guards?

Wealthy clients traditionally desire an environment with high security a side-effect of this is that obtrusive security becomes a symbol of the elite and thus a desirable feature for those with more modest means. Allowing professional security to become not only trendy but also commonplace leads us down a dangerous path. Security guards, closed-circuit cameras and portable personal alarms are beginning to replace traditional requirements of human survival like responsibility and awareness.

When we have the luxury of pretending our neighbours aren’t there, it’s a short step to pretending the rest of the city has disappeared as well — and our civic responsibilities along with it. “When you buy a house,” Miron says, “it doesn’t come with the pool, public gardens, etc, so you’re going to seek those things out in the community. You become more interested in the community.”

Most security experts and city planners agree that the best form of security is simply to have people around. Yet many condominiums in Toronto have opted for guards and surveillance rather than environments that would cause human traffic to flow naturally.

In fact, the security elements in many buildings tend to discourage congregation. Director of consulting for Intercon Security Mike Fenton says, “Condo boards discourage the amount of activity in a garage, whereas that’s the opposite of what you want.”

Fenton recommends that buildings outfit their garages with car wash stations and vacuums, amenities that encourage homeowners to linger in parking areas, thereby reducing crime. Easy steps like this seem preferable to the personal “panic alarm” key chains that are becoming standard for Tridel property owners. If residents are told to be afraid to walk to their cars in their own homes, what kind of message do they get about the rest of the city?

As the notions of security, privacy and insularity are blended and repackaged into “safe havens” that can be bought and sold, we are witnessing a trend toward a city where guards and surveillance are less features of necessity than desirable lifestyle elements.

The fragmentation of our neighbourhoods and basic relationships with one another creates a populace that will be unprepared to come together to face the real challenges of daily living.

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