EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series that looks at our densifying suburban cities in Metro Vancouver and the GTA.
Canada’s big-city buildings are changing. We’re jamming in more uses, more amenities and more people into bigger, bolder buildings — and many of these projects are in the suburbs.
We are seeing taller buildings, decentralized commercial vitality and an increase in stacked mixed-use buildings sometimes combining residential, light industrial, office and retail all in one site or complex.
Despite strong growth in downtowns across the country, we were already seeing some jobs, commerce, homes and people dispersing into satellite cities or post-suburban city centres — especially in and around Toronto and Vancouver.
The pandemic and the new normal we’re experiencing is really just an acceleration of what was already taking place. Placemaking, or the process of developing quality spaces where people can live, work and spend their money, has evolved.
It’s no longer just the Liberty Villages, East Harbours and The Well.
So what does the future of high-density look like and can our communities handle this?
Buildings are moving up and moving out
Population growth, limited land availability and rising costs have led developers to make more efficient use of the lands they can get their hands on.
For projects to be cost-effective with limited space to build out, developers are building up. This is especially true in our largest cities where the number of developable sites sometimes feel like postage stamps.
As a result, we are starting to see bigger, bolder skyscrapers.
A great example of this is Sky Tower at Pinnacle One Yonge. The 95-storey behemoth is a mixed retail residential building currently under construction along the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto.
Set to complete in 2024, Canada’s tallest tower will have 840 condos plus space for a hotel, community centre, offices and retail space.
This is a multi-use tower that will rival every other super-tall building in the city in height, except for the CN Tower.
Also in Toronto, One Delisle by Slate Asset Management and Studio Gang Architects will begin construction soon, eventually completing in 2026. The 44-storey tower will include condos, as well as office and retail uses.
Suburbs are starting to resemble cities
Interestingly, this trend of building up is also extending to the suburbs.
In the Vancouver context, most of this development is taking place in the suburbs. As housing prices continue to rise and young professionals begin to settle down, suburban neighbourhoods are becoming more popular and, as a result, more metropolitan.
Rezonings and redevelopments in the already dense downtown cores are also becoming more challenging.
People often want to live in the neighbourhoods they grew up in; however, the cost of housing has gone up dramatically and affordable single-family homes are in limited supply, making high-rise residential an attractive and sometimes the only option.
In order to accommodate the demand and make more efficient use of space, suburban areas such as Markham, Mississauga, Surrey, Coquitlam and Burnaby are seeing high-rise projects currently under proposal or construction.
The densification of suburban neighbourhoods is a trend that is expected to continue and potentially intensify with remote work and the limited supply of affordable single-family homes.
Companies now have the option to put non-client-facing employees in more affordable suburban space or let them work from home more regularly, further decentralizing economic activity.
Mixed-use buildings are becoming increasingly popular
Higher density requires more efficient use of infrastructure, which has led to more developers proposing, and municipalities approving, multi-stacked, mixed-use buildings.
Residents are now looking to live, work and play within the same neighbourhood, which has led to the development of new, ultra-high-rise buildings outside of downtown cores or in the suburbs.
For example, Slate Asset Management recently acquired an acre-sized parcel of land at 339 East First Ave. in the False Creek Flats in Vancouver.
The property is currently zoned for industrial uses. In light of anticipated policies in the coming Broadway Corridor Plan (Q1 2022), however, the firm is exploring opportunities to transform its site into a mixed-use destination that will include both jobs and homes.
Its plan for the site includes light industrial uses at grade and opportunities for significant increases in office and housing uses on upper floors — a true ecosystem.
Slate has been active in discussions with Vancouver Planning Staff and neighbouring landowners who share a similar vision for the area.
In Burnaby, M3 and Gatineau Place offer a mixture of residential and retail. 4444 Kingsway, currently under proposal, is looking to take mixed-use one step further by combining residential, hotel, office and retail all in one high-rise tower complex.
At Richmond Town Centre, Shape Properties and Cadillac Fairview are working on a joint venture to transform a shopping centre into a world-class master-planned destination with open spaces, boutique shopping and eventually the addition of 2,000 new homes in the community.
Meanwhile, Surrey City Centre represents one of the fastest-growing hubs in all of Canada and is enjoying attention and activity from top developers like Bosa Properties, Anthem, Concord, PCI and many others.
The lack of industrial space is leading developers to get creative when it comes to commercial spacing, mixing light industrial with office/retail.
Previously there was no desire to combine industrial with other uses; however, with industrial vacancy rates declining and the need for additional warehouse space increasing, mixed-used industrial is becoming more common.
The next phase in the evolution
As e-commerce continues to become a larger component of retail operations, we may start seeing logistics and retail merge on the ground floor of multi-use buildings.
For retailers to be able to hit the next milestone in growth, there could be the extension of storage space by moving the interior back wall forward to allow for more e-commerce orders to be fulfilled directly from the store.
There has already been a shift toward municipalities asking for retail at grade, and as density in the suburbs continues to build, it is likely that larger retail at ground level will follow.
As both lifestyle and consumer needs progress, the idea of placemaking and the future of high-density will continue to evolve.