The City of Toronto has a long, fraught relationship with development and vacancy. The map of the initial Toronto Purchase of 1787 between the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation and the British Crown, which would later establish the colonial territory that became Toronto, conceives of the landscape as a single, clearly defined vacant lot anxious for development. Or, as artist Luis Jacob better described it, “signifying nothing but an empty page waiting to be inscribed at will.” Over two-hundred years later, as housing availability, prices, and rental shortages drive vertical condominium developments in the city, the politics of the vacant lot have never felt so palpable.
The first condominiums appeared in Toronto during the late 1960s as a solution to a crisis of affordable housing. By 1981, the newspaper The Globe and Mail would prophetically report that “vacant lots all over downtown Toronto are sprouting condominiums of late.” The Globe would further lament that “no sooner has one of the glamorous edifices begun to climb the Toronto skyline than the sold out sign is posted, and the next development announced.” After a 30% drop in prices during the 1990s, the early 2000s saw the expansion of Toronto’s “condo euphoria” with sites zoned across the Greater Toronto Area from CityPlace to College Park. Now, these towering edifices—captured here by photographer Manuel Alvarez Diestro—have become icons of both the city’s downtown identity as well as capital-driven development.
In the last decade, there has been a visible shift in the investments shaping the city’s urban fabric. Where architects like Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry once designed extensions to cultural infrastructure, in Toronto they now turn to luxury residential development. Libeskind’s filleted 8 Esplanade and Gehry’s controversial concept for the Mirvish towers only foreground colossal infrastructure like Foster + Partners The One, which broke ground in September 2017 and is marketed as “Canada’s Tallest Building.” Massive expansions like Sidewalk Labs’ Smart City will occupy vacant industrial space in the Port Lands and radically transform the city’s waterfront. It is difficult to walk down the street without stumbling across another massive hole filled with burgeoning foundations.
Beyond these luxury developments, the sea of monotonous glass towers defining the skyline have been the go-to for supporting the needs of a growing population of middle-class residents and renters. As city planners estimate Toronto’s population will expand by approximately 25% in the next three decades, the fallout from increased development and the waning quality of construction has not gone unnoticed. “In 50 years these buildings may well become an urban slum,” argued professor of building science at the University of Toronto Ted Kesik while speaking to the CBC. Glass panels have tumbled from projects like the Trump Tower, Shangri-La, and many other multi-level residential structures, prompting revisions to allowable materials in the Ontario Building Code, while black mold found in structures barely in their second decade has tenants worried.
Diestro’s photographs catalog this existing infrastructure, specifically the sleek towers in developer Concord Adex’s CityPlace neighborhood, as well as the current expansion referred to as Block 31. Housing primarily young families and working professionals, the middle-class neighborhood occupies the former Spadina Street Yards, once part of the Canadian National Railway built atop an artificial shoreline fabricated for industrial expansion in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The projected two-billion-dollar development officially secured the vacant land in 1997 to redevelop a key piece of the city’s real estate after the ownership of the site transferred to the City of Toronto in 1992. Beginning with two towers aspirationally titled Matrix and Matrix two, completed in 2002, the site was soon populated by the additional structures Apex, Harbourview Estates, and the cylindrical and rectangular Parade towers joined by an OMA-esque skybridge (among many others) between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street.
Flanked by the tracks of the GO Train line—offering commuter services to surrounding communities—along with the Gardiner Expressway and Lakeshore Boulevard West, CityPlace is less an active thriving community than a field of towering glass and steel. As half-finished concrete skeletons partially skinned in a ubiquitous glazing litter the skyline, comparisons to Le Corbusier’s Radiant City or the utopian dreams of Pruitt Igoe are not far off.
With the promise of schools, libraries, galleries, and other cultural amenities, young families flocked to the glazed CityPlace developments captured by Diestro. Almost two decades later, this promise has yet to be entirely fulfilled. The 8-acre Canoe Landing Park was inaugurated in 2009, followed 5 years later by the Fort York branch of the Toronto Public Library, designed by Toronto-based KPMB Architects, at the base of Bathurst Street near the western-most portion of the development. ZAS Architects’ Canoe Landing Centre, as well as Bishop Macdonell Catholic and Jean Lumb Public Schools, are slated to open in fall 2019, providing space for 550 students alongside much-needed public programs. While the area has matured in recent years as additional amenities, retailers, and community organizations have moved in, the sites of much of the proposed infrastructure remain all but vacant aside from rumble, rebar, heavy machinery, and the few plant and animal species that have managed to appropriate the site.
However, a lack of public life is far from the only challenge facing vertical residential developments like CityPlace. As was true in the 1960s, the city is still struggling to provide affordable housing for those outside of the 1%. Small-scale developments have begun to occupy former parking lots and vacant spaces in areas largely populated with single-family dwellings, but not without controversy. An 8-story, 16-unit condominium in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood was met with resistance by the area’s elite residents—from Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood to grocery mogul Galen Weston Jr.— much to the chagrin of authors and critics alike.
But this NIMBYism has real consequences for urban centers like Toronto—less affordable cities that are poorly equipped to handle growth and which thus physically manifest economic divides. Where critics like Jane Jacobs once stopped massive infrastructural projects to preserve the city’s enclaves, this current mantra of “not in my backyard” only fuels the city’s ambiguous planning standards and consolidation of new residential development to downtown vertical neighborhoods like CityPlace. As The Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic argues, the new homes that will support the city’s projected population will be infill additions to existing neighborhoods—ultimately, in someone’s backyard or, as zoning regulations potentially shift, someone’s laneway: the last reserves of vacant space.
When vacant lots are unavailable or proposals are pushed out of residential neighborhoods, developers have taken to transforming existing sites into empty vessels for expansion. Black-and-white “Development Proposal” signs are as pervasive as the towers they illustrate, seemingly emerging along neighborhood blocks across the city daily. From urban leftovers to historic buildings all but decimated to preserve a “heritage” element in a blatant act of facadism, these contextless expansions have unsurprisingly been met with pessimism. In fall 2016, a collective began installing fake “Development Proposal” signs to mock the city’s condo mania: a multi-story appendage to the CN Tower and a stacked residence on Will Alsop’s Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD University, among others. One proposal, potentially the most sarcastic of all, imagines populating the empty airspace above Viljio Revell’s Toronto City Hall with a 50-story tower of 402 dwelling units.
While condo-ization has become a prominent aspect of Toronto’s cultural and architectural identity, the politics of the plots on which they rest is equally important, if not more, to the city’s imaginary. But absence is only relative. And, as the long history of Indigenous presence and the burgeoning ecosystems in Block 31 both attest: No lot is truly vacant. What remains across two centuries of development—the thread connecting artificial shorelines and buried rivers and shining vertical cities—is an almost mythical drive to render the world a vacant lot.