A commercial real estate company touting a potential “car condominium” to create high-end storage for automotive enthusiasts in Toronto is raising questions about land economics and zoning in Canada’s biggest cities.
“This is going to be a luxury item, people don’t need this, but people are going to want to have this,” said Ming Zee, president and broker of record for Metropolitan Commercial Realty Inc. He and his partners are planning to convert a multistorey 1970s-era industrial warehouse at 20 Towns Rd. in Etobicoke into a palace for storing cars – appropriately named ToyBx – but instead of finding clients looking to rent a garage space, each unit will be parcelled out and sold separately as its own unit.
But while the plan has a decent chance of finding enough Toronto-area car lovers willing to buy one of perhaps 195 separate units (each capable of holding at least four cars with a car-stacker rig), some have seen the idea as an extreme example of a land-use system so broken that it’s easier to create apartments for cars than for humans.
Metropolitan has not released pricing details to the public yet, but Mr. Zee said buyers could expect rates close to what a parking space costs in downtown Toronto residential condominiums: For condo parking spots that were publicly listed in 2020, the sale prices ranged between $80,000 to $120,000.
Mr. Zee is not insensitive to concerns from housing activists who have called the plan “disrespectful” and worse online and in media accounts. But as he points out, the building is smack in the middle of an area zoned for industrial uses by the City of Toronto and he doesn’t foresee a path to rezoning the land to allow for people to live in those condos. As it is, he only needs minor variance approvals from the Committee of Adjustment to proceed with a plan to create a glass-walled penthouse level on the roof of the structure.
“We’re all advocates of affordable housing, but we don’t have experience with residential development. And we couldn’t convert this if we wanted to,” he said.
And that’s precisely the problem, according to land use experts such as Ken Greenberg, a consultant who is the former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto. “We’ve inherited this beast called ‘employment lands’ and unfortunately it has frozen enormous amounts of land throughout the Greater Golden Horseshoe Area,” Mr. Greenberg said. “Like all things, they start with good intentions: We thought we needed to preserve a certain amount of land for jobs and employment and in extreme cases for heavy industries that doesn’t mix so well with residential [such as refineries or polluting factories].”
However over the past few decades, many of the heavy industries are decamping to cheaper labour jurisdictions: According to Statistics Canada, there are more than 200,000 fewer manufacturing jobs in the province of Ontario as of 2020 than there were in 1990 despite the population booming by more than 4.5 million people in that time (in Toronto alone, there are almost 20,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than there were in 2007). Moreover, today’s workers don’t want to live so far from their jobs. Plans such as the Downsview Airport conversion could see the formerly industrial land play host to 100,000 residents and 40,000 jobs – far more than have recently been employed by manufacturers there.
The building in question at 20 Towns Rd. was formerly a part of the W & A Gilbey distillery, a defunct spirits maker. It was built out of concrete to serve as fireproof storage for aging spirits. As such, it’s practically a bomb shelter, with floors that could manage the weight of thousands of tonnes of liquor. The embodied carbon alone of the 180,000-square-foot structure makes reusing it a greener option than tearing it down.
Mr. Zee and his partners are commercial real estate investors, and have flipped similar properties to residential builders in downtown Toronto and have seen up close that rezoning can take close to a decade. They are all car buffs – Mr. Zee takes his Porsche 911 GT3 to the Toronto Motorsports Park to blow off steam and is looking to add a 1967 Ford Mustang Fastback to his collection – and they saw their hobby as a quicker way to make the building pay off.
“All the partners are purchasing their own units,” he said. Already the partners have tapped their network of enthusiasts, while several have pledged to purchase units although sales don’t officially begin until December.
“I’ve been talking about car condos for 10 years. It’s the natural progression of storage, but I couldn’t find the right partners,” said Gary Shapiro, who owns and operates Auto Vault Canada, one of Toronto’s largest car storage rental facilities for collectors. He has 450 clients who store anywhere between two and 20 cars, and while there’s always some attrition, he is usually selling out his last spaces at this time of year as winter approaches.
“They are not all the superrich: They are firemen, police, accountants, and, yeah, some money guys on Bay Street,” he said. For most, they collect for emotional reasons; sometimes the vehicles are worth less than the money renters can end up paying to store them. “A ‘67 Camaro is just as important to that owner as the $300,000 Ferrari is to the kid who parks it over the winter.”
Jimmy Molloy, a leading luxury property sales representative with Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd., says that for some of his clients, the parking situation can make or break a deal. “In neighbourhoods like Rosedale where the houses are historically protected, a lot of times they have one-car parking and it’s not like they can add a garage. They say, ‘I’d love to buy it, but what am I going to do with my cars?’ Even those who can afford some of the most expensive apartments in the city at condominiums such as the Four Seasons or the Shangri-La find there’s often not too many parking spaces available for purchase.” Mr. Molloy recalls the last time a Four Seasons spot was available, it sold for $250,000.
The type of car that an enthusiast might want to collect or drive is also changing. “The category is growing over all, and what a ‘collector car’ is has continued to expand: everything from vintage and muscle cars to modern classics. The audience is getting younger, more female and moving into millennial buyers looking for eighties and nineties performance and luxury models,” said Shel Smith, president and CEO of online specialty vehicle auction site Shiftegate.com.
Mr. Zee and his colleagues believe this could just be the first of several such facilities in the region, and are looking now for appropriate sites. Core Developments is pitching a similar vision on a midtown Toronto property, and a few examples are up and running in Alberta and British Columbia, and are increasingly popular in New York, Miami and parts of California and Arizona.
All of which makes Mr. Greenberg believe that if car storage is having a moment, it’s in the best interest of cities that those structures not become condominiums.
“I think it’s a terrible idea for the following reason: Any form of condo for cars or housing or retail tends to freeze the building in a very particular way,” he said. “Once something is stratified, it’s very hard to change it to anything else, because you have to get all the owners to agree.” Indeed, there are only a handful of cases in Ontario where the unit-owners who are the stakeholders in a condominium corporation have agreed to dissolve so the buildings could be sold or converted to other uses.
Mr. Greenberg says industrial lands can change over time, but only if we allow them to. “There’s a kind of succession where you move up the ladder in terms of the value of the land, and then you move to another set of uses.”
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