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Sheppard subway gets moving

Adam McDowell
The National Post
November 09, 2012

Whatever side of the track you're on, there's no disputing living close to transit is a plus

Toronto’s surge in condo development is bringing exponential growth to many long-established residential neighbourhoods. In this series, we look at three emerging transit routes, and what’s developing along them. This week: The Sheppard subway line.

The Sheppard subway line’s biggest champion already felt the need to defend it before the first token was plunked into a fare box — such was the worry over whether North York would ever have a high enough population density to pack subway trains full of commuters.

It was Nov. 22, 2002, the day of the official opening of the $933-million project. Mel Lastman, mayor of Toronto at the time and a champion of the line behind the scenes and in front of the public, railed against the doubters. “Yeah, there are a lot of naysayers. Well, it’s too bad. This is the line that should have been built,” Mr. Lastman told reporters, defending a subway that would be derided as a “stubway” and a “subway to nowhere.”

Ten years later to the month, we can still argue the naysayers had a point or two. The Sheppard subway has mostly been a disappointment in terms of ridership, attracting around 50,000 passengers per weekday. (That’s higher than the 47,000 riders in 2009-2010, but compare it with the Bloor-Danforth line’s 500,000.) In 2007, former mayor David Miller even threatened to shut the money-losing Sheppard subway — so much for the idea that it would turn a profit for the TTC.

But subways have a way of stimulating development, which in turn could provide the missing riders the TTC needs. “I think transit is there to support development and development happens because transit is there. They go hand in hand together,” says Victoria Witkowski, a transportation planner for the city of Toronto.

The private sector saw which way the market in Toronto was moving when the Sheppard subway was still a much-discussed maybe: By the late 1980s, developers were already assembling property in the area. They saw that future buyers would want to live in condominiums even in traditionally low-density areas like North York — if the transit links to downtown were convenient enough. A stroll along Sheppard Avenue East today shows that hunch finally coming to fruition, as the latest wave of multi-tower condominium developments are sprouting, creating homes for would-be strap-hangers.

Ms. Witkowski says that homes for an estimated 12,000 new residents are taking shape along the Sheppard line today, from Tridel’s sold-out Hullmark Centre where the line connects with the Yonge subway, to Elad’s three-tower Emerald City at the Sheppard line’s eastern terminus of Don Mills (the project also includes townhomes). And you can’t miss the 18-building Concord Park Place project in between. Four buildings have been completed so far. When the complex is finished sometime around 2020, it will be an entirely new neighbourhood of 9,000 residents, living where low-rise big-box retail stores and warehouses once stood.

Gabriel Leung, vice-president of development for Concord Adex, says the Park Place project never would have happened on such a grand scope if not for the Sheppard subway.

“It’s actually done to take advantage of the subway line being right there at our doorstep,” Mr. Leung says. When Concord Adex bought the land from Canadian Tire in 2006, it acted to put less distance between the subway and those doorsteps. The existing zoning plan had situated a lot of the density to the south of the site, pressing residents against the 401. Mr. Leung says the company remade the plan to shift more of them northward, closer to Sheppard Avenue East and an easier walk to the Leslie and Bessarion subway stations.

As well, Concord Adex has instituted a shuttle service to bring residents to the subway (on weekends, it also hits up Bayview Village and Fairview Mall, which have benefitted from the population boom of the area).

Thousands of buyers are flocking to Sheppard in part because the subway allows them to realize their dreams of ditching their cars for a simpler and cheaper life, says Barbara Lawlor, president and broker at Baker Real Estate.

“There was a time when everybody had a car and everybody bought parking or expected to have parking because they just couldn’t imagine life without it. But it has changed dramatically in Toronto. I would say we are selling at least a third to 50% of our units without parking these days,” Ms. Lawlor says.

Baker is the exclusive listing broker for Emerald City, a development that uses its proximity to Fairview Mall and its direct access to Don Mills subway station as key selling points. She notes that the units in the Dream Tower, currently on sale, are generally more spacious than what would be available downtown. For some buyers, the difference may be enough to be worth the roughly 35-minute subway ride to Yonge and King. As a bonus, subway riders don’t have to worry as much about traffic jams.

“[Emerald City] would have been a tougher sell without the subway. The subway has definitely impacted in a very positive way the speed of the sales and the interest level in the location,” Ms. Lawlor says. “Location that is on the subway is gold. And I think it will become more and more important over the coming years.”

If Toronto is evolving into a more transit-friendly city, developers are all for it. Having arguably saved the Sheppard subway (or at least helped the city’s budget) by providing the riders that were needed all along, they’re downright impatient for Toronto to get moving on other rapid transit projects.

“I’m out there dealing with the buying public who are buying homes who really, really want this transit system sorted out,” Ms. Lawlor says.

Posted on Monday, November 12, 2012 at 02:30PM by Registered CommenterElaine in | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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