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Taking Root

Alex Newman

National Post
October 5, 2013

With a changed downtown demographic, a new kind of food experience is emerging

From calamari pita at the gourmet food truck to organic spuds at the farmers’ market, milk and bread at the supermarket to tomatoes fresh from the balcony, it’s food, glorious food in Hogtown. It hasn’t always been so.

Ten years ago, when architect Sybil Wa and her family moved into a downtown condo, the St. Lawrence Market was about the only place within walking distance to buy food. But it was closed on Sundays, and didn’t carry baby food or diapers. The landscape changed quickly, though; within a couple of years, Loblaws had opened at the foot of Jarvis and, not long after, Ms. Wa started seeing Sobeys and Longo’s stores popping up everywhere there was a condo being built.

The same happened in the downtown west area. In the late 1990s, when Concord Adex was developing Concord CityPlace, the area around Front and Spadina was “desolate, a barren wasteland of parking lots,” according to vice-president Gabriel Leung. “It was hard enough for buyers to visualize a community, even harder to attract good retail tenants.”

The only grocery chain willing to gamble on having enough customers to stay afloat was Rabba, but the small store could never handle the future population ­­— 18,000 residents spread over 28 buildings. (Currently, there are 22 buildings and 12,000 residents.)

By the time the developer had built out the west side of Spadina in 2004, the streetscape had become more pedestrian friendly. Sobeys had started experimenting with an urban format, so the two got together. Concord Adex rented the retail space, in order to retain some control over function and appearance — no window posters to impede views into the store, and an outdoor seating area with tables and umbrellas to give the feel of a marketplace.

Anticipating needs is challenging for both grocers and developers, especially in an emerging area like downtown west. “A developer takes considerable risk holding back 20,000 sq. ft. of retail in the hopes that a grocer will set up once people have moved in,” says Craig Taylor, director of design and marketing for Context Development, which is currently constructing Library District in the area. “And grocers had been slow to adapt to and anticipate urban needs, although that’s changing with increased populations.”There’s risk on the retailer side as well, says Brian Cook, a researcher for the Toronto Food Strategy team at Toronto Public Health (TPH). “I’m told Toronto has the most competitive food retail market on the continent, and margins are razor thin. Grocers pore over data … for them it’s about the area’s existing economic modelling, so they tend to be more comfortable with smaller formats, like the ground floor of a condo apartment.”

That’s partly because of the high cost of real estate, says Sandra Duff, marketing and communications manager for Longos, which now has five downtown locations. But it’s also because condo dwellers shop differently, she says — more frequently, because they’re not stocking up the way people do in the grocer’s suburban locations.

Also unique to downtown, Ms. Duff says, is how prepared meals seem to fly off the shelf — salad bars, hot counters, sushi bars and gourmet frozen meals.

Ready meals seem to be a trend, judging by lineups at the food trucks, those mobile diners that dish up anything from grilled cheese to lobster tails. A staple on New York and Los Angeles streets for many years, the trucks surfaced in Toronto around 2011 and really took off this year.

Tim Shore, publisher of torontofoodtrucks.ca, says the trucks aren’t filling a gap left by lack of grocery stores, but a need for good quality fast food. They are popular at events —many are positioned at the Sony Centre — and they feed legions of downtown office workers. (Mr. Shore’s website keeps customers informed of the various trucks’ whereabouts.)

Though not allowed on public property, the trucks were invited to sell their wares at four public parks this summer through a City of Toronto pilot project. That, and the results from an online survey, will help the city decide whether to allow the trucks on public city streets or not. But with prices starting at $5 for good quality meals — often ethnic — and prepared by real chefs, it’s not surprising the trucks are swarmed every day. Given the trend is on an upswing south of the border, it’s likely here to stay.

This surge in food interest goes beyond the need to feed the city’s growing population, says TAS developer Mazyar Mortavazi. He believes there’s also been a radical cultural shift in our relationship with food, especially where it comes from. Being closer to the source — farmers’ markets, rooftop and community gardens, and organic deliveries from local farms — is important to urban dwellers. And it’s not about being foodie snobs — Mr. Mortazavi believes we’ve matured to a point that we regard access to healthy food access as fundamental to a good life.

That’s why TAS is committed to raising awareness about food security through the Farm Lot, a food initiative developed on TAS’s empty site at 369 King St. W. in conjunction with Fresh City Farms. There, the empty land has been tilled, planted, harvested and shared.

Daniels has brought community gardening to its HighPark Condominiums project by incorporating garden plots into the overall 18,000-sq.-ft. amenity space. Located on the second floor of the condo, the plots will allow residents to grow herbs and vegetables.

Once the residents have moved in, Daniels will provide workshops by The Cutting Veg and Garden Jane to help residents take advantage of the amenity.

The developer also opened a Wednesday farmers market this summer in Regent Park. The main benefit of the market, says Heather Lloyd, Daniels’ marketing director, is social cohesion. Since many vendors are area residents — and prepare their food stuffs in the nearby Paintbox Bistro kitchen — the market has gathered the community together. Daniels has also created a roof garden project there, from where more than 300 pounds of food has been donated to the Regent Park community food centre.

It has also brought people from other areas, creating vital links between neighbourhoods, Ms. Lloyd says. “People not only build a better relationship with food, but also a better community through food.”

Posted on Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 12:01PM by Registered CommenterElaine in | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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