Photo: Daniel Lobo/Flickr

If you’ve ever strolled past a new condo development (and in Toronto, who hasn’t?) and were left unimpressed with the ground-floor retailers, you’re not alone.

This was apparent at BuzzBuzzHome News’ recent Building TO Tomorrow panel, which explored what the future of Toronto real estate would look like. Lacklustre commercial offerings didn’t escape mention.

“A lot of condo towers [are] going up in the city, and it seems a lot of the times that the grade experience — the retail stuff — ends up being dry cleaners and convenience stores and really crappy stuff,” said Rob Galletta, managing partner at Toronto-based marketing firm Blackjet Inc., while moderating the panel.

But while some bemoan Shoppers Drug Marts, bank branches, and the ubiquitous dry cleaners as all-too-familiar tenants in new mixed-use developments across the city today, experts say the tide is changing.

Rob Spanier, partner and principal at Live Work Learn Play, an international real estate advisory firm, says the increasing number of projects vying for a share of the Toronto market is leading builders to think outside the box format.

“Ten years ago you just wanted retail to fill a space because you had to pay for it,” says Spanier, who took part in the panel event at Queen Richmond Centre West on May 3rd.

“But now, they’re (builders) realizing when you’re competing with 40 other condo sites, you better have something a little bit different, and the retail can actually provide that experience,” he tells BuzzBuzzHome News.

“The developers are actually starting to realize that the experience at the ground floor is really what drives the activation of the community but also helps them with their residential sales,” notes Spanier.

Spanier suggests Toronto city builders look internationally for inspiration. “Buenos Aires, Tokyo: They are light years ahead of us. You have places like Paris, London, New York, LA. They’re doing incredible things, and that’s what Toronto needs to think about,” he says.

Taking a local view, Spanier highlights a particular mixed-use Toronto project he had a hand in shaping.

“I think Canary District presents an opportunity that is unique and different that focuses on a vision of health and wellness, which is something that is really lacking in terms of vision for retail,” says Spanier.

That theme shouldn’t be surprising given the Canary District’s origins.

Dundee Kilmer Developments built it to first serve as the athletes village for participants of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am / Parapan Am Games before converting it into a mixed-use community following the international event.

Live Work Learn Play sought out niche vendors, rather than waiting for the biggest tenants to come knocking. The first several retailers announced for Canary District reflect this process, as well as the former athletes village’s initial purpose.

CanaryDistrict_RetailSpaces Canary District in March of this year. Photo: James Bombales

They include the Running Room, a North American specialty chain dealing in athletic wear, Think Fitness Studios, a boutique fitness centre, and OpusGlow Concept Spa, a local GTA spa with two locations.

And for a caffeine fix, you won’t come across a certain black-green-and-white chain: local cafe Dark Horse Espresso, which opened in Canary District last month, have that covered.

Megan McGowan, senior vice president at S & H Realty Corporation, which offer retail-consulting services to developers, says more builders have been enlisting consulting firms recently.

Although overall “very few” want to pay firms for consulting, McGowan believes that recently developers have seen enough retail disasters to motivate some to hire a firm to help.

However, “an education process” is still how she describes her work in getting builders to come on board.

“Most of them (developers) think they can do it themselves and they look at the retail as a very small financial part of their project, therefore they don’t bother,” she explains.

And even when they do, sometimes it’s already too late. “When you’re dealing in mixed-use, one of the very big issues is that most of the landlords do not engage retail consultants early enough,” says McGowan.

Rather than thinking about the tenant after planning the retail space, she recommends having a vision before square footage has been set aside.

“There’s a whole bunch of information on how high a store needs to be inside, where are the columns, what’s the spacing,” she says. By getting in earlier, you can shape the actual physical space rather than merely setting aside a square footage.

Another element that can lead to a more successful retail element is by providing customers with choices, McGowan suggests.

“If you want to… have a bunch of people come for nightlife-type stuff, well, then you have to give them more than one choice,” says McGowan. “It can’t be one restaurant — that’s not going to work. That’s not a cluster; it’s not giving people an option,” she adds.

McGowan is hard-pressed to name what she considers a standout Toronto mixed-use project. “There’s no urban developments that jump out in my mind that are absolutely fabulous, there’s… pieces here and there,” she explains.

One explanation for a lack of variety in condo podiums is money. Local independents don’t have pockets as deep as large chains.

Though McGowan acknowledges that “money talks,” she adds “in retail sometimes you’re smarter not to take the guy who’s going to pay the most but the guy who’s going to give into your property and has a long-term view.”

“If you have a long-term owner with a long-term view, they can create something really good.”

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