Toronto is on the up, with its rapidly rising skyline, growing economy and top liveability rankings. Not that it would shout about it, says Jenny Southan
Even with headphones on, the roar of the rotor blades above me is deafening.
After taking off from the island airport of Billy Bishop, metres from the shore of Lake Ontario, our helicopter is drawing a gentle curve around the 553-metre-high CN Tower.
Built as a tourist attraction in 1976, it was the tallest free-standing structure in the world until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa surpassed it in 2007. The concrete spire still has a certain modernist majesty; the high-rise blocks of Downtown clustering around it like an army.
Cranes are everywhere you look – Toronto has more of them than any other city in North America.
“There are more than 130 skyscrapers under construction here,” says Jason Kucherawy, owner and operator of Tour Guys (tourguys.ca). “Everything in that blueish glass has been built in the past five years – we refer to it as Vancouver Style.”
Compared with 2005, when there were only 13 buildings taller than 150 metres, today there are more than 40. You might say that infrastructure development is propelling this Canadian city to new heights.
Toronto Pearson International now sees flag carrier Air Canada operating the Dreamliner to London, and is working on becoming one of the world’s top ten airport hubs. (It has been the fastest-growing airport in North America for the past four years.)
Last year, it handled 38.6 million passengers but, by 2030, it intends to grow this to 64 million. In June, the new UP Express train (upexpress.com) began shuttling travellers between the airport 23km away and Union station in Downtown, the journey taking 25 minutes.
Over at Billy Bishop, a long-awaited pedestrian tunnel also opened in the summer, linking the airport with the mainland (previously passengers had to wait for a ferry), allowing easy access for those travelling throughout Canada and the US to board flights with regional airline Porter (flyporter.com), as well as Heli Tours (helitours.ca).
Serving 24 destinations including New York, Chicago and Montréal, Porter had been hoping for an expansion of the airport and the delivery of 12 new Bombardier CS100 “whisper jets” for longer routes.
However, transport minister Marc Garneau announced on Twitter in November that these plans had been ditched.
Given how close the aircraft fly to the city – you can see them swooping in over the water – it’s no surprise that the move would have been unpopular with many residents, despite the fact that Billy Bishop already handles 2.4 million people a year.
Someone who has won the public vote is Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister – the 43-year-old son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, he heads up the Liberal Party that came to office in the autumn.
Winning with a clear majority, he was applauded for his intentions to raise taxes on the richest 1 per cent, legalise marijuana, accept more refugees and boost spending on infrastructure, and for his gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet of 15 men and 15 women.
Although the country is in recession and struggling with a weak dollar, in 2014 Toronto had the fastest-growing economy in Canada for the first time since 1999. Growth of 3.1 per cent was expected for 2015.
Its population (2.8 million for the city proper) is also on the rise – today, it is the fourth-biggest city in North America, after Mexico City (first), New York (second) and LA (third).
Kucherawy says: “When Americans come here they think of Canada as this insignificant country with a lot of forest and wilderness, lumberjacks and hockey players, but this is a city that rivals Chicago – and there is talk that in 50 to 70 years we will actually be larger than LA.”
After New York, Toronto also has the highest number of super-rich in North America – that’s 1,216 people with a net worth of US$30 million or more.
In 2015 it was named the world’s best city to live in by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It came eighth out of 84 in the 2015 Global Financial Centres Index by Z/Yen Group and Qatar Financial Centre, ahead of Boston, Washington DC, Geneva, Frankfurt and Shanghai. (London came first and New York second.)
“All these things we are really proud of but we don’t talk about it much. It’s not our style,” says Mark Crawford, director of international business development for Tourism Toronto (seetorontonow.com).
“We hosted the Pan Am Games in the summer. It was a great success and after that there was a lot of talk about whether we should bid for the 2024 Olympics. Ultimately we decided not to. I think the appetite for hosting these kinds of events is diminishing because of the cost.”
It’s perhaps such aversion to risk that helped the country to avoid the global downturn of 2008-09.
Crawford says: “Canada was largely unaffected by the economic crisis because our banks were very conservative. We didn’t have those crazy mortgages – in fact, we used to get mad at our banks because we couldn’t get loans.”
Recognising its sagacity, the UK hired the Bank of Canada’s Mark Carney as the governor of the Bank of England in 2013.
Following my tour guide out of the underground PATH network of shops and cafés that stretches almost 30km under the towers of Downtown, we emerge outside Union station and pause to look up at the Royal Bank of Canada on Bay Street. It’s easy to spot its uncharacteristically bling exterior – every pane of glass has real gold baked into it.
On the same block is the Fairmont Royal York, the original railway hotel. “It was the tallest building in the British Empire when it was built in 1929 but it’s hard to believe now as it’s dwarfed by all these other towers,” Kucherawy says.
Back beneath ground, the Union station subway has just completed the first stage of a major renovation project, revitalising the ticket halls and adding a new platform. A further subterranean PATH level will be added in 2017.
MOVING ON UP
While Downtown is seeing most of the high-rise development, other neighbourhoods have also been undergoing transformation.
The pedestrianised Distillery District is probably the best example – restored in 2003, the Victorian red-brick warehouse complex now features trendy boutiques selling sake, gelato and artisan chocolate, as well as trendy bars and restaurants.
What’s most interesting, though, is the 2014 arrival of 43a Parliament Street – a 22,000 sqm server farm designed by WZMH Architects to store big data generated by numerous (unnamed) companies. There is another one at 151 Front Street, although you’d never spot it.
“There is nothing to indicate what it is because if anything were to happen to this building, the entire internet in Canada would be broken in the worst possible way,” Kucherawy says.
Once an industrial wasteland, the nearby Waterfront alongside Queens Quay has also been given a facelift, with bike lanes added in 2015, to complement granite promenades, art galleries, trees and beaches. “During the summer there were thousands of cyclists going by each day – before, there were maybe 50 or 60,” he says.
Passing through Downtown, I pop into the women’s-only private club Verity (verity.ca) to meet its managing director, Mary Aitken. Now with 800 members, who pay as much as CA$3,025 a year plus a CA$10,700 joining fee, it opened in 2004 at a time when its Queen Street East location was run down.
Aitken says: “I chose this location because Queen Street West was going through a period of having raves and people in their teens were going crazy on the streets so it was a little threatening. But this is really changing – across the street that car park has been sold and will be a mixed-use building with underground parking.”
West Queen West is also becoming gentrified. According to locals, the catalyst was the opening of the Drake (thedrakehotel.ca) just over a decade ago by influential Torontonian Jeff Stober.
Located at 1,150 Queen Street West, the hotel has drawn hipsters to the area with a lively events programme, rotating art exhibitions, basement parties and good food and drink served both in its ground-floor café and restaurant and upstairs at its Moroccan-inspired Sky Yard.
Bill Simpson, chief development officer of the Drake, says: “When we opened in 2004, it defied logic that someone would build a world-class boutique hotel in a neighbourhood like this. The dominant retail landscape was appliance stores, little mom and pop stores and a couple of Chinese restaurants. People settled here because it was so affordable.”
Galleries, artists and creative companies soon moved in too. Simpson adds: “Now there are 17 condos across the street with 4,000 people living in them.”
The hotel itself is modest, with only 19 rooms, but there are plans to expand.
Simpson says: “We own the three buildings next door – one is Drake General Store and two are our offices – and we are working on incorporating them to create 32 more rooms. We hope to start construction in the spring, with completion for late 2017.”
The Drake Hotel Properties portfolio also incorporates Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District, and the Drake Devonshire, a chic lakeside retreat 200km from the city, which opened just over a year ago.
In 2014, Toronto welcomed a record 14.3 million tourists. Catering to demand, the past half-decade has seen a number of new hotel openings.
The 102-room Thompson arrived in 2010 – New York’s Studio Gaia designed the minimalist interiors, which include extensive meeting space, but it is best known for its rooftop pool scene. Facebook, Nike and the Toronto International Film Festival have all hosted functions here.
The Ritz-Carlton opened in 2011, with a pool facing the CN Tower, while the Trump International Hotel and Tower and the Shangri-La launched in 2012, and Marriott’s Delta Toronto at Southcore Financial Centre in 2014.
Four Seasons moved to its new address at 60 Yorkville Avenue three years ago. General manager Dimitrios Zarikos says: “This is the fifth iteration of the Four Seasons in Toronto [the Canadian brand opened its first hotel here in 1961], and for the first time, the founder of the company, Mr [Isadore] Sharp, calls it the flagship.”
More hotels are on the horizon. Local food and nightlife mogul Charles Khabouth, of Ink Entertainment, owns the new-build Bisha Hotel and Residences, to open early in 2016. The glitzy 100-room property will be the first OE Collection property from Loews Hotels, and will be located in the Entertainment District.
The 406-room Hotel X is “coming soon” with a rooftop pool, two-storey cinema and ten squash courts, while mini-chain Ace will make its Canadian debut at 51 Camden Street, in the Fashion District, in 2018.
Another sign of the city’s reinvention is its dynamic food scene. Celebrity chefs have been launching restaurants – the Four Seasons has Daniel Boulud, while Jamie Oliver is coming next year. In September 2015, local chef Susur Lee partnered with Torontonian rap star Drake (no association to the hotel) to open Fring’s on King Street West.
Drake also designed the new black and gold uniform for the Toronto Raptors basketball team – I go to see them take on the Milwaukee Bucks at the Air Canada Centre. To the sound of homegrown star Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean, a troop of cheerleaders comes bouncing out, T-shirts are thrown into the crowd, and a dinosaur mascot dances.
As the Raptors shoot their last hoop to win 106 to 87, the crowd roars, and Toronto triumphs once again.
Read reviews of Air Canada’s B787 London-Toronto service (economy and premium economy) and the Thompson and Ritz-Carlton hotels.