Toronto’s Tale of Two Cores

Toronto's Waterfront

Remembering back even ten or fifteen years, a drive down the Gardiner Expressway through the downtown core always seemed a little one-sided. On the north side, the pinnacles of Toronto’s banks seemingly jutted against the edge of the highway. On the south side, parking lots, the odd building, and behind the asphalt, a glimmering vista of the lake and the islands. The south core was not always such an inactive space. But after the Gardiner Expressway was built in the 1950s amidst the urban flight to the suburbs, the lakefront was essentially cut off from the city. The only demands for the area were mild industrial, parking lots, and a handful of offices for nearly half a century. While cities such as Chicago and New York have been continuously redeveloping and reintegrating their waterfronts for decades, Toronto had been late to the game. But when Canada’s version of the “great urban migration” started to pick up speed in the 2000s, renewed interest south of the downtown core  followed.

Waterfront Toronto, the City of Toronto affiliate organization charged with the waterfront’s revitalization has for many years been planning and replanning the end vision for what Toronto’s waterfront of the future will be. And although it has received some criticism for taking too long, the organization has certainly created a visionary and smart concept for the city south of the tracks. From the Sherbourne Commons to the West Don Lands to Corus Quay, the water’s edge is already undergoing massive public investment. However, Waterfront Toronto’s efforts, to be covered in a following article, are not the only saving grace for the south of the city.

South Core Statistics1

First the Telus Tower and Maple Leaf Square, and now the South Core Financial Centre, 1 York, and RBC Waterpark Place, the vacant lands south of Union Station have rampantly been built up with new office buildings. Part of the reason, besides historically low vacancy rates north of the train tracks, is the reach of the condo boom in the area. Ice, Maple Leaf Square, Ten York, and the multiple 80-story-plus condo towers are all springing up in remarkable densities.

South Core Statistics

On the other side of the tracks, the central business district around Bay Street might be highly built up and dense, but its composition is almost exclusively office buildings, reflecting the residential flight to the suburbs of previous years. The future of Toronto, and cities in general it seems, is in mixed-use developments, with the south core being a testament to its future viability. With substantially more parkland than the CBD, a growing number of restaurants and retail, and the ever-desirable developing shoreline, the south core is stepping up as the future of Toronto’s development.

With the CBD plateauing in terms of its possible further development, the lands of the south core are being built up in ever-intensifying ways. As shown in the attached Excel spreadsheet here, the average height of buildings in the narrowly-defined south core constrained by Lower Simcoe and Yonge is 133 metres while in the CBD it is 93 metres.

The greater height and future density south of Union might be contentious, but the greater diversity of buildings in the area surely will prove its sustainability and vibrancy going forward. The future of the city might lie across different neighbourhoods as always, but it’s the south core and the waterfront that are truly going to exemplify what’s best in the city.


Christopher Hume, Toronto Star, Waterfront development proceeds at a clip, September 6, 2012

Shelley White, The Globe and Mail, Toronto’s south core – wrong side of the tracks no longer, November 5, 2012

Waterfront Toronto, History and Heritage, Accessed January, 2013

Emporis, Toronto Buildings List, Accessed January 2013