mitchellirons

rough notes

The plague (or panacea) of Condo Fever

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Margaret Wente is worried because she has succumbed to Condo Fever. Writing on page A22 in the Saturday, June 12, 2007 edition of The Globe and Mail, she criticizes the massive structures that “march on for miles” in downtown Toronto, but seems to have conceded that she has no choice but move with the rest of her boomer generation “when the zeitgeist overtakes you.” Wente, the able boomer who can always be counted on to write a controversial column (she recently said on TVO‘s Agenda with Steve Paikin that anyone can be a skillful columnist so long as they can muster the energy to be cantakerous about two or three different issues in a week), seems for a moment to have joined the zeitgeist not of living and loving the condo lifestyle, but nostaligically longing for an older time, still held in recent memory of some, where large urban centres held happy communities and suburbs that were affordable to all its denizens and still relatively friendly to the environment. Its a nice dream, but one that has been lost over time.

It is difficult to determine what it is about condominiums that Wente, and so many others living the supposed “Western” lifestyle (an adjective and noun so open to debate that its not worth even discussing half the time) are opposed to. Wente suggests in her column that the destruction of viewplanes, the loss of the urban backyard/garden, and the increasing costs in an inflated housing markets are all ignored in the new urban lifestylethat demands one to “dump your pleasant house with a backyard on a quiet street and buy a showbox in the sky for twice the price.” Instead, boomers, gen-x’ers, graduates, retirees – people of all flock and feather – are all caught in the zeitgeist (there’s that word again) that forces everyone to act uniformly, at once, like “a giant school of fish . . . as if guided by a single reflex.” Zeitgeist notwithstanding, perhaps there’s something a little more to the moment Wente and Co. are all caught in.

Regardless of her wavering levels of relucatance to embrace her Condo Fever, Wente seems bothered most by the inflated market value and the apparently unsightly aesthetic of the condo-ized urban centres of North America. It is true that “condos used to be marketed to 20-somethings who couldn’t afford to buy a house . . . but now . . . [are] marketed to the affluent upper-middle-aged”, a demographic to which Wente belongs. Market value for condos are often much higher than they’re worth, square-foot by square-foot, when compared to single-family dwellings. And the tall towers of steel and glass can ruin viewplanes and often do look redundant when built side-by-side-by-side; the never-ending columns and rows of balconies can make the tallest building appear unbuilt and still held together by exterior scaffolding on the best days. While Wente likely had little wiggle-room to work with in terms of market value for the condo she and her partner purchased, though, she surely had more choice when it came to the condo aesthetic. Condos need not be these 40-storey glass towers, nor have one-too-many yoga and pilates room. Had Wente desired, she likely could have chosen a beautiful old brownstone that oozes character close to Avenue Road rather than one of the many new structures built closer to the Gardiner Expressway (**not** the waterfront, by any means).

But Wente’s choice in condos is not the point here. Her entire subtext, of conceding defeat to a perilous new urban aesthetic and lifestyle, is a maligned argument that sits best with “the upper-middle-aged” that could afford the single family dwelling in the urban core years ago, but not with the echo of her boom, the younger 20-and 30-somethings tired of paying rents and looking for something more. It is a travesty, I’m sure that the entire condo market has gone to rot because the market itself has begun to market itself to both her age bracket and the other (obstensibly mine, I must admit), and it does hurt both brackets in the end. But the travesty that the condo lifestyle represents to Wente is nothing more than a new generation’s response, and demand, to actively live in the city like Wente has done for so long herself. Condos should not represent a shame on pock-mark on an urban centre, but an innovation which allows great numbers of people to live comfortably in a smaller area. Jane Jacobs may not have agreed with all the facets that make up condo living, but would surely appreciate the population density one structure can provide, in a city core, relative to the dearth of suburbs that have consumed so much land at so much social and environmental expense in the past fifty years. Despite the awful mortgage one may have to buy into in order to claim their 1049 sq.ft. of space 35 stories in the air, the condo and its units provide a sense of ownership to a physical space that allows for pedestrian traffic to and from work and school. That is not to say that the condo building and all its inhabitants immediately become a “community”, but it is definitely one step better than the development of another suburb further and further from downtown cores.

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