A Game Changer

Have you heard of The Well? Well, you should.

The Well is a new master planned mixed-use community coming to the heart of downtown Toronto just south of King Street West. The 7.5 acre development is to border Wellington, Spadina and Front Streets. As “a place to live, shop, work and play well” the new community will benefit our well-established neighbourhood.

This project has three components that excites me as a neighbour.



Firstly, retail. The developer trio (Diamond Corp, Allied REIT and RioCan) claim that it will “elevate the shopping scene” in Toronto. I certainly hope so. I think retail is significantly lacking in our neighbourhood. Coffee shops and restaurants we have in abundance. In fact, a bit too much that the City of Toronto started to limit the number of new restaurant/bars/clubs in our district in favour of more retail. Perhaps that’s why we see Indochino now. But the City canned that idea quickly and we have more and more new eateries coming our way living up to the entertainment part of our district’s nickname, but not the fashion part (stay tuned for my Rumour Has It post).

A few more food markets in and around the neighbourhood wouldn’t hurt. Lead retail developer Rio-Can stated that there would be a high-end grocery store at grade at the main Front/Spadina office tower. A high-end grocery store…perhaps Whole Foods, McEwan’s or Pusateri’s? I wholeheartedly welcome a Whole Foods Market to the neighbourhood. Fingers crossed.

What I would really like to see, however, is the kind of unique boutiques along West Queen West – recently voted as the 2nd coolest neighbourhood in the world by Vogue. Proceeding west from Spadina throughout the development are to be an array of shops lining the mid-blocked pedestrian lanes.

the well pedestrian retail


Secondly, public space. This plan seems to be making use of the characteristic lane ways (currently forgotten, abused or underused), improving connectivity and increasing public space. The Well’s site has a rendering of bridge balustrades that reminds me of Butler’s Wharf and the Borough of Southwark in London. The lane ways will be reclaimed, shelter pedestrians from the elements by vaulted glass canopies and made more interesting with artwork. I have faith in this aspect of the project because Claude Cormier & Associes is the landscape architect. Cormier is one of Canada’s best and though a Montreal-based firm has made a positive mark on the public spaces in this city through projects such as Sugar Beach. With this project he will join 2 of our neighbourhood’s precious parks according to the original plan, which has Clarence Square and Victoria Square connected with greenery along Wellington Street. The team is also strong with Hariri Pontarini Architects (architects for the overall site) whose office is in the neighbourhood near King and Portland.

the well site plan

the well google earth


Thirdly, residential options. “A vibrant community is well-mixed.” They are absolutely right. Just as mixed-use is an essential component in vibrant urban development, so is co-existence of different lifestyles. The development is marketed as having residences suitable to all ages, from single to retired, and for growing families. The demographic of the neighbourhood has undoubtedly changed during the last decade and has become much younger with the average household size of between 1 – 2.

the well canopy

Currently this area is home to small offices, the old Globe & Mail headquarters (moving east to The Globe & Mail Centre designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects), a small number of restaurants and parking lots. If the plan for this development is executed thoughtfully it will be a game changer for the community making it more vibrant and varied (not to mention what that will do to the value of our property).

The larger issue is how it will impact the vehicular traffic in the area. The 504 streetcar is the busiest in Toronto and not getting any faster. The massive Mirvish-Gehry towers seem to be going ahead without some of the infrastructure we need to sustain it. I certainly don’t want to witness the madening traffic gridlock our neighbours in Liberty Village have throughout the work week. I think Friday and Saturday nights are enough for the heart of King Street West already. Then again this has been the key issue for our city for a long time. No matter how many new buildings we put up to densify the core, without a superior and extensive public transit system, Toronto will never truly be a world class city.

The 3,000 square foot sales and marketing centre for The Well will open in June 2015 and will be located at 460 King Street West at the north-west corner of Spadina in the old Global Village Backpackers hostel that Allied REIT acquired for $15 million last year.

What do you think of The Well?

In a Nutshell: A Lost Opportunity

Is Shopper’s the new Starbucks?

I’m starting to think so. Even before Loblaw purchased Shopper’s Drug Mart the company had started rebranding and implementing an aggressive expansion plan much to the chagrin of Rexall, their direct competitor. Rexall tried a counter attack by proclaiming they were a drug store first and foremost. No superficial cosmetics and convenience store milk cartons for them. That didn’t work very well. Shopper’s had OTC drugs and a pharmacy, but also offered customers a one-stop shopping experience with a beauty boutique, late hours and bonus Optimum points. Moreover, through new real estate acquisition Shopper’s was marking its territory in and around Toronto like an alpha-male and strategically taking advantage of newer condo-centric neighbourhoods. Now it’s coming to the heart of our neighbourhood… again.


There are 3 Shopper’s Drug Marts along King Street West already. When Dollarama opened on King West many residents were outraged and thought it cheapened the neighbourhood. I also didn’t see the point when there was a long-standing outpost to spend your loonies and twonies nearby at Adelaide and Spadina. Similarly, I don’t see the point in opening a Shopper’s at King and Brant when there is one a short 2 blocks away at King and Peter. With this one literally at my doorstep, I can dash out in my pyjamas if I wanted to rather than walking east (338 King St. W), west (761 and 901 King St. W), or north to the 4 along Queen St. West. But I don’t want it.

In mid-2013 Loblaw announced that that space was going to be the location of Nutshell, its new whole foods and healthy lifestyle retail store. It was to be a “convenience-based fresh food led drugstore model” and target customers of Whole Foods Market and the like. The Press Release continued: “Nutshell live life well will offer healthy food and living ideas and feature a strong core grocery offering with integrated natural options, a broad vitamin and supplement assortment, professional in-store health and wellness services, a pharmacy that balances traditional services…with prevention and support, and health and beauty products, with a focus on natural skin care.” A year later the plan was no more.

A Brief Timeline of Events:

  • Pilot project Nutshell announced mid-2013
  • 9,000 SF space laid out and opening planned for Fall 2013
  • Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and Shopper’s Drug Mart reach an agreement for $12.4 billion takeover – July 2013
  • Loblaw cancels Nutshell store plan. Eventually its Facebook page Nutshellonking shuts down – January / February 2014
  • 500 King Street West storefront windows concealed during this time
  • Shopper’s Drug Mart acquisition by Loblaw complete – March 2014
  • Shopper’s announces that it will have a larger food selection, including fresh vegetables. President’s Choice items noticeably appear in the stores – early 2015
  • Shopper’s Drug Mart sign at 500 King Street West revealed – March 2015

What bugs me is the lost opportunity here. It may be a less risky and practical business decision on the part of Loblaw, but what about innovation? Nutshell was a compelling concept and, as a pilot project, exciting for the neighbourhood. The trend for healthy living is still on the upswing. Furthermore, there is no Whole Foods Market in sight. The only one downtown is nestled between Avenue Road and Hazelton Lanes in posh Yorkville. A few years ago I heard rumours that there might be a Whole Foods opening near Bathurst and Front, but in 2017. While Whole Foods is in expansion mode in Canada, at this point some of the locations are still just rumours. Whole Food’s sister-store Fresh and Wild at King and Spadina is a little shop of pricey organic foods, but without the lifestyle and pharmacy aspect of Nutshell or Canadian ownership. And look at how successful Joe Fresh has become when Loblaw took that giant step towards the fashion market.

I have nothing against Loblaw or Shopper’s. In fact, I’m a regular customer. I shop at the Loblaws at Queen and Portland and get my prescriptions and personal toiletries from the Shopper’s at King and Peter about 90 percent of the time. I have a points card for both of them. Now these two successful Canadian brands are under one umbrella. Applause applause.

As a resident, however, it pains me to see Shopper’s signage above the door already. Each time I pass 500 King Street West I think what a wasted opportunity not only of a great concept but also of an historic gem of a building in our neighbourhood. The industrial character of our neighbourhood is well-known and these are among the oldest industrial structures in the city. This structure spanning Brant Street to almost Spadina Street is the former Gurney Stove Foundry (now home to multiple tenants and owned by Allied REIT since 2003). When the Gurney brothers expanded their Hamilton-based stove making business to Toronto in 1883 they set up business along King Street West. The buildings that remain from the original complex showcase an exterior of red and yellow brick and an interior of original oak floors and massive wooden beams of old-growth Canadian pine. The heritage building is really beautiful and it would have been nice to see something more unique go inside its walls and perhaps more sympathetic to the character of the building and to the upmarket aspect of our neighbourhood.

Is this Shopper’s going to be different? Will the team behind the urban-cool atmosphere of the newest downtown Loblaws stores reinterpret this Shopper’s with Pharmacy written across the wall in graffiti? I certainly hope not. Or is it going to be like Starbucks, the same look and offerings stalking me at every half city block?