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How to become a young professional magnet

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Emma Jacobs
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WSKG
Signs of Toronto's booming condo market. The city's got buzz, but what's at its heart?

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Keeping young professionals in upstate New York has become a key talking point about revitalizing the region. But our neighbors to the north have managed to do more than just talk - they're doing.

In Toronto, the neighborhood of Liberty Village has the elusive quality of “buzz” - it’s a haven for young creative professionals, setting up shop.  Just a quick streetcar ride from downtown Toronto, the skyscrapers of the financial district fill the skyline. The neighborhood’s wide streets aren’t exactly bustling, but at lunchtime, a younger crowd surfaces on the streets from the offices built in rehabbed factories and warehouses.

It’s a promising sign according to Vass Bednar, a young research associate at the Martin Prosperity Institute, an economic think tank in Toronto.

“Not that much was going on here,  And then when they started remaking the factories, it was a really attractive place for businesses to come,” says Bednar.

Nail salons as economic indicator

Lynn Clay, the head of Liberty Village’s neighborhood business association, has a high-ceilinged office in one of the first of the industrial buildings to be seriously overhauled for redevelopment. A historically-minded team of developers purchased the striking Toronto Carpet Factory in the 1990s, and made major investments to it - including wiring the building for Internet, and encouraging their neighbors to do the same.

In fact, Clay says, by the late 90s, the neighborhood had more Internet cabling than the entire country of Italy.

“That attracted architects,” says Clay. “It attracted ad firms, it attracted anybody who had to communicate with large files, but then it also opened up the door to anyone who is anything in terms of the computer business.

With those firms came the day-to-day businesses that fill out a neighborhood.  Hoping to capture the lunch hours of the young professional crowd are at least two high-end coffeeshops, and (of course) a dedicated yoga studio. The neighborhood also has a grocery store, a telling sign that a neighborhood is hitting critical mass, according to Clay.

“Go figure, how many nail salons do we have now? Three or four? Nail salons are like everyone else’s dollar stores. They’re moving in because they see that there’s a potential,” says Clay.

What can upstate learn?

“There’s a chicken and an egg question that always comes up,” says Kevin Stolarick, an American expat who co-heads the Martin Prosperity Institute. “Is it that places like Toronto have a Liberty Village because it’s successful, or are they successful because they have a Liberty Village?”

It’s not clear what other cities can take from this scene. Toronto as a whole is growing. The sorts of young professionals who’ve clustered in Liberty Village arrive from around the city, and educated young Canadians arrive in Toronto from around the country. Cranes are rising not just above this neighborhood - but all along massive, futuristic developments along the city’s southern lakefront boundary.

Stolarick says Liberty Village may just be successful because places that are doing well have a little more money, and maybe more people taking risks.

But there’s a more optimistic take. Stolarick notes that Liberty Village can be seen as a microcosm of the assets that entire struggling cities can present. He quotes urban advocate, Jane Jacobs, who said that new ideas require old buildings.

“What she’s really saying was that if you’ve got a new idea, you’re taking a lot of risks already,” he says. “A new building’s way too expensive for you. You have to have a cheap old building to be able to try your new idea out. And honestly a lot of upstate New York has a lot of wonderful old buildings waiting for new ideas to come along.”

Cities can copy everything that’s been done in Austin Texas, Stolarick says - that’s the model that urban growth advocates fall head over heels for. But ultimately, he says, the best you can hope for with that strategy is to be a second rate version of Austin.

Identifying what a city is and who that’s attractive to is key to a good performance.

“It’s not so much about the neighborhood and stock [that’s] there,” says Stolarick. “It’s really about how you attract and retain the talented skilled creative people. How do you actually get the new ideas in, [the ones] that will take care of the old buildings?”

And once the buildings are taken care of, a new problem presents itself.

If Toronto’s magnetic pull continues to draw in more young professionals, the neighborhood built on creative uses of old buildings could attract developers. Their specialty is bringing new housing online - housing that’s so profitable that, according to Clay, it could create pressure that pushes the workplaces that revitalized Liberty Village out of the neighborhood.

See Vass Bednar’s Liberty Village

When we visited Liberty Village, we handed a camera to Vass Bednar, our guide to the neighborhood, who documented the signs of growth she saw around the neighborhood. You can also them below and also click out to see more information and captions.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

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