Toronto is the largest city in Canada and its population is growing rapidly. As a result, demand for more housing and office space has led to a staggering amount of new development. Over the last 10 years alone, the city added 27 million square feet (2.5 million sq m) of office space, according to Jeanhy Shim, president of Housing Lab Toronto and the moderator of a panel discussion during the 2023 ULI Spring Meeting in Toronto. But developing in the city is not easy, and panelists shared how they are dealing with the challenges of building in Toronto.

Dermot Sweeny, president and founder of Sweeny & Co. Architects, has worked on a number of developments in Toronto recently. Several of them entailed finding creative ways to build housing or office space while preserving existing buildings that had protections in place due to their historic stature or heritage.

One project that Sweeny’s firm worked on—134 Peter, located in the city’s downtown core—involved saving two older edifices and developing a new office building above them.

“We started to discover how we could add value but respect the past,” Sweeny said.

Another project that his firm designed was also erected above a heritage structure and suspended on tension rods so that it did not touch the building underneath it.

“It was fairly challenging, to say the least, but an interesting way to solve a problem when there’s a lot of demand for office in that area,” Sweeny said.

East Harbour is a project that will turn a 37-acre (15 ha) site just east of Toronto’s downtown into a transit-oriented community. Along with a new billion-dollar transit hub, plans call for 4,300 units of housing, new streets, parks, the creation of 50,000 jobs, and 10,000 new residents. But the project faces a number of challenges, including flood protections to consider, heritage requirements, and brownfield remediation.

In working on projects of this scale and complexity, making sure that all parties involved in the development share the same idea and are in it for the long haul can be particularly challenging, said Heather Gray-Wolf, the chief development officer at Infrastructure Ontario, a government agency that is heading up the East Harbour development along with Toronto-based developer Cadillac Fairview.

“How do you align all the partners to have this collective vision in order to deal with the hurdles along the way?” she asked.

Downtown Toronto’s largest transit hub is Union Station, a place that 200,000 travelers—a majority of whom are commuters—pass through every day. Just adjacent to the hub is CIBC Square, a 3 million-square-foot (279,000 sq m), two-tower office project that was developed jointly by Montreal-based Ivanhoé Cambridge and Houston-headquartered Hines. The first tower opened in 2021 while the second one is under construction and is expected to be completed in 2025.

The vision for the project started taking shape back in 2007, when Ivanhoé Cambridge leaders sought to invest in office—which they did not own much of at the time—and create “something extraordinary” in Toronto, said Sunita Mahant, head of social impact and inclusion, sustainable investments, at Ivanhoé Cambridge. It began with land assembly and “a lot of visioning” and, later, an agreement with government transit agency Metrolinx that entailed Ivanhoé Cambridge erecting a new bus terminal for the agency in exchange for acquiring land next to it to build part of the project.

A unique feature of CIBC Square is that it is being constructed over active rail tracks. Bringing the community on board for the project, getting buy-in from city officials, and obtaining permit approvals all proved challenging, and forging partnerships was crucial to moving the project forward, Mahant said. Ivanhoé Cambridge also tapped Hines in 2013 as a development manager, and a few years after that, it became a joint venture partner.

“Choosing a partner is very important,” Mahant said of major projects like this one. “Making decisions for the future is a big part of the vision as a company.”

Avi Tesciuba, senior managing director and country head for Hines in Canada, agreed that partnerships are critical in overcoming hurdles on complicated development projects. He has been working on a massive development called Bayside, located about a 15-minute walk from downtown Toronto. The vision for the development calls for transforming an underused 13-acre (5.2 ha) site into a new mixed-use community. Like many projects in the city, it has had its fair share of challenges—namely, contaminated land and soil, as well as a dearth of transit options.

Despite the complex nature of the project, Hines has been able to execute on several requests made by government agencies for the development, such as including 80 affordable live/work units, erecting the tallest timber building in North America that will soon be completed, building a large community center and the area’s first childcare center, and building Toronto’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum-certified residential building.

“It really takes a lot of teammates to get things done at scale,” Tesciuba said.