Some Thoughts on Unit Sizes in Multi-Unit Buildings Smaller Centres

Local media ran an article recently (in the St Catharines Standard print edition, June 23, 2021) describing a proposal to construct a new condo tower in downtown St Catharines, the city directly across Lake Ontario from Toronto. St Catharines had a population in 2016 of just over 133,000 people, or about 4.9% the size of Toronto.

This condo project, if built as proposed will be thirty storeys tall and contain 276 residential units, on top of a podium containing amenities and retail and commercial space.

I’ve talked about retail and commercial space in rental buildings in a past article, so I won’t get into that again here. (Basically, I think it’s a waste of time to put retail and commercial spaces in rental buildings, since those spaces often remain vacant or partially vacant for years, which does the local area no favours, never mind the developer. Also, with the seemingly inexorable rise of online shopping in mind, it’s arguable we don’t need more retail space. Although this project will be condos not rentals, the problem is the same.)

I think thirty storeys is a bit much, since the current tallest building in downtown St Catharines is eleven storeys, but in this article I want to talk about this condo project’s proposed unit sizes. The media article states that the 276 residential units will range in size from “498 square feet to 777 square feet.” The proposed unit mix is not described in the media article but it’s safe to assume that the 498 SF units will be 0 bed or 1 bed units, and the 777 SF units will be 2 bed units. In my opinion, these sizes are just right for downtown Toronto, a heavily urbanized, high density city where condo buyers are used to small square footages, but in my opinion these sizes are too small for St Catharines, a basically suburban, low density city where few condos or rental buildings exist and most buyers are going to be coming from detached houses or townhouses. Sure, some buyers will drift down from Toronto after selling their condos, but they will be expecting to be able to buy “more” for the money in St Catharines than in Toronto, not buy the “same.”

St Catharines desperately needs new, modern, multi-unit housing so I guess I should shut up and embrace this project, which seems likely to go ahead—given how the city of St Catharines has basically given away a chunk of the city’s public library’s outdoor sitting area to the developer—but I can’t stop myself from putting on my consultant’s hat and thinking about how location matters in terms of buyer (or renter) expectations. Put simply, I think condo buyers in St Catharines are going to want larger units.