I lived in the PATH for two weeks in 2012. It was weird then, but it’s weirder now. Here’s why

I lived in the PATH for two weeks in 2012. It was weird then, but it’s weirder now. Here’s why

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Empty offices, commuting chaos, impossibly pricey real estate. Can the post-pandemic downtown be saved? In this ongoing series, we examine the fate of the ailing city core and what it will take to thrive again.

I remember packing my best approximation of business casual outfits, but I don’t recall my last breath of the crisp, outdoor air. I didn’t think to savour it.

In October 2012, the Star sent me to live in the PATH for two weeks to see what kind of life I could lead in the underground retail world that supported Toronto’s office towers.

Every morning, the pantsuit army showed up in endless GO train waves, flowing north as a pack, unimpeded through food courts, shops and marble lobbies, up elevators, into drop-ceilinged offices. I learned to walk with the currents. I existed in a corporate haze.

Midway through the adventure, a friend met me at the Duke of Devon, a bar in the basement of the TD Centre. It was a dimly lit reprieve from the fluorescent corporate world. People were relaxed. (Maybe too relaxed.) A middle-manager type sang and danced to Gangnam Style before falling asleep at his table. I saw him the next day at lunch, bleary-eyed, standing near the fountain at First Canadian Place for an opera concert. That was the PATH then: a busy, captive neighbourhood, roaring to life every morning, slumbering on the weekends, extending its marble tentacles further into the city with each new tower that came online. It was a neighbourhood, an economy, a subculture unto itself.

Back then, nobody could have imagined the momentum shifting. But a decade later, the PATH has been humbled by a pandemic and hybrid-work revolution. In spring 2023, the average office occupancy in downtown Toronto is 47 per cent of what it used to be. A series of glossy ads in its quieter western reaches remind the hybrid worker: Lunch still happens. Salad is still crisp. Shirts still wrinkle. Coffee is still hot. Workers haven’t returned to the five-day in-office grind, and this is a plea to resume the mundane tasks that sustain the symbiotic ecosystem — and prime real estate — of downtown.

“People say downtown is dead, or it’s empty,” says Adam Jacobs, the head of research at Colliers Canada, one of the country’s leading commercial real estate brokerages. But the PATH is “certainly not dead Thursday at lunchtime. It’s just that what used to be maybe 40 or 50 hours a week of really crowded (space) is squeezed down to 25.”

I returned to the PATH this spring and found the Duke of Devon frozen in the amber of March 2020. As people happily chattered in the Starbucks line nearby, I pressed my face to the glass and saw the red velvet booths in the shadows. Imago Restaurants, the company that owns a handful of British-themed pubs in Toronto, always saw value here. For decades, they served up chicken pot pie, banquet burgers and pitchers of beer at their two PATH bars. The compressed week was tough, but the traffic was unbeatable, and so were the weekends off. When the pandemic hit, it was quiet enough to hear the high heels on the marble floors.

The lease on the Duke of Devon was up in the early days of lockdown, and it was a relatively easy decision to close for good. They eventually reopened the Duke of Westminster in First Canadian Place, but the customers weren’t there like the old days. They closed it last summer to focus on their three pubs above ground. It was hard to leave the PATH and the relationships they had built. “You have to keep going,” says Cindy Simpson, the vice-president of the company.

On a good day, the PATH still offers some of the city’s best foot traffic. But the good days aren’t evenly distributed, and landlords and tenants have decisions to make. How does an ecosystem built on foot traffic endure an existential shift? The PATH is a world in transition, and it’s weirder than ever before.

Turnover is common in the PATH

The real estate below Toronto is owned by deep-pocketed institutions with diversified portfolios, like pension funds and insurance companies, that can afford to play the long game, says Adam Jacobs of Colliers. We met at Commerce Court’s relatively new “library and games room.” It’s a repurposed storefront, but I have no idea what this used to be, and neither does Jacobs. Turnover is common in the PATH, memory is short. For now, it has a couch, a foosball table and a bookcase with a 2006 Guinness Book of World Records, an outdated Grade 7 curriculum guide, and Tom Clancy novels. You can find something similar in Metro Centre, which serves Metro Hall in the western reaches of the PATH.

Their “Quiet Room” has quotes from Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama on the wall, and a small selection of books. Lemonade from lemons, Jacobs says. Something from nothing.

“I think every landlord is having this reckoning: It’s worse to just have the space be nothing, let’s spend a little money and make it into something,” he says.

In the early days of the pandemic, many landlords helped retailers “limp along” with rent relief, says John Crombie of commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield. In 2022, they got tougher. The mood was: If you’re not making it with our help, maybe you never will, he says. Landlords took back space, turfed retailers, and some used the downtime to renovate.

Online, the city rhymes off impressive PATH stats: 200,000 people a day trek through the 30 kilometres of restaurants, services and shops underneath 75 different buildings in Toronto’s core. It’s a crucial part of downtown viability, providing climate-controlled access to transit, food and work, along with a steady supply of tax revenue, jobs and $1.7 billion in annual sales. But those figures are from a 2016 economic impact study by the local BIA.

After foot traffic cratered in the lockdowns, many accessibly priced shops in the PATH closed. One insider says this is less of a story about the pandemic, and more a story about the changing nature of retail. Many shops were already irrelevant, not keeping pace with younger generations, e-commerce and the youthfulness of downtown. This is still Toronto’s financial core, and the landlords here are still Goliath. They aren’t desperate. The PATH still attracts reliable foot traffic, but it’s primarily a Tuesday-to-Thursday game. There are more vacancies now, but what remains is more gourmet, more bespoke, and more experiential.

Much of the “middle ground” has fallen away, says Jacobs. The dry cleaners, the dentists, and appointment-based services are resilient, same with higher-end retail and food. But the McDonald’s is closed in Brookfield Place, Baby Gap and Uniqlo left First Canadian Place, and MAC ended its run in Royal Bank Plaza. Many shops that remain have changed their hours. Leasing in the PATH is expensive — it makes sense if you have high product turnover and a small footprint like a coffee shop, but traditional retail is more challenging, he says.

This is still the land of the corporate lawyer, the dealmaker, and expensive coffee in understated cups. While you’ll find plenty of weed shops downtown, it’s a Rubicon that hasn’t yet been crossed under the triple-A office towers of the PATH, as far as I can see. Union Station and Eaton Centre — both part of the PATH, do have cannabis retail, but under Bay Street, the brand is custom suits, Parisian macarons, and fountain pens. “There are some things that Instacart doesn’t stock, like thousand-dollar watches,” Jacobs says as we walk by a jeweller.

In this hybrid-office world, amenities matter more than ever, as employers try to lure their staff back to the core, and landlords try to keep their office tenants happy. Many properties have people in charge of specialty leasing — temporary shops, travelling exhibitions, seasonal activities, like the giant televisions that appeared in Scotia Plaza during the World Cup, or the immersive Salvador Dali exhibit now on in Brookfield Place.

As we walk through First Canadian Place, we chance upon a putt-putt course in the husk of an old Suzy Shier. No more crepe chiffon blouses or oversized blazers. Instead, Astroturf amoebas are arranged on the floor like puzzle pieces, and business types are putting on their coffee breaks. It’s free, and in a few days, it will be gone. The landlords can afford to do this — and often, they prefer it to locking into a long lease. It gives the PATH a jolt of the unexpected.

The PATH is patrolled by private security, and to a lesser extent, by Toronto police. Before the pandemic, police responded to all manner of calls: theft, mischief, loitering, trespassing, robbery and assault.

Media relations officer Victor Kwong says the decline in foot traffic in the pandemic meant the retail-type calls fell off significantly: “Instead, officers are responding to more social issues, mental health issues, and making more referrals to services for those using the PATH as shelter.”

A hidden world lies underground

Paul Fisher always had a soft spot for the PATH. As a kid in the ’90s, the endless underground corridors made the city feel that much bigger, a hidden world with tens of thousands of inhabitants.

Fisher is the CEO of Modern Golf, purveyor of custom golf club fitting and simulators that let you work on your technical game or escape to the fairways of St. Andrews at dusk, in the middle of the grey Toronto winter. Downtown was always part of the company’s expansion plan, and the pandemic created an opportunity. Earlier this year, they transformed an old Tip Top Tailors in First Canadian Place into a sleek outpost of virtual recreation. Experiential retail is a development many PATH watchers are energized by. It’s a trend you see at other malls from Yorkdale’s make-your-own KitKat store to the Robert Munsch experience at Gerrard Square. Malls have space, and people want something fun to do.

Modern Golf opened in March, and they’ve already extended the lease. Traffic in the PATH is better than anticipated. Other landlords are interested, Fisher says.

On a Tuesday morning, two event planners tour the open-concept shop in advance of a corporate function. For employers hoping to see more people in the office, this is proving to be a good carrot. They can’t keep pace with corporate event demand.

Every lunchtime, thousands of people walk by. Many of them had never heard of Modern Golf before.

“From a marketing standpoint, I think this has got to be one of the best places in the country to establish a brand,” Fisher says, sitting on the brown leather couch.

Mondays and Fridays are slower, and foot traffic tapers off in the afternoon, but the business is appointment based, so it works. Traditional retail is tougher. “If a tenant can’t make money, well, that’s a really bad thing for a landlord,” he says.

If landlords are prudent, they’ll protect their office business by investing in the retail below. Maybe that means slightly cheaper rents for experienced-based retailers, he says.

“That, I would say, is a very smart way to protect the turf that they still have.”

We’ll all pay if downtown is forgotten

Another Monday morning breaks in the PATH. It is 9:15 a.m., and the chicken skewers are sizzling in the newly renovated food court of Brookfield Place, the smell of curried soup is wafting through the jade-coloured hallways of the TD Centre. It’s quiet, but that’s good news for me, a barista says as she hands over a $4 coffee: No line.

It will probably feel like the old PATH tomorrow. The intricate ballet of criss-crossing commuters will return, and the food courts will be so busy that strangers will have to share a table. Andre Vassi will be in First Canadian Place, selling beautiful suits at Vassi Menswear. His store is just as visually pleasing as it was when I first visited in 2012, the jackets neatly spaced and arranged by colour.

On a spring day when I visit, he is wearing a red linen silk-blend jacket, reflecting the more relaxed corporate world upstairs. He doesn’t want to talk about the PATH. He’s doing OK, but there is so much unfulfilled potential with the missing office workers, he says. He lives downtown, he works here, and he talks about it like a parent talks about a child. He wants it to succeed. Working from home might be convenient, he says, but there is a cost that the entire city will pay if downtown is forgotten.

Whether it’s six months or four years, all of these towers will be full, he predicts.

“Why are we hurting ourselves in the meantime?”

Katie Daubs is a Toronto Star journalist and senior writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs

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