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Urban car dealerships appeal with location, not size

Published November 12, 2012

Car dealerships have always been a part of downtown Toronto, but never have they felt quite as urban as they do today.

As automobiles grow smaller and become more like personal accessories, dealerships are turning themselves into boutiques. Is it coincidence that Honda has just launched a vehicle for women, a pink Fit with an anti-wrinkle windscreen?

Going all the way back to the 1920s, automobile showrooms were big and, if not landmarks, at least designed to attract attention. Remember Addison on Bay, now a designated heritage structure? Dating from 1925, it was originally the McLaughlin Motor Car Showroom. Now, it’s the base of a glass-towered condo.

There’s also the building at Yonge and Dundonald Sts. Constructed 90 years ago as a car sales office, it still stands, although altered beyond recognition.

In recent years, the lower east side of Toronto has become a car-buyer’s paradise. From Volvo and Mercedes-Benz to Porsche and Infiniti, manufacturers have taken up residence in the neighbourhoods east of Sherbourne St., south of Gerrard St. E.

Some, such as Downtown Toyota on Queen St. E. near Broadview Ave., are old-school suburban dealerships transplanted into the heart of the city. I suspect their days are numbered: the land is simply too valuable to leave as a glorified parking lot festooned with plastic flags.

Others, such as Lexus on Dundas St. E. and Porsche on Parliament St., occupy buildings that do little to enhance this part of the city.

When BMW and Mini opened new buildings, both at the foot of Broadview, it seemed the architecture of the car dealership had finally progressed beyond asphalt and office trailers. Indeed, both structures are unusually elegant and certainly a whole lot more interesting than the average condo project.

But then, last year, an Infiniti dealership opened at King and Sumach Sts., a part of town more accustomed to auto-body garages than auto showrooms. What made it interesting was its location in the ground floor of a recently completed midrise condo. It seemed less a car dealership than car shop. Although Rolls-Royce operated out of Hazelton Lanes for years, and Ferrari/Maserati is next door, they aren’t the same sort of businesses.

As of several weeks ago, Infiniti is no longer alone in this once-desolate corner of the city; it now has Nissan Downtown as a neighbour. Again, the showroom feels more like a shop than a car dealership.

One of the forces behind the phenomenon is Shahin Alizadeh, president of Downtown Automotive Group, who has been bringing dealerships into the city core since 2007.

“From the beginning,” Alizadeh says on his website, “we felt strongly that retail automotive would grow and prosper in downtown Toronto, and it is rewarding to see that it has. DAG is committed to helping rejuvenate our unique downtown community. It is our belief that building esthetically pleasing facilities fosters community pride, along with increased prosperity and employment.”

Tucked into their tiny premises, these urbanized operations send a message that might seem at odds with the very idea of the car. But in the 21st century, such ambiguity only enhances the appeal of a brand that recognizes the world in which it must operate.

The massive suburban lots, with their rows of cars and sales trailers, speak of a world awash in automobiles. Their urban successors, by contrast, seem comfortable operating within the limits of the city; they don’t need to make their premises too large to miss. They locate them so well, so conveniently, you can walk to them, or take transit.

As car ownership figures decline among younger demographics, it’s clear our relationship to the automobile is changing. For a growing number, a car is no longer a necessity. And with the proliferation of hourly car rentals, ownership even less so.

The trend toward small integrated showrooms also signals a new understanding of the role of the car in the city. There was a time when the city was offered up for sacrifice on the altar of the automobile. Just look at the Gardiner.

Today, the infrastructure of driving is under pressure to be a bit more accommodating and flexible. Resistance has been fierce. Just listen to Mayor Rob Ford.

But what dealers have learned; the market has taught. As never before; it’s an urban world.

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