Liisa Arra: Feature in the National Post

A little bit country in the big city

Scarborough has 'Muskoka' feel, realtor says Peter Kuitenbrouwer, National Post  Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Liisa Arra, Re/Max Renowned Properties agent, emerges from her Nissan Pathfinder, clutching her Vuitton handbag, her shoulders wrapped in a flowing brown cape. Walking down the long cobblestone drive, she whisks the lock box off the front door of a new stone home and opens the door to a foyer. In the dining room a bank of bow windows rises to a soaring ceiling. Outside the window, a clump of birch trees fronts a forested hillside; beyond sparkles Lake Ontario. "It's a Muskoka atmosphere right here in the city," says Ms. Arra.

Welcome to Scarborough.

We are used to media using Scarborough as shorthand for crime-ridden suburban blight. Indeed, even Ms. Arra, who hails from Finland and for many years called Scarborough home, now avoids the moniker.

"It's all called City of Toronto now, so we don't even have to use the word Scarborough anymore," she says.

But, as Ms. Arra, and this home, make clear, there is another side to Scarborough. Scarborough has beautiful areas, many along the deep, lush ravines that follow fingers of Highland Creek.

Lesser-known is the enclave south of Kingston Road at the foot of Markham Road, where winds Hill Crescent. Many call this the Bridle Path of Scarborough; this thoroughfare is so exclusive it doesn't even have sidewalks (the hired help walks down the middle of the street).

Scarborough never developed an exclusive shoreline strip in the manner of Mississauga, Oakville and Burlington, mostly because of geography: steep cliffs cut land off from water. Settlers instead carved the area up into big lots, dotted along the dramatic blufftops. All that, and -- at least by Toronto standards -- it's affordable, too.

"People looking to buy in the Beach area, the prices have gone through the roof," Ms. Arra points out, leading a tour of the home, which has four bathrooms and is listed for $1.4-million.

Here, "You don't have to drive two or three hours to get the feel of the country. In this price range, you get a good-sized lot, too."

In this area, where most trees are older than the houses, thrift abuts ostentation. Next to a little 1950s one-storey bungalow sided in white aluminum, with a tall cedar hedge, are two rising two-storey brick mega-homes, 6A and 6B Muir Drive: big garages, four bathrooms, the works. Frank Manolis, the builder of 6B, notes, "It's a quiet area, nice area."

These homes, which replace one bungalow, each sit on a 50-x 200-foot lot and will go for about $1.2-million each, he says.

Robert Tucci, the builder at 6A, lives around the corner.

"It's underrated," he says. "My lot is 60-feet wide. I could put six cars in my driveway." Now you're talking.

"You see deer here all the time," he adds, "and it doesn't take much to get downtown."

Ms. Arra calls these kinds of prices a bargain. "What can you get for $1-million in Toronto now?" she asks. "In Leaside, for new houses... everything is over $1-million. And you wouldn't have a lot like this in Leaside."

Bargain, of course, is a relative term: One property here, 57 Hill Crescent, 100 x 249 feet, is on the market for $1.5-million.

As the listing notes, "Perfect Setting to Build Your Dream Castle ... And Enjoy Spectacular Views of Lake Ontario! No House Showings, Land Value Only! Location! Location!"

Fishleigh Drive, west of Hill Crescent along the bluff, is a better deal: A four-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow with a lake view and a 50-x 267-foot lot, sold there in October for $740,000. And Ms. Arra showed me lots of Bluffs homes, on lots downtowners would consider vast, that sold recently for under $600,000.

Yes, Scarborough has rough areas -- but what area doesn't? As Ms. Arra notes, "If you're in Rosedale, it's a two-minute drive to St. Jamestown."

Rather than try to avoid the moniker "Scarborough," I think locals should shout it out. Stand proud. As I wrote in the summer of 2006 on my walk across Toronto, "in 30 years, Scarborough will be the exclusive destination to live in Greater Toronto." It may happen sooner than that.