Category Archives: Affordable Housing

Toronto’s Regent Park Explored

October 20, 2015

For those of us on the Greater Portland Inc. Sept. 27-30 Best Management Practices tour choosing the Regent Park Revitalization, doubtless, the most animated and enthusiastic speaker we encountered on the trip was Mitchell Kosny.  Kosny is Associate Director of the Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning and a former Chair of the Board of Directors at Toronto Community Housing Corporation during the ‘roll-out’ of Regent Park revitalization.  Unfortunately, Dr. Kosny may not have realized two things: 1) We had spent the earlier part of the day sitting in meetings and were ready for a tour; 2) We were from the Pacific Northwest and therefore comfortable with rain.  I knew Regent Park to be just a few blocks down the street from Ryerson.  So, after nearly an hour sitting in Dr. Kosny’s PowerPoint lecture when he expressed doubt about doing a tour in the rain, , , I set off on my own tour.

RegentParkLocationMap

Regent Park is directly east of Ryerson University and very close to the rest of downtown. Image courtesy of UoT student paper: http://www.torontohousing.ca/webfm_send/11574

Regent Park Twin Towers

Regent Park identical towers. One is market rate, one is subsidized. Photo by PlanGreen

Regent Park is being redeveloped in five phases with three of those phases currently underway. A key tenet of the revitalization is including both rent-geared-to-income and market rate units together in the same community. I could guess which was the market rate building because I was there at rush hour when a number of young people were coming home from work and others were leaving to walk their dogs.

When the Regent Park revitalization is completed over the next 10 to 15 years, 12,500 people will live in 5,115 units across 69 acres of the largest publicly funded community in Canada. The plan includes the replacement of the 2,083 existing social housing units in Regent Park with new, energy efficient, modern units and the introduction of approximately 3,000 market units for sale.

Regent Park Sign

Regent Park is both the name of a park and a neighborhood that is re-branding itself. The park is separate from the athletic fields, but does have a community garden at one edge and an aquatic center at another. Photo by PlanGreen

I was happy to see that Regent Park actually has a park!  It’s a large park that is separate from the athletic fields that are currently under construction.  There’s a separate dog park too!  A community garden at one edge of the park is the front yard of many people who live in high rise housing.

Regent Park Community Garden

A community garden at one edge of Regent Park is close to much high density housing. Photo by PlanGreen

The architecture of the new buildings is a departure from the red brick of social housing projects.  Although there are some townhouses too, I was a bit surprised by the focus on high-rise housing, considering the bad rep that got with Cabrini Green and Pruitt Igo iin the US. However, Toronto seems to have a long history of housing its poor in high rise housing,.  Another question I have about high rises has to do with resiliency.  Considering the era of increasing natural disasters we are in, most high rises will fare very poorly without power for even a week or two. With Toronto’s mandatory Green Roof Bylaw and its Green Standards policy, its new high rises may be in better shape than most to weather power outages.

The revitalization also reconnects Regent Park to Toronto’s grid of streets and avenues, and includes the creation of new commercial spaces and community facilities including a bank, grocery store, aquatic center, new community center, restaurant and an arts & cultural center.

Regent Park Aquatic Center

Regent Park Aquatic Center is a regional swim center that brings in folks from other neighborhoods too. Photo by PlanGreen

Regent Park Aquatic Center serves people from other neighborhoods as well. I spoke to a man from Leslieville neighborhood who was waiting in the park for his daughter who was using the swimming pool.

Daniels Spectrum Artspace

The Arts and Culture Centre with Paint Box condominiums atop it. is the center point of the cultural regeneration of the neighborhood. This 60,000 sf facility is home to seven arts and innovation non-profit organizations. Yes, intersections are often too wide to be truly comfortable to the pedestrian in Toronto. Photo by PlanGreen

The Arts and Culture Centre known officially  as Daniels Spectrum is seen as a center point of the neighborhood. (Daniels Corporation is the development company that partnered with Toronto Community Housing to build all five phases so they got naming rights to this key facility!)  This 60,000 square foot facility is home to seven arts and innovation non-profit organizations. As we have seen in the U.S., the arts can offer an exciting career path to children from all income classes so I see this center as vital to the revitalization efforts.  I saw lots of people coming and going during my brief observation.

RP Athletic Fields Administrative Office

The Phase 3 construction of athletic fields is underway, along with the construction of new streets. Photo by PlanGreen

Phase 3 is progressing with the development of the athletic fields and the addition of pedestrian-friendly streets connecting to other neighborhoods. Planners believed that because of its enclave-like street design, residents were cut off from the city, even though they lived a short streetcar ride from some of its most affluent neighbourhoods and greatest cultural attractions. More social and market housing  is also part of phase 3– with completion estimated to be 2018 .

RP The Bartholomew

A Daniels ad for The Bartholomew condominium community–a mix of high rise and row houses. Photo by PlanGreen

 

It bears repeating that a key tenet of the revitalization is including both subsidized and market rate units – together in the same community. Townhouse as well as high rise; rental as well as ownership opportunities are available.  This sign advertises suites from the $300.000s but I also saw from the $200,000s.

Another key tenet is access to employment.  Regent Park residents can get one-on-one help with job searching, local employment opportunities, career planning, education and training, and more.  The Regent Park Employment Plan has an ambitious agenda.

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These are typical units in the old social housing. Photo by PlanGreen

RP - No Loitering

This “No Loitering No Trespassing No Alcoholic Beverages sign hints at old problems the community is trying to overcome.  The sign also reminded me  that Regent Park had become synonymous with poverty, crime and unemployment. Photo by PlanGreen

Never one to avoid a challenge, I also spent some time exploring the older parts of Regent Park that have not yet been demolished.  I’m not sure during which phase this seemingly vacant building will come down–and with the rain, there was no one around to ask.  Any tenants who have to move because of construction get one year’s notice before demolition and five months’ notice before they have to move.

While Toronto’s version of the U.S. Hope VI program is impressive, like its counterpart in Portland, New Columbia, it has not solved all its problems.  There had been three fatal shootings in the neighborhood in 2010 that left even Regent Park’s supporters in doubt. TCHC maintains that by incorporating crime prevention best practices into the design of the buildings and public areas and by linking tenants to jobs and training opportunities, it is improving community safety.

In his talk, Dr. Kosny spoke about the green that is not seen.  One of those unseen aspects seems to be what Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail calls “the most successful “normalization” project ever launched in Regent Park”:

. . . an all-encompassing program called Pathways to Education, which mentors and coaches secondary-school kids through graduation and beyond, and guarantees them a bursary if they graduate. (A big advantage, in my view, is that Regent Park has no secondary school, so the kids have no choice but to venture outside the ’hood.) Pathways connects them with the world and shows them how to navigate it.

Regent Park Is Greener

Regent Park Is Growing Greener Every Day reads this sign near the community garden. Photo by PlanGreen

Toronto-based journalist, Doug Saunders, in his book, The Arrival City, points to three things that are crucial for integrating immigrants into the middle class:  education, transportation and access to jobs.  Time will tell if Regent Park is doing all three well.  At the end of 2015, it appears to be headed in the right direction.

Toronto: Florida to the Kees with Greater Portland Inc.

Oct. 17, 2015

Richard Florida

Richard Florida, Professor; Co-founder CityLab.com; Sr. editor The Atlantic speaking to our Greater Portland, Inc. group.

Our discussion of “The Next Urban Crisis”  at University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management was another highlight of my Greater Portland Inc. trip to Toronto Sept. 27-30, 2015. There we spoke with professor, author and CityLab co-founder Richard Florida as well as  Real Estate Developer, & Architect in City blogger Brandon Donnelly.  During this discussion Spacing Magazine editor Matthew Blackett  also shared some of the interesting insights I reported on in my Part 1 blog.

Richard Florida expressed his frustration with the Mayor Rob Ford era which declared that the war on the car was over and that the problem was those young, pointy-headed university folks. “In Toronto, everyone still thinks they have the right to drive,” he lamented.  “If there’s an urban crisis, it’s the suburbs,” he said.

Florida reminded us that: “Building urbanism is a lot more expensive than building sprawl” and “The new frontier is the old frontier in the center of the city.” He left us with three points to deal with the next urban crisis: 1)  Build more housing,and make it more affordable; .2)  Build more transit;  3)  Provide a livable minimum wage–reduce the huge bifurcation we see now.

Brandon Donnelly

Brandon Donnelly described the affordability crisis for families and a solution in mid-rise housing. Photo from The Guardian

Brandon Donnelly discussed with us some of the crisis in keeping housing affordable during Toronto’s fast-paced growth. There’s a pressure on prices re: low rise, but high-rise has stayed stable, he said.  He described an Avenues and Mid-rise Building study. “ We see it as a market to build more units for families who are priced out of single family homes,” he said.

He distinguished Towers 1.0 and Towers 2.0.  Towers 1.0, many built in the suburbs, did not take as middle class housing and became largely the affordable housing of today. Towers 2.0 is basically all ownership vs. all tenants in 1.0, he said.  He finds it an encouraging sign that anchor office tenants and retailers are moving into the city as well.

Mid-rise housing

This mid-rise housing was across from a string of parks similar to Portland’s Park Blocks and gets my vote for best place to live in Toronto. Photo by PlanGreen

Park across from mid-rise housing

This park was one of a string of parks across from the mid-rise housing above. It was centrally located on the way to the Distillery District. Photo by PlanGreen

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, former Sec. of Labor, UC Berkley Professor and prolific author.at the Rotman School auditorium. Photo by PlanGreen

On our way out, we had an unexpected opportunity to hear Robert Reich, who was doing a guest lecture at the Rotman School around his book, Saving Capitalism : For the Many, Not the Few. 

I was especially impressed by how many of our group stopped to listen to his talk.  “My aim is to shatter the myths that keep us from taking the action we must take, and to provide a roadmap of what we must do – to rebuild our economic system and restore our democracy.” Reich was saying.

There is  a “huge misunderstanding” that underlies  a false political dichotomy between the so-called “free market” and government intervention. “There is no choice to be made between the free market and government. Government determines the rules of the market. The real question is what those rules are going to be and who is influencing those rules and whether the market is going to be working for the vast majority as a result, or whether it’s going to be rigged in favour of a small minority.” Reich’s book was for sale at a table outside the open-sided auditorium where he was speaking.

At Rotman we had the opportunity to hear some of the most forward-thinking leaders of the day who are dealing with questions around the environment, housing, urbanism, equity, millenials, the creative class, public involvement and the economy.

Ryerson University

The Planning students who attended our reception at Ryerson University were interested in displacement, equity and resiliency issues. Photo by PlanGreen

It was a great segue to our reception and  “Sharing Best Practices between Portland and Toronto” session at Ryerson University Architecture School.  All of the students I met at the reception were from the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning rather than Architecture.  Those students were looking for answers to rising housing costs, displacement, equity, brownfields, resiliency planning in an era of climate change, etc.  I stayed after the session to talk with them. Several promised to look at my blogs on mycoremediation and suggested that one of their professors might be especially interested. So far, no one has followed up but I’m still hoping to hear from them.

Jennifer Keesmaat

Jennifer Keesmatt was our featured evening speaker. Image courtesy of York University. http://yfile.news.yorku.ca/2014/11/06/chief-toronto-planner-discussed-urban-spaces-and-achieving-a-sustainable-healthy-city/

Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, is a longtime Toronto resident, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (like myself), and a pedestrian advocate.  She had been a principal in the Toronto planning consultancy Dialog prior to taking the job as Toronto’s top planner.   She is also an inveterate user of Twitter @jen_keesmaat–discreetly putting out these tweets while she was on a panel with Portland Chief Planner, Joe Zehnder:

Portland is seeking to create *greenways* throughout neighbourhoods to address stormwater issues. Think “greened” street medians.  Portland has met Kyoto carbon emission reductions, even while growing. “Your midrise is hi-rise for us.” Portland Chief Planner explains that 4 story bldings are causing consternation in his city. Wow. If only.

Mountain Equipment Coop in downtown Toronto

Mountain Equipment Coop in downtown Toronto installed an extensive green roof of 6,500ft.2 during the construction of the building in 1998. Photo courtesy City of Toronto

“I talk about Portland all of the time,” she told us.  We’re growing but our air quality is getting better – as a result of our green roof policy mitigating the heat island effect.  I cringed a bit to think that while Toronto passed the world’s first mandatory green roof program in 2010, Portland discontinued its Ecoroof Incentive in 2012.

In response to moderator Ann Marie’s question about green infrastructure and resiliency in the face of climate change, Keesmaat lamented that she has only three  people working on green streets, a superstar team, but only three.

She did add that Toronto is a city of ravines and that there is an ongoing Ravine Strategy currently being developed.  She will be holding her final Chief Planner Roundtable of 2015 (Dec. 15) on the topic of Toronto’s ravine network.  I did not get the chance to ask her about the re-naturalization of the Don River, but I plan to do that at the next opportunity–maybe via Twitter!