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Putting the arts at centre stage in Regent Park Add to ...

Laurence Lemieux keeps a good distance back as her contractor works chain pulleys to hoist a steel-staircase stringer into place.

As a dancer who relies on a healthy body, Ms. Lemieux knows she doesn’t want to risk tangling with the 350-kilogram stringer. Besides, she’s taken on enough risk, of the financial sort, with her two-year project to turn the dilapidated Salvation Army Citadel on Parliament Street into the new headquarters for her Coleman Lemieux contemporary dance company.

The staircase leads from Regent Park’s street level to a new dance studio and performance centre on the second floor. If the stringers seem a little oversized for the narrow opening, maybe that’s because they will be asked to do more than just support lithe dancers as they pad up the steps. If all goes as planned, the staircase, and the artistic realm it gives access to, will provide a boost to a whole neighbourhood that’s taking a very dramatic turn.

The $1.8-million renovation should be finished on Valentine’s Day. Beyond easing an acute shortage of affordable performance spaces for small-stage groups in Toronto, Ms. Lemieux says the venue will offer new options for Toronto’s would-be arts audiences, especially east of downtown.

Ms. Lemieux’s daughter danced in the National Ballet of Canada’s Nutcracker production at the Four Seasons Centre this fall. Although she considers the National Ballet a world-class institution, Ms. Lemieux worries that audience members have more in common than just art appreciation – they also all have money.

“Is that really what the arts should be about?” she asks.

Ms. Lemieux says tickets for performances in her 60-seat theatre will run about $25, a little more than one-tenth what grand productions downtown cost. Her aim is to connect to those around her.

“It’s the village idea,” she says. “If you can afford it and it’s in your neighbourhood, you will go.”

Connecting to the community these days in Regent Park means aiming at a moving target. Ms. Lemieux says when her company first bought the Citadel for $750,000 in 2007, the streets were empty. The 1950s housing development across Parliament Street was being razed to make way for a 30-hectare, 15-year reimagining of what urban planned communities should look like.

Two of the major players in the billion-dollar development are lending a hand to see that Regent Park’s second act is built on solid artistic and cultural foundations.

Ms. Lemieux says up to a quarter of the renovation costs have been provided pro bono by developer the Daniels Corporation and architecture firm Diamond and Schmitt.

Architect Don Schmitt helped redesign the 100-year-old Coleman Lemieux building. His firm also designed One Cole, a 293-unit mixed-income condominium complex across the street and the larger Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre that will open in the summer. The ACC, as it is bound to become known, is a $24-million, 20,000-square-metre centre that will be home to five local arts groups.

Mr. Schmitt says building an arts scene into the middle of Regent Park is part of what it means to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

“It’s not just about residences, but about including things that were never part of that neighbourhood when it was built in the 1950s,” he said.

Mr. Schmitt says the mid-century layout for Regent Park removed most of the streets, eliminated normal street addresses and effectively banished retail. The result was physical disconnection and social isolation in an income monoculture that quickly became stigmatized as more of a human warehouse than a neighbourhood.

The new Regent Park has a “porous” street layout, integrates market-value and affordable housing units side by side, and puts the arts at centre stage.

“We asked ourselves, what are the elements that come together in successful living and working spaces,” Mr. Schmitt said. “Culture is a huge part of it.”

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard would agree. The playwright and emcee has been general manager of Native Earth for eight years. The contemporary aboriginal performing arts group will be moving into the new Arts and Cultural Centre on Dundas Street East between Sackville and Sumach streets this summer.

She sees the arts venues that will be part of the new Regent Park as a way to build some internal structural support into the neighbourhood.

“We have isolated cultural communities here,” she said. “There is great value in encouraging active engagement between those communities. Art absolutely has the power to bind people together, by intermingling the artistic expressions of different communities.”

To see that the people who make up those communities are not just spectators but participants in that intermingling, Coleman Lemieux will be offering free weekend dance courses for local youth. From time spent teaching students in nearby schools, she expects the courses to be full.

“The kids loved it,” she said of the intermittent school programs. “All they wanted to do was turn and jump. And why not? There’s more we can do than just put a ball in a playground for them.”

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