Seventy-five years ago, governments wrecked a swath of downtown Toronto to build Regent Park. Now the last of that area, an enclave of social housing cut off from the rest of the city, is slated to come down.
And that section of Regent Park will last centuries. That at least is the goal of London’s Karakusevic Carson Architects (KCA), which is overseeing its redevelopment plan. “We’ve always had an ambition to make buildings that remain for 200 or 300 years,” Paul Karakusevic said. “That means using materials that will last and making places people will be proud to live in.”
KCA is working with Toronto’s ERA Architects on a vision to provide 16 acres of new social housing and market-rate homes. If they succeed, they’ll be setting an example for urban development across North America – building on a British postwar tradition that saw public architecture as a noble calling.
Mr. Karakusevic and his firm specialize in building and renovating social housing. On their British projects, largely in London, they’ve shown an ability to deliver sensitive Modernist buildings, dressed in familiar yellow brick and accented with wood, while keeping anxious local residents happy. “We’d love to do our best work in Toronto,” he said.
But they have a big job ahead of them. Regent Park was Canada’s first and largest example of “slum clearance.” Starting in the late 1940s, governments levelled 69 acres of a supposedly blighted working-class neighbourhood to start anew. The result was a forest of low cruciform buildings, scattered indifferently across the site. The place was poorly managed, violent and overpoliced. Architecture didn’t cause all the community’s problems, but it didn’t help, either.
For 15 years beginning in 2003, Toronto Community Housing and developer Daniels razed the neighbourhood and rebuilt it, opening it to people with a mix of incomes. Now, for the final two phases, Tridel has taken over as the private-sector partner, working with TCH to build social housing along with market apartments that will help pay the bills.
What’s left now of the old Regent Park is a half-dozen brown brick slabs along Gerrard Street, lost in a sea of greenspace and pitted roads. What will replace this? Can it be a successful, or a beautiful, neighbourhood?
Mr. Karakusevic says he thinks so. “We’re working closely with residents and local people to build something everyone likes and appreciates,” he said. “And the commitment is there from TCH to make something really excellent.”
KCA and ERA’s job is to determine the size, arrangement and configuration of the new buildings, which will include replacement homes for all the current social-housing tenants. In December, TCH presented a new vision for the site to the public, updating a plan from a decade ago. Rather than the previous proposal for 1,900 townhouses and apartments, TCH is planning about 2,500 apartments in a mix of midrise and tall buildings. “We have a very strong mandate from city council to deliver new affordable housing,” explained Peter Zimmerman, the agency’s senior director of development.
This is a European model of an urban neighbourhood: fairly dense, not overly tall, carefully designed to be walkable and hospitable. It’s an excellent approach. It’s likely to go ahead, despite some complaining from wealthy Cabbagetown next door about the increased density.
The architects have been working on the plan since last summer with local residents and TCH staff. The recipe includes keeping two buildings intact – an old steam plant, which would be repurposed, and one of the 1940s apartment buildings, renovated and expanded. This reflects hard-earned wisdom about how to make a good place to live. A clean slate never helps.
More urgent for residents will be a new set of community spaces, which the area lacks, and retail. The architects imagine scattering small shops across the site that could provide both entrepreneurial opportunities for locals and some energy. “Active ground floors make an interesting place to live and to walk through,” Mr. Karakusevic said. “It’s normal for the city to have a mix of uses.” This is territory that ERA, experts in the design and planning of apartment neighbourhoods, have explored before.
KCA doesn’t have the job of designing any of the buildings in detail, though the firm hopes to win some commissions. And yet it’s a great sign that it is on the team, along with ERA and talented landscape architects PFS. It’s unusual for a municipal agency to hire a top-tier international design firm.
But the specific architecture will matter. What will the front doors look like? What materials will be used to finish the lobbies? How will the façades of the new buildings be detailed, and how will the surrounding landscapes be designed and built? These questions are critical to building an apartment neighbourhood with a sense of place, and North American developers usually fail to address them. They’re particularly important at Regent Park, a place that has been stigmatized.
And the design of the Regent Park “revitalization” so far has been a mixed bag. The streets are too wide, the public spaces cheaply constructed, the architecture spotty.
TCH recently completed 110 River St., an apartment complex by local architects RAW Design; to the street, it presents a desultory mess of cheap stucco and generic window wall. Even the signage at the front door is ugly. It will not last centuries.
TCH has to overcome its own history of failure here. The good news is that the agency is more competent and ambitious than it’s been in decades. Likewise Tridel, which has a mixed design record, promises to step up its game. “We are committed to design excellence and bold thinking,” Tridel Group COO Jim Ritchie said.
For a good precedent, Mr. Karakusevic points to the Kings Crescent Estate in the London borough of Hackney. KCA and collaborators added three buildings of high-ceilinged, well-lit apartments. They designed traffic-calmed streets, courtyards with handsome wooden benches and new birch groves. The buildings address the street with faces of hand-laid brick. Wooden doors open into apartment lobbies whose tiled walls and milk-glass pendant lights exude the finesse of a four-star hotel. All this costs a bit of money. More importantly, it requires the designers and builders to care about making good buildings.
Such care is rare in Vancouver or Montreal and almost absent in Toronto. Can social housing deliver this idea of a mixed, dense, beautiful city? Or will the bulldozers be back in another 75 years?
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