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Snow falls in Toronto's Distillery District on Nov. 28, 2021.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Some days it feels like the arts scene is one big laundromat. If you made your money in mining or finance, it’s a time-honoured tradition to donate your art collection to a public gallery to ensure that you are remembered as something more than a capitalist. And if you are worried about attracting buyers to condo towers on an old brownfield site at the edge of downtown, you can try offering artists reduced rents and see if you can’t strike up a vibe.

That is what happened – with spectacular success – at the Distillery District in Toronto. But 20 years later, many of those artists are now being forced out: Their leases are expiring in 2022 and they are discovering there isn’t space for them in the hip new neighbourhood they helped to popularize. The story is a complicated one and there is no particular villain, but there is a cautionary tale about viewing the arts primarily as the means to gentrification.

When the Distillery District was originally developed in the early 2000s, the former Gooderham and Worts plant was full of old brick buildings, charming paved laneways and fascinating industrial leftovers, but the southeast edge of downtown was a wasteland. The bold plan to turn the historic site into a quirky cultural destination full of chic boutiques and good restaurants – no chain stores – required some initial tenants who would stick it out until the creative classes showed up to sip coffee and buy condos.

Friendly rents were offered to bring in businesses who were responsible for their own renovations, but the city’s plan for the site, which dated back to 1990, had also granted density under a Section 37 deal. That is the part of the Ontario Planning Act which allows developers to buy themselves extra height for their towers in exchange for providing community amenities. When Cityscape, the original developer and now a partner in the district, bought the site in 2001, it inherited these obligations and couldn’t build until they were met. So, Cityscape offered a 20-year lease below market rates to Artscape, the non-profit real estate organization committed to building projects that offer studio, performance and living space to artists, and the city agreed that would do the trick.

The Artscape lease was used to attract sub-tenants to two connected buildings on the southeast corner of the site, the Case Goods Warehouse and the Cannery. The project included 10 retail storefront studios for artists and artisans on the ground floor, as well as 27 private studios and 20 offices for arts organizations on upper floors. In a nearby building, there was also rehearsal space for noted local performing-arts groups Tapestry Opera, Nightwood Theatre and Dancemakers. These artists, who were joined in 2006 by Soulpepper Theatre in the new Young Centre for the Performing Arts on the north side, were key to the eclectic, indie atmosphere in the Distillery District.

In those early years, when the so-called Creative Cities agenda was all the rage, the Distillery was considered a model of brownfield redevelopment and cultural tourism. The restaurants were bad, but the coffee was good, and there was always something interesting to see or buy – often from the hands of a person who had made it themselves.

The Young Centre, operated by Soulpepper and George Brown College’s Theatre School, sunk its own money into a building that includes four performance spaces in exchange for a 120-year lease, and did much to enliven the district after hours. But with Artscape’s 20-year lease, the City of Toronto had broken a sound rule of development negotiations: Don’t exchange density that lasts forever for finite community amenities. Vancouver, which in those years had a much better track record then Toronto in getting developers to build cultural infrastructure, had learned this lesson early on when it saw non-profits pushed out in favour of commercial tenants the minute 10-year leases expired. Toronto has grown more sophisticated, but in 2019, the province passed Bill 108, which is intended to streamline development by amalgamating the various charges developers pay. Some fear that will make the competition for the amenities money much stiffer, squeezing out arts groups and public-art projects.

Today, about 70 artists and arts groups have to move in March, including Tapestry, Nightwood and those of the Case Goods artists whose businesses survived the pandemic. They will be replaced by the Collège Boréal, a French-language community college currently located in the Toronto Star building at 1 Yonge Street. It was supposed to move into a purpose-built building at the south end of the site, but that has been delayed by construction on the Ontario subway line. So instead, the college will get Artscape space. Cityscape spokesperson Samantha Lem declined to say if the college will be paying market rates because the lease is confidential, but added that it is still hoping to find alternative spaces for some of the arts tenants. In the meantime, the students will bring yet more bustle to the Distillery District, but part of its heart will be missing.

About 70 artists and arts groups have to move in March, including those whose businesses survived the pandemic.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail