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How a strip of warehouses in Toronto became a community hub

TORONTO

How a strip of warehouses became a community hub

Low rents and large buildings have drawn not-for-profit organizations and new life to Industry Street in the former
city of York

The Learning Enrichment Foundation, located on Industry Street, modified a 73,000-square-foot warehouse to accommodate several not-for-profit organizations.

At the heart of the faded manufacturing belt in the old city of York, Industry Street winds it way past low slung warehouses and vacant lots, where used pallets are stacked high and weeds grow wild through chain-link fences.

But don't let the name fool you. Industry Street near Weston Road and Eglinton Avenue West is home to an increasing number of not-for-profits and small businesses fostering an urbanity that looks nothing like Queen West or the Annex – but is just as lively.

Over the past decade, the street has been transformed in ways that were never intended. Community organizations have found homes in the hollowed-out warehouses left over from the days when the area manufactured cameras, trusses and stoves. Many were driven here by rising rent prices in the core, but also by a desire to serve the local community.

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"Rent here is cheaper than the other areas we were looking at," says Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare. The not-for-profit facilitating access to affordable and healthy food recently moved to Industry Street from Dufferin and Bloor Streets last year. "The location of poverty has shifted from Toronto's centre to its periphery. We've moved to be closer to those communities."

Weston-Mount Dennis has been one of Toronto's poorest districts for the past 40 years, with 24 per cent of households low-income compared with the city average of 19 per cent. The slow decline of the local manufacturing economy received its final blow when Kodak closed its once massive operations in 2005.

In many ways, the neighbourhood is a symbol of the changing city and its shifting demographics. Even so, the completion of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT in 2021 and the increase in rent it will bring risks displacing these communities, as well as FoodShare and others like it.

The organization took its lead from the Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF), a multiservice provider that's been based out of a former electrical switches warehouse on Industry Street since 1991. The company was initially founded as a business incubator, but opportunities presented by the expansive 73,000 square-foot facility provoked a shift in its mandate.

Industry Street was once home to old factories, but got a new life when non-profits and small businesses moved in.

Over the past decade a colourful city-within-a-city has sprouted under LEF's saw-toothed warehouse roof, built to accommodate several not-for-profits. The organizations – ranging from child-care providers, bicycle workshops, the North York Women's Centre, a kitchen skills training program, language classes for newcomers and practicums for youth in the construction industry – are experimenting with integrated service provision for its clients.

"It's kind of like the Centre for Social Innovation but without the buzz words." says Aniska Ali, director of Development and Marketing for North York Harvest Food Bank (NYHFB). "Many unexpected partnerships have come from so many organizations sharing one space. Clients can go from one service to another without going outside."

Recognizing the importance of these unplanned interactions, LEF created a "Town Square" as one of its first major interventions in the building. The brightly coloured hall at the centre of LEF brings together clients lingering between programs or waiting to pick up their kids from child care.

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"The neighbourhood has lost legion halls, churches and schools as accessible community gathering spaces," says Peter Frampton, executive director of LEF. "We need somewhere for people to meet." LEF's Town Square has also hosted holiday feasts, markets, planning consultations, and even the funeral of former mayor of York Fergy Brown.

"People need health, shelter and skills but, above all, a social network," Mr. Frampton says. "The Town Square provides space for that. It breaks isolation, giving people opportunities to lead their own initiatives."

But Industry Street has few community gathering spaces beyond LEF's Town Square and some picnic benches and a gazebo outside its front door. Despite many people accessing the street via limited bus service or walking from Trethewey Drive or Weston Road, it feels hostile to anyone who isn't travelling by car.

It's the problem that plagues Toronto's inner suburbs at large. Built for the car, they are increasingly inhabited by those who can't afford to own one. It's a disparity in design whose worst consequence is the recent surge in pedestrian deaths along the city's inner suburban arterial roads.

Kenai Meawasige, left, and Jesus Gomez prepare lunch for staff and guests at Food Share, which relocated to Industry Street.

"The people most affected by food insecurity can't afford to live downtown where services and transportation are concentrated," Ms. Ali from NYHFB says. "Industry Street has become home to organizations who are making it work in a place that wasn't built for us."

The idea of Toronto – the neighbourhoods we live in and how they are serviced – needs to catch up with this reality. Outside the realm of traditional urbanism, Industry Street has been stuck with a maintenance regime that may have been adequate for its industrial days, but neglects the pedestrians who now use it daily.

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Sidewalks are covered in litter and in the winter are rarely cleared of ice, making them difficult, if not impossible, for people with strollers to use. Meanwhile the smallest fluctuations in transit service can disproportionately change travel time in and out of the area.

"The bus used to be awful, a commute could take two hours," said Adrienne De La Rosa, an LEF client while waiting for one. "But they increased service last year, thank goodness." The service is still infrequent though, and those who wait have their patience tested even further when they see several empty buses depart from the nearby Mount Dennis TTC Garage – many headed for their downtown routes.

"At FoodShare's bus stop, there's no shelter," Mr. Taylor says. "We have clients with mobility issues. It's a tough thing sending them into the cold." He notes that small gestures such as a crosswalk would go a long way in the infrastructure-deprived district.

For better or for worse, the fine-grained transformations of warehouses into community spaces along Industry Street depend on the legacies of its industrial heritage – unlike the redevelopment of the Port Lands, which will render much of its manufacturing functions obsolete.

"A bulk of the work FoodShare does is distribution," Mr. Taylor says. "Our drivers were struggling to navigate the city centre. We need proper loading docks and storage space for our 14 vehicles. All this is difficult to find downtown."

Signs outside the Learning Enrichment Foundation located on Industry Street.

Over at LEF, the NYHFB has similar industrial-sized needs. When the organization was forced to move from its previous location, it needed a warehouse with loading docks. They approached LEF, which had the ideal space. LEF also had a fork-lift operation skills training program, where students were moving empty boxes. NYHFB got the space it needed and LEF could provide students with meaningful training opportunities, in turn lowering NYHFB's operating costs.

"It couldn't have happened without a functioning warehouse space," says Rowena Power, director of Food Distribution at NYHFB, "or LEF's ability to bring so many organizations under one roof."

The Eglinton Crosstown LRT will bring more change to Industry Street and its surrounding area. On the site of the old Kodak lands, nearby Mount Dennis station will become a transit hub linking the LRT with TTC buses and GO trains.

Mr. Taylor acknowledges the LRT as both a blessing and a curse.

"Transit access means rents will go up," he says. "Low-income friendly space is disappearing. Access to food is decreasing as more restaurants and high-price grocery stores open in the area." While many of the storefronts along Weston Road remain boarded up and empty, Supercoffee, a stylish cafe at Weston Road and Eglinton Avenue West, is a harbinger of things to come.

Still, the community is ready to embrace the area's transformation, hoping those improvements will extend to the pedestrian experience of Industry Street.

"It's a YIMBY community," Mr. Taylor says. "They want to see housing and employment intensified. They want to be included with the rest of the city. But they also want to stay here to benefit from those changes."

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