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The Globe and Mail

Lawrence Heights makeover could be jeopardized

The Lawrence Heights community which is located in the Allen Rd. and Lawrence Ave West area. Behind the low brick wall behind the slide is the busy Allen Expressway, an arterial road that cleaves the community in half.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

An ambitious makeover of one of Canada's largest and oldest housing complexes could be in jeopardy if mayor-elect Rob Ford follows through on his pledge to put the kibosh on the city's Lawrence Heights revitalization.

The 25-year project aims to turn the impoverished maze of cul-de-sacs and low-rise buildings in decades-old disrepair into a dense, mixed-income neighbourhood of condos, townhouses and public-housing apartments. It was approved by a huge majority at city council in July. However, Mr. Ford was one of two councillors who voted against it - and he has promised to put a halt to the proposal, which has the surrounding community worried it will turn their sleepy suburban area into a traffic-heavy neighbourhood.

That promise is the reason Claire Ciss voted for Mr. Ford in last month's election. Now, she says, "I'm hoping Ford will have the guts" to put the brakes on a project she's convinced will "ruin the community."

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Ironically, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation plan does exactly what Mr. Ford insists the city should do more often: leverage private-sector funds. The plan is to sell off much of the 44.5-hectare site to develop thousands of private, market-rate condos and townhouses - and use that money to pay for the badly needed rebuild of social housing.

But it's the density - 7,500 units in total - and the traffic it would bring that have people like Ms. Ciss uneasy. She's worried about the impact the influx of thousands of new residents will have on the Lawrence-Bathurst area's close-knit Orthodox Jewish community.

"The idea of putting high-rises - six- to eight-storey high-rises - right next to single family housing … It's going to affect the neighbourhood," she said. "People here live in the small side streets. And we all would be very much affected."

The city has yet to commit money to the revitalization beyond the resources spent so far on planning studies and consultation. That commitment that will come in 2011, when the city prepares to approve a secondary plan, and an implementation and financial strategy.

Howard Moscoe, the councillor who spearheaded the project, is retiring; his replacement Josh Colle said he supports a revamp of the area, but wants to consult with the community to tweak and find compromises.

"In my mind keeping Lawrence Heights as it is, the status quo, is not an option," he said. "We've got to improve and fix it. So that's my starting point. I've heard countless concerns about impacts of the density and the potential traffic impacts … I think all those things can be worked on."

Advocates of the revitalization project argue that derailing it would mean the city loses a chance to invert Lawrence Heights' post-war model of cloistered poverty - and ends up having to pay just as much to fix the decrepit houses itself.

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Mr. Ford, for his part, has been a vocal critic of Toronto's community housing - he'd rather see the city simply give out rent subsidies and have tenants use private apartments. There's a 70,000-household waiting list for affordable housing in the city.

Paulos Gebreyesus, who works at the community health clinic at Lawrence Heights, has watched the revitalization consultation process warily. But as residents became less leery, and less afraid of being displaced, people became more hopeful the plan will bring about real change - even if it means defying anxieties created by the suggestion of ending the "two isolations" between Lawrence Heights and its surroundings.

"The big question" now is whether that will pan out, he said. "We've all got our eyes on decision-makers."

By the numbers

44.5 - Number of hectares onsite

$240-million - Cost of roads, sewage pipes and community facilities.

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1,208 - Number of units of social housing in Lawrence Heights.

3,500 - Number of social-housing residents now living in Lawrence Heights.

5,500 - Number of units to be added.

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