Rising rents, excessive noise, public-health problems. While artists in affordable spaces at Artscape’s Wychwood Barns grapple with liveability issues, the non-profit organization that manages their homes has become a name brand to the city’s top developers and creative class. As Artscape grows, can it remain committed to its daily role as landlord?
On most Saturday mornings, the grounds of the seven-year-old Artscape Wychwood Barns hum with activity. With stalls featuring fresh produce and baked goods, the farmer’s market attracts locals who come to shop or just chat. Musicians play at one end, while children run around the playground at the other.
It all presents a tableau of gentrified urban cool – one that has drawn thousands of visitors to the former streetcar repair shop near St. Clair and Bathurst.
But behind the scenes, the city-owned hub, which has won numerous design and sustainability awards, is anything but blissed out. In the past two months, artists and community groups that rent affordable space in the Barns from Artscape, the non-profit that operates the facility, have been hit with bracing property tax bills for thousands of dollars. As a result, one tenant says, the rent on a 316-square-foot studio will rise from $740 a month to more than $1,000.
The reason: Following a contested property reassessment, Artscape received a tax arrears bill of $350,000. Since Artscape informed its tenants they’d have to pony up, several have left or are actively looking for less expensive space elsewhere.
While stressed-out Barns tenants have been grappling with these and other headaches – several have had to vacate their live-work apartments multiple times in recent years, due to repairs necessitated by high lead-paint levels and excessive noise – Artscape itself has grown into a highly visible player straddling the city’s real estate and cultural industries. The growth-minded organization now employs 113 staff full- and part-time, and earned $12.8-million in revenue last year, partly due to partnerships with condo developers and the sale of studio condos.
As well, Artscape’s events income has grown tenfold since 2004, to $1.5-million annually. It launched a “creative place-making” consultancy that brought in more than $300,000 in 2014 and management fees generated a further $1.4-million. Artscape’s foundation has raised nearly $10-million since 2012, almost all of which goes to a few new projects. The corporation’s assets are valued at $44-million, with several projects in the pipeline. Artscape, however, remains heavily leveraged, with over $12-million in long-term debt, including a $7-million mortgage on the Barns.
Yet, Artscape’s relentless focus on expanding its footprint and brand may have compromised its less sexy responsibilities as a landlord. Indeed, the Barns’ simmering problems came to a head earlier this month, when the artists who live in the Barns’ rent-geared-to-income, live-work apartments learned that some of their dwellings still contain high levels of lead paint dust, despite a remediation ordered by the City of Toronto in 2009 after a tenant complained. The Barns received a LEED Gold certification for sustainable design in April, 2013.
Despite the seal of approval, samples taken last November from roof joists above several apartments show high lead levels. While there are no EPA limits on levels on roof joists, Canadian consultants use windowsill limits as a benchmark for roof joists. Using that benchmark, one unit revealed a dust wipe concentration 56 times above the limit for windowsills, according to documents.
Barns residents, however, didn’t get the results until this month; indeed, Toronto Public Health officials were only notified in June. Many have had blood tests, with most coming back negative but some showing elevated levels.
The contamination is of concern given that several children live in those units. Associate medical officer of health Howard Shapiro says the health risks are slight, but include elevated blood pressure and potential concentration deficits in young children. “If there’s lead there and the potential for people to be exposed, we do recommend that it be cleaned up.” A second remediation is now under way.
“Anybody would be concerned” about the lead, says Peter Gillett, a landscape artist whose unit was cleaned up over two days earlier this week. He had his blood checked, but the slightly elevated levels didn’t concern his physician. The sound issues, Mr. Gillett adds, “concern me more than anything else.”
In fact, persistent “sound transfer” problems are a major irritant for occupants who’ve complained about the situation for years. Late-night noise from the Barns’ private events – the weddings and corporate functions that help cover operating costs – wafts into the apartments.
Those units, in turn, have such thin walls that some tenants say they hear everything their neighbours do – a design flaw that has fostered tension and even police calls. “You can hear your neighbour’s microwave,” one says. “It feels like a giant experiment.”
Some Barns tenants do like their digs, despite the problems. “I don’t want to move out,” says Alma Roussy, a graphic artist. “Artscape is doing the best job it can under the circumstances.” Artscape chief executive officer Tim Jones also points to surveys showing that nearly 80 per cent of Artscape’s tenants are satisfied with their accommodations.
Yet, others have reached the end of their tethers. “It seems like the place is just falling apart,” says Bernadette Peets, a sculptor who rents a small Barns studio.
The occupant of a subsidized live-work apartment, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of eviction, put it this way: “Moving into that building is one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my adult life. It screwed up everything for me.”
Mr. Jones insists his team is trying to address the concerns at the Barns, including the taxes, which, he says, were originally pegged at $700,000 but have since been reduced because council exempted part of the property. “We have a long history of solving problems and no history of project failure,” says Mr. Jones, who notes that Artscape is pressing ahead with a new “stewardship” plan for the Barns. He stresses that no tenant should fear losing their unit “for having an opinion.”
(Last week, after a Globe reporter was asked to leave a Barns tenants’ meeting convened to air these issues, Mr. Jones posted a statement on Artscape’s website saying, “we deeply regret the distress that these challenges have caused [tenants].”)
Mr. Jones also contends that some of these dilemmas are the responsibility of the City of Toronto. He blames city officials for providing poor advice on how Barns tenants could avoid a tax hike by shifting their leases to “licences.” Deborah Blackstone, a city spokesperson, says no such advice was ever provided.
During a June meeting with tenants, Mr. Jones also said city officials “attempted to block” a new lead cleanup and speculated that “the City may be concerned about setting a precedent with this building in regards to lead management, which could come with significant costs if similar work has to be done at other City-owned sites,” according to minutes obtained by The Globe. Ms. Blackstone says those statements are “incorrect” and points out that remediation is Artscape’s responsibility under the terms of its council-approved lease.
Even Councillor Joe Mihevc, who fought for the Barns restoration in the early 2000s and is now an Artscape director, concedes the organization’s focus on rapid expansion may have come at the expense of stabilizing existing projects such as the Barns, which has received none of Artscape’s recent fundraising revenue. “It’s hard to get money for what we would normally call state of good repair,” he says. “This is hurting the brand.”
“I would dispute that,” Mr. Jones responds. “The facilities are in fantastic shape.”
Many people assume Artscape is a city agency. But while the municipality provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies and loan guarantees, and more public dollars flow in from the other levels of government, Artscape is an independent development and property-management organization, albeit one that describes its mandate as fostering “creative communities.”
It has a complex corporate structure with three boards dominated by builders, prominent artists, philanthropists and “ambassadors” such as creative-class guru Richard Florida and author Margaret Atwood. UrbanCorp owner Alan Saskin heads Artscape’s fundraising arm and has also done deals with Artscape. Besides Mr. Mihevc, Councillor Ana Bailao is also on the board.
A former general manager of the theatre company Buddies in Bad Times, Mr. Jones has been the driving force in Artscape since 2008. He is not a public servant and declined to reveal his salary or disclose whether he receives bonuses for completing projects. While an Artscape spokesperson acknowledged its overall salary and benefits expenses exceed the amounts cited on its financial statements, the organization would not provide details about its total annual payroll outlay.
Mr. Jones’s vision of Artscape bears scant resemblance to its roots. With $1-million in seed funding, the Toronto Arts Council in the mid-1980s established Artscape with a mandate to rent industrial space and make it available to artists at below-market rates. “Artscape was seen as the agency that would assist artists and hold head leases,” recalls Ian Murray, a video artist who had a studio in a Liberty Village industrial building at 60 Atlantic Ave. for nearly 20 years.
During the 1990s, Artscape amassed a portfolio of properties, including 900 Queen West, 60 Atlantic and a nature school on the Toronto Islands, among others. It still runs some of those and several newer ones. Three years ago, it vacated 60 Atlantic, an 1899 Liberty Village factory built by St. David’s Wine Growers Co., after the city sold the structure to an office developer for $8.9-million.
While city officials wanted to unload 60 Atlantic for years, some tenants say Artscape hustled them out. Mr. Murray spent $5,000 to store his gear and has been unable to find the funds to secure a new studio.
Others had more luck. Sandra Bell, general manager of Array Music, an Artscape tenant at 60 Atlantic since 1991, says her group faced a tough slog finding new space because it needed a sound-proof venue. It found a west-end landlord prepared to invest in sound abatement, as well as a performance space that allows Array to mount shows and lease studio space. “We were extremely lucky,” Ms. Bell says. “It was a difficult transition.”
Such industrial buildings still exist, but artists now have to go farther afield. A few private firms, such as UrbanSpace, rent affordable arts space downtown.
Artscape competes with these organizations in the studio-rental market but is the only outfit that provides government-subsidized live-work lofts to artists. Using revenue from events and other sources, it claims to provide $3.6-million in subsidies to its tenants, who, on average, pay 42 per cent of rates in Class B and Class C commercial buildings, according to its surveys.
Yet, some Barns tenants feel the price gap has narrowed because Artscape rates have risen steadily. Ms. Peets, who rented a small studio in the Barns, says she can find space for less than what she must pay Artscape after the tax hikes kick in.
In fact, Artscape, with its close ties to Toronto’s development industry, has focused increasingly on securing apartments in new condo towers. It will operate 80 affordable rentals in a 225-unit Tridel/Hines project planned for the East Bayfront and has 68 apartments in UrbanCorp’s Triangle Lofts.
Increasingly, Artscape sells those units instead of renting them. It earned $4.9-million from selling condo studios at Youngplace, an $18-million project. Eligible buyers include not just artists but also employees of arts organizations. By selling studios, Mr. Jones says, “it’s become much easier to make projects viable.” The buyers, he adds, tend to be “senior artists.”
Visual artist Barbara Astman bought a space in Youngplace after leasing for years in a Junction factory that had been full of artists but was being taken over by a games developer. “The biggest difference between this studio and my past studios is the fact that it is well maintained,” she says.
Yet, others balk at the costs. The asking price on a 490-square-foot studio, one of the smallest in Youngplace, was $210,000, with owners paying $350 a month in fees. “I don’t know any artists who could afford to buy a work-only studio,” a long-time Artscape tenant says.
It’s not the only way the organization’s business model chafes. Artscape rents its spaces out for private functions. But in the Barns, several tenants say, those events have created excessive noise, as well as conflicts over access to common space. An artist who once rented a studio that opened onto the Barns’ main event area says her clients were turned away because a private function was taking place. “That’s unheard of,” she says.
The fundraising has also raised eyebrows. A tenant in one downtown building says Artscape officials bring wealthy prospective patrons through the premises. While Artscape’s foundation has raised millions in recent years, this tenant points out she’s had to fight with Artscape’s managers to approve routine repairs, including fixing an elevator that was out of service for years.
The persistent sound issues at the Barns are another example of nickel-and-diming, some tenants say. Asked why a long-recognized problem still hasn’t been fixed, Mr. Jones replies, “It’s taken a long time to get expert [acoustics] advice and, to be honest, we’re not there yet.” He provided The Globe with recent quotes for test repairs, most under $20,000. “It would be absolutely inaccurate to say we’ve done nothing.”
For all the controversy, some in Toronto’s arts world back Artscape but say it shouldn’t be the only entity delivering subsidized space. “It’s essential that Artscape exist and we should support it,” Array’s Sandra Bell says. “But we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket.”
Others have had enough. As one Barns tenant says of the hefty bill for back taxes she received in the spring, “This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included information from environmental assessment documents on lead levels in roof joists. While there is no accepted EPA limits on lead levels in roof joists, Canadian consultants use EPA limits for windowsills as a benchmark.