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Dufferin development threatens to scatter artist community

The eviction of an eclectic mix of painters, woodworkers, filmmakers and fabricators from an aging warehouse has thrown its tenants off guard

Miranda Kamal does a head count before taking her youth group boxing club on a field trip to the University of Toronto. She and about 40 other artists, small businesses and employees are facing eviction from a warehouse on Dufferin Street near Queen by March 15, 2018, to make way for a new apartment complex.

Miranda Kamal stares at her computer screen while kids from her boxing-club charity throw punches at bright red bags hanging from the warehouse ceiling. She shakes her head, scanning rental space listings in vain. Her charity – the Mentoring Juniors Kids Organization – is being evicted from its home in an aging warehouse on Dufferin Street near Queen Street, along with roughly 40 other tenants.

"We're in panic mode," Ms. Kamal says. "It takes a lot of time to find a new home when you're not expecting it."

For decades, the venerable warehouse that stretches from 390 to 444 Dufferin St. has housed an eclectic mix of painters, woodworkers, filmmakers and fabricators, providing affordable spaces for creatives and entrepreneurs close to the heart of downtown Toronto. The tenants knew the building wouldn't last forever. It was rezoned in 2015 to allow for a mixed-use residential development.

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The warehouse that stretches from 390 to 444 Dufferin St. is slated for demolition.

The property changed hands this summer and the redevelopment plan escalated, with developer Fitzrovia Capital planning to tear down the warehouse and replace it with three mid-rise residential buildings. The project will bring needed rental housing and a small-business incubator, but will also scatter a tight-knit community of creators and raises questions about how to balance preserving space for culture, arts and small business against the needs of a growing and densifying city.

The timing of the evictions caught tenants off guard. When they renewed their leases this year, many say they were told by the previous owner, Siteline Group, which has been retained as the property manager, that development plans were still far off. Some tenants understood they'd have years and invested tens of thousands of dollars into renovating their units.

Then, the building was sold in August. In mid-November, tenants were told they had until Feb. 16 to get out. Tenants sent a petition signed by nearly everyone in the building to the owners asking for more time to move out. Deputy mayor Ana Bailao's office sent the landlord a letter urging flexibility, as did local MPP Cristina Martins.

Sarain Boylan, right, speaks at a meeting of the warehouse’s tenants.

On Tuesday, they got an answer. In a letter signed by Fitzrovia chief executive Adrian Rocca, the owners offered to extend the move-out date to March 15, 2018, and provide two months of free rent – although taxes, maintenance and common-area fees will still be owed. They will also help with the logistics of moving everyone out and provide "relocation consulting services and advice," the letter says.

Danny Roth, a spokesman for the property owners, said while he couldn't speak to the behaviour of the previous owners, the current owners did everything they could to notify tenants in a timely manner without stoking fears or contributing to early speculation.

"There was certainly no effort to mislead anyone," Mr. Roth said. "As soon as the decision was made to move forward with the development, notices went out."

Mychaelynn Tenn, a member of the MJKO youth boxing charity, works out in the club’s warehouse space.

Redevelopment plans for the site go back to 2011. In 2013, Siteline Group proposed a mixed-use development that was first conceived as three condo towers at 24, 12 and eight storeys tall.

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The proposal was rejected by the city and, after an Ontario Municipal Board hearing was scheduled in 2015, the city and Siteline Group settled on a new concept that reduced the largest tower height to 12 storeys, incorporates two floors of rent-controlled industrial space and the 15,000-square-foot incubator that will be managed by an operator the city chooses through an open bidding process.

"The city is trying," says Catherine Nasmith, an architect and city planning expert, noting it's tough for the city to balance preserving and expanding the community. "This development is doing a lot of good things in offering subsidized space, but I don't think it's coming anywhere close to replacing what's being lost."

Leonard Bizzotto works on a fabrication project for Paus, a woodworking, design and fabrication company.

Chris Rickett, a manager with the City of Toronto's economic development and culture division, disagrees, at least partly. He has worked closely on the 440 Dufferin project and sees it as a unique solution to a difficult problem.

"This is the first building anywhere I know of that's got light manufacturing integrated right into the residential development," he says.

"The development will happen one way or another," Mr. Rickett says. "We wanted to make sure this is still a space where things are being made."

Mark Liam Smith, an artist with the Akin collective, says he can only afford his studio space because it’s walking distance from his home and public transit costs are too high.

When Siteline sold the building in August to 390 Dufferin Residences LP (which has Mr. Rocca, the CEO of Fitzrovia Capital, as its director), the new owners changed the plans from condos to purpose-built rental units, something badly needed in the downtown core.

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Even so, Mr. Rickett doesn't dispute the unfortunate irony of displacing a cluster of artists and small businesses to make way for a space that is intended to help foster what is essentially already there. "We know it's a tough situation regardless," he says. "I get that."

Wil McLean is a co-owner of Pursuit OCR, a play-based fitness studio and – with a 10,000-square-foot obstacle course – the largest tenant by space in the 440 Dufferin building. He finds the situation galling. "It's like kicking everyone out of a shelter because you want to build a fancy new soup kitchen."

Daniel Sapateiro swings on an obstacle at Pursuit OCR, a play-based fitness studio.

One of the Dufferin building's long-standing draws is its cheap rent. Mr. McLean currently pays $17.50 a square foot gross. To find something comparable this close to downtown, he'd have to pay around $30 a square foot.

"I've put out six offers so far, all of which we've been either outbid on the leases or the owners have decided to just sell the building," he said.

In all, Mr. McLean figures having to migrate his business "under duress" will cost him between $160,000 and $250,000, plus having to lay off most of his 20-person staff.

Toronto painter Erin Loree prepares a piece for a show opening in January.

A couple doors down from Pursuit is Straw Hat Restoration. That business is new to the Dufferin building, having signed a lease in June after the real estate agent told the company the building likely wouldn't be sold.

"They said the three-month termination clause was just to be safe, but it would probably be a year to three years before anything changed," said James Harrison, noting he and his colleagues invested $50,000 in renovating the space. Straw Hat and the other tenants have sought legal advice, but it appears little can be done because they all signed knowing about the clause. "We were definitely misled."

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