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the architourist

Toronto Transit Commission’s Danforth Carhouse and Garage at 1627/1675 Danforth Ave.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Scale is a curious thing. When I lived in Scarborough’s Midland Park neighbourhood, a walk to Scarborough Town Centre – I think I did it twice in five years – felt fantastically far. Now, living on the Danforth, a walk to, say, the legendary Square Boy at Jones Avenue for souvlaki, or to Little India on Gerrard Street – both the same distance Scarborough Town Centre was from my house – presents itself as a pleasant opportunity to window shop and daydream.

Of course one need not be an urban scholar to understand why this is, but the psychology behind it can be applied to other things. For example, a building can be massive but, if it doesn’t present a friendly face to the street, pedestrians will ignore it.

Such is the case with the Toronto Transit Commission’s Danforth Carhouse and Garage (1915) at 1627/1675 Danforth Avenue. Although the former streetcar maintenance complex is twice as large as the architecturally similar Wychwood Barns (1913) and situated on a major high street, passersby tune it out as they walk. It is fenced in, blank-faced and altogether architecturally estranged from the city. The Artscape Wychwood Barns, of course, despite hiding behind a long parkette fronting Christie Street, has been wildly successful since its 2008 transformation from TTC streetcar repair buildings into a cultural hub that contains artist’s live/work studios, gallery space, an event venue and a farmer’s market.

So, imagine my delight upon learning the City of Toronto has made it a priority to see something similar happen to the Danforth site.

It’s a long time coming, said former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford. “Lots of ideas have been developed over the years from the community … the last 18 years … but nothing has happened to date.”

The eastern facade.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Danforth Ave. forecourt.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Painted-over skylights in the streetcar barns.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Bedford and a number of others, such as Mary Mowbray of Colliers International, Marcel Parsons of First Capital REIT, and urban planner Jonathan Tinney of SvN Architects and Planners, gathered virtually three weeks ago for a “Technical Assistance Panel” hosted by the Urban Land Institute. Really just a fancy name for brainstorming session, the panel was assembled in the spring at the request of the city’s real estate agency, CreateTO, with the goal of understanding what needs to take place in order to expedite the transformation of the 6,503-square-metres garage, which sits on more than two hectares of land.

The panel presented five action points. First, they felt the city should look at the immediate area – not just the subject site – as a “district” in order to “unlock potential funding sources.” That could mean getting local businesses involved (there is a Shoppers Drug Mart across the street) or using nearby parkettes as umbilical sites. Hana Elmasry of arts organization Akin Collective suggested that organizations already in the area could benefit from the inclusion of rentable shared working or studio space and rentable rehearsal or performance space. “And we consider things like program rooms or even larger halls where we can [host] fairs for the businesses in that area, or markets from the 19 or 20 listed art organizations in the area,” she said.

Secondly, the city needs to allow increased density on the site; 750,000 square feet of market-rate housing, to be exact. But, since the city has identified this as a “Housing Now” site – an initiative to build affordable housing on city-owned land – one-third of those units need to be priced or rented at much lower rates. If this creates a “funding gap,” says Mr. Tinney, then the development group needs to consider “what other opportunities are there within the city and other departments” or other levels of government that can plug the gap. It will be a balancing act, since there is already a public library on site that needs to stay, and it’s possible a consolidated 54/55 Division police station will be located here as well. And the TTC still requires some administrative and storage space.

Third, the panel suggested the city “Just start!”: Get people to ‘notice’ the building by including it in Doors Open 2023, or take down the fence and have a farmer’s or arts market in the courtyard (a good portion of the building is set back from the Danforth). But will buying carrots make a difference? Yes, says Mr. Tinney: “Using it for some short-term uses now may allow for a community group to actually grow with the site … they come back after construction in the larger scale or the larger format. And so it’s starting to create a bit of an ecosystem.”

Old 1960s-era streetcar parts in the yard.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Samatha Martin/Samantha Martin/CreateTO

Samatha Martin/Samantha Martin/CreateTO

Views of the interior.Samatha Martin/Samantha Martin/CreateTO

By doing this, the fourth point – testing circulation and ways into and out of the fortress-like buildings – will be achieved.

The fifth point might be the most obvious, but it’s also the most difficult: “Attract a creative, long-term developer and funding partner.” A developer that, I should add, has experience with mixed-use sites that include a great deal of creative retail, not-for-profits, and gathering spaces that won’t necessarily squeeze every dollar out of the site.

The thing is – and this is this idea of scale again – there is so much space available it should be a no-brainer. And I know, since CreateTO’s vice-president of development, Gabriella Sicheri, took me on a tour of the complex a few weeks ago. The 100-car surface parking lot is plenty big enough for new housing (including a high-rise facing onto Coxwell Avenue, and the repair barns are so very, very long (and post-free due to their robust concrete frames) that almost anything can happen inside. Such as? Well how about: a circus school; glassblowing or sculpture school/workshops; paintball or escape room adventure; a vertical farm; an Indigenous longhouse for teaching; a U-fix-it auto repair school (the old trenches are still intact); roller derby; a roller rink; an indoor skateboard park; axe-throwing; and, of course, the more obvious uses such as artisanal retail and indie restaurants (and because floors are tough concrete, Ms. Sicheri envisions a brewpub with rows of gleaming kettles on display).

The other thing is, we’ve been down this road before. In 2019, an 83-page report by the design firm DTAH, ERA Architects and Stantec Consulting (and others) was released. It included feedback from all sorts of community groups, intense analysis and multiple options for development. And nothing happened.

So what makes this time different?

“We have a responsibility to deliver on it,” Ms. Sicheri said. “It is a Housing Now site, with a kind of accelerated time frame. … I am very cognizant of the community wanting to see something even interim here.”

Historical photos from the 2019 report by design firm DTAH, ERA Architects and Stantec Consulting.DTAH