Community Building

TEXT Julie Bogdanowicz
PHOTOS Tom Arban unless otherwise noted

Toronto Community Housing (TCH) has been a longtime force in shaping its city. Historically, the public-housing provider has tested many built forms and typologies, tracing prevailing social attitudes and architectural fashions. There have been successes and failures: the 1950s mega-projects on superblocks are now behind us, while we’ve come to accept Jane Jacobs urbanism as status quo. With two new projects–a tower at 150 Dan Leckie Way in CityPlace and the redevelopment of the inner-city Alexandra Park neighbourhood–the agency is offering a hybrid of these two approaches. Both projects create dense inner-city housing that carefully negotiates its street presence, one in the form of an apartment high-rise on a brownfield site, the other through redeveloping an existing neighbourhood with a mixed-use development. In both cases, TCH asserts a commitment to high-quality architecture and planning.

The TCH scope is broad: they are landlords who oversee a portfolio of over 2,000 buildings. They are the second-largest public housing provider in North America, with 164,000 tenants whose rent is geared to their income, and over 90,000 households waitlisted. Increasingly, TCH is also becoming a developer, or a redeveloper. The deft operation of this agency is critical in the wake of the recession and in light of the city’s serious shortage of both affordable and rental housing. This is compounded by Toronto’s current socio-spatial shift: the middle class is disappearing and low-income residents are being pushed to the inner suburbs, where they find few amenities and inadequate transit service.

There is great urgency for renewal within TCH’s portfolio. The majority of projects are of a 1970s vintage and there is a $751-million repair backlog. But capital is in short supply. The Province of Ontario recently announced it will terminate a $150-million fund to pay for social programs in Toronto by 2016, and Mayor Rob Ford refuses to raise property taxes, which are among the lowest in the province. 

As an alternative means of funding, when TCH redevelops its own sites, in some cases it simultaneously delivers market housing–a model it pioneered with the ongoing Regent Park revitalization (see CA, July 2012). The Alexandra Park plan includes 65% market units that effectively fund the construction and renovation of its affordable housing units. Socially, it makes sense to mix socio-economic classes. Economically, it makes sense to maximize revenue-generating potential. 

The desire to improve and augment existing TCH sites is championed by local councillor Adam Vaughan, who believes there is “a logical sequence where better architecture produces better public housing, which in turn produces better cities.” TCH is proving itself a responsible innovator in this regard. One key precept is providing high-quality units that accommodate families, unlike the typical small rental units downtown. Vaughan recently suggested, “If a city creates bedrooms where children are made, the city should then create units with enough bedrooms for this offspring.” Because families of 10 are not uncommon TCH tenants, 15% of Alexandra Park and 150 Dan Leckie Way will consist of units with three or more bedrooms. 

150 Dan Leckie Way

The recent opening of 150 Dan Leckie Way has injected stroller traffic into the CityPlace neighbourhood, 10 newly developed blocks that line the downtown rail corridor between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue. Young professionals–who typically leave when they start families–dominate in the area. The social mix in 150 Dan Leckie Way, says design lead Shirley Blumberg of KPMB Architects, is more like a real city. Blumberg was raised in South Africa and is vocal about social equity: “This is dear to me. It’s why I came to Canada in the first place.” 

 The project’s 428 units are organized within a prescribed tower-and-podium typology. The nine- and 11-storey podium uses a skip-stop section that eliminates six corridors, and allows for cross ventilation of the stacked units. Project architect Richard Unterthiner worked to communicate the scheme to the client and consultants through diagrams that have been memorialized as a feature wall: a gigantic backlit section animates the lobby.

 Early conversations during schematic design resulted in 150 Dan Leckie Way’s unique typology. TCH was inspired by Jack Diamond and Barton Myers’ Hydro Block, a four-storey townhouse development with an inventive section that incorporates front doors on streets, terraces and passive surveillance. 150 Dan Leckie Way’s podium couples this approach with earlier precedents–including Le Corbusier’s street in the sky–and packages the whole in a mid-rise building typology. It works.

There are few high-rises in Toronto with ambitious sections (with the notable exception of TCH’s 60 Richmond East by Teeple Architects) and even fewer that take advantage of the seemingly economical skip-stop corridor typology (with the notable exception of District Lofts by architectsAlliance). Also rare are apartment buildings that have units on two floors, particularly after the demolition of Peter Dickinson’s towers in Regent Park. In sum, 150 Dan Leckie Way is a welcome addition to Toronto’s unrelenting vertical landscape of stacked floor slabs.

From the outside, 150 Dan Leckie Way has a provocative urban presence. Viewed from a distance, the brightly coloured perimeter corridors glow like beacons. The massing of the podium elegantly breaks away at the southeast corner in response to views of a park and the waterfront beyond. The tower’s massing is visually divided into black and white sections clad in a syncopated, two-storey supergraphic pattern of spandrel panels. 

The finer-grain detail is equally well resolved at grade. Servicing was carefully negotiated: there is no unfriendly backside to this building. The animation of the street-level units spills out onto the sidewalk. Similarly, on the podium’s third floor, a rooftop courtyard weaves together private outdoor space with common areas. The podium’s corridors are extra wide, have operable windows, and were designed as extensions of the private units.

Blumberg speaks of Modernism’s social commitment and the importance of creating social infrastructure. The rooftop courtyard features a ring of social spaces that act in synergy. Playrooms, communal kitchen, event space and laundry room overlook the commons and are connected by a walkway. During a recent visit, as if on cue, two young siblings on scooters began to use this circuit while their mother did the laundry and tended to her other children. The passive surveillance in this secure social space was clearly working.

Overall, this project is highly resolved and the developers have been fielding phone-call inquiries about the “high-end housing” they are building in CityPlace. In fact, the project came in under budget, and Howard Cohen of Context Development says the sectional gymnastics were not a significant cost, although they were a matter of inconvenience for the builder.

Alexandra Park

The success of the social infrastructure on display at 150 Dan Leckie Way is reminiscent of the optimism that went into the social-housing vision of the 1960s. Architect Jerome Markson designed Alexandra Park as an 18-acre village of maisonettes and towers laid out along an internal pedestrian mews, turning its back to the city and its unpleasant thoroughfares. This village has matured and now houses 2,500 tenants in what has become a desirable neighbourhood, bordered by eclectic Kensington Market to the north, bustling Chinatown to the east, and fashionable Queen Street West to the south.

Despite the original plan’s optimism, over time,
Alexandra Park’s lack of continuity with the city has become problematic. And while its housing stock has reached the end of its life cycle, it was not originally slated for revitalization. Rather than asking for permission, Councillor Vaughan deployed a group of experts to work with the local community–who constitute one of TCH’s most tightly knit groups of residents–to develop a new master plan. TCH got on board when it witnessed this momentum; however, the community consultation was not always smooth. Some children who grew up in Alexandra Park have since trained as planners and were armed with the knowledge that they have the “right to say no.” The plan that is moving forward is an absolute reflection of what the community sanctioned. 

The City retained Urban Strategies to develop a master plan; LGA Architectural Partners and Teeple Architects are building out the first phase with developer Tridel. In the final scheme, apartment buildings, rowhouses, stacked townhouses and a community centre will be built with a large linear park acting as the development’s spine. While the current plan calls for private yards and local community uses adjacent to the park, planner Ken Greenberg–who is a member of the design review panel–would prefer to see broader public uses fronting this central green space.

In total, 333 townhouses and apartment units will be replaced (65% of the existing townhouses will be replaced in a townhouse form), 473 apartment units refurbished, and 1,540 market units added with retail at grade where appropriate. Because of its repair backlog, the TCH can only replace units, and not provide additional rent-geared-to-income housing. The majority of the new density lines Dundas Street West to avoid overwhelming the reconfigured community. The 15- to 17-storey towers minimize their impacts with generous setbacks and spacing.

One of the redevelopment’s primary planning objectives is to align new public streets with existing fabric. It’s a simple move that will eliminate Alexandra Park’s sense of being “other”–an island apart from the city. When walking the site today, one senses the uniqueness of its utopian vision, but also understands the lack of provisions for EMS access, crime prevention, wayfinding, safety, pizza delivery and garbage removal. Also evident is the overprovision of surface parking–the existing 245 stalls will be relocated underground. The desire to maintain the present intimate character is addressed in the inclusion of narrow “pedestrian priority streets” in the new plan. 

In addition to normalizing the street network, the new plan normalizes the green space, which was deemed “inefficient.” The City required that 403 mature trees be replaced at a ratio of 3:1, and most will be replanted in the new Central Park. While some were pest-prone ash trees, it is unclear whether or not others could have been preserved within the new master plan. 

For the first time, TCH will phase its work and allow for zero displacement of existing residents on site. However, 25 households elected not to endure the 15-year construction period and instead relocated to the newly opened 150 Dan Leckie Way. City planner Jeffrey Cantos insists the buildings are broken, not the community. In the future, there will surely be additional phasing: because both market and non-market housing is on offer, residents will be able to stay in their neighbourhood as their income levels change. Still, the concentration of social housing in towers is “worrisome” according to Councillor Vaughan. He is proactively working with developers to create co-op units in the market housing that will work outside of the TCH mandate.

Designing Neighbourhoods

Increasingly, architecture is not just about the design of buildings. Alexandra Park and 150 Dan Leckie Way demonstrate how projects must navigate the economic and social conditions that play out in the built environment. Ironically, the TCH might be doing this too well. The agency is facing sour critics who question why they are hiring great designers to make great buildings. It’s a disturbing question that suggests the less fortunate are less worthy of the quality we should expect from our built environment. In fact, TCH building budgets are equal to or below those of market buildings, but their recent projects are outshining private development. 

Toronto has seen its share of reformism and technocratic approaches to the city. As Ken Greenberg notes, there is a lack of commitment to the city on behalf of the private sector, “but TCH has demonstrated that it’s possible to make good architecture and good neighbourhood building.” With the hoped-for success of Regent Park, the completion of 150 Dan Leckie Way, and the plans for Alexandra Park, many agree that TCH is getting it right. CA 

Julie Bogdanowicz works as an intern architect and teaches architecture at the University of Toronto in the Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape and Design.