Don’t Fence Me In

On a sultry June day, Lorne Cappe and Mark Sterling are wandering among the cul-de-sacs and neglected parks of Lawrence Heights, an unexpectedly tranquil public housing complex distributed over a 41-hectare oval near the intersection of Toronto’s Highway 401 and the Allen Expressway. Sterling, a partner with Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co Architects, points out apartments without vents, the proliferation of chain-link fence and mysterious mounds of fill at the edges of playgrounds. “It’s a late application of the Garden City idea with somewhat unfortunate results,” muses Sterling.

Cappe, an architect and planner with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), pauses in front of a townhouse whose front stoop is a muddy pit–evidence, he says, of the chronic plumbing and drainage problems that afflict the 1,200-unit complex.

An older man, heading home with a grocery bag in hand, calls out a greeting to Cappe and Sterling, who heads a TCHC consulting team. “You know how long that’s been there?” he asks, pointing at the hole. “All winter!” Merv Bowles tells them he’s lived in Lawrence Heights since the late 1970s. A retired truck driver, he’d raised five children, avoided trouble and was grateful to the public housing agency for helping him out in tough times.

He’s seen many changes in 31 years here. When he and his wife arrived, there were two black families. “As the white families moved out, the Jamaicans moved in,” he says. “Now the Jamaicans are moving out and the Somalis are moving in.” Soon, Bowles will join the exodus, relocating to Pickering, east of Toronto.

Bowles, however, will likely miss the most profound change to sweep over Lawrence Heights since it was built on farmland in the 1950s. Over the next decade or so, the TCHC plans to dramatically redevelop the area, as is now happening with Regent Park, another troubled public housing complex in downtown Toronto.

The project’s planning stage, which formally began this spring, will see existing walk-up apartments and townhouses razed to make way for a denser concentration of subsidized and market housing, as well as new schools, parks, streets, community agencies and commercial spaces. Tenants are terrified that everything will be razed immediately, yet they will be secure in their homes until new buildings are constructed in 2011. At present, the TCHC hasn’t disclosed the projected number of new units or the estimated value of the redevelopment, but the figure will almost certainly be in the hundreds of mil- lions of dollars. TCHC officials say several architectural firms will be awarded the commissions in an effort to create visual diversity, although there will be a strong emphasis on energy-efficient, sustainable design.

At the same time, the City of Toronto will be looking to link Lawrence Heights to abutting residential and commercial areas as part of a new secondary plan, which was also initiated this spring. For decades, in fact, the residents of Lawrence Heights have been literally fenced in– “purposeful isolation,” as Cappe puts it. The goal of this massive undertaking is all about erasing corrosive urban borders and re-establishing Lawrence Heights as a “mixed-income, mixed-tenure, mixed-use community,” says Mark Guslits, the TCHC head of development. In other words, “a fairly typical Toronto neighbourhood.”

By the latest count, Lawrence Heights is home to about 3,000 people, almost half of whom are under 16. Most families are very poor, with average incomes hovering in the $15,000 range. The area is comprised of neglected walk-ups and townhouse complexes connected by a warren of dead-ends and a ring road that is not linked to any of the neighbouring residential streets. There are five schools, most of them drastically under-utilized, as well as a community centre and a clinic. There is not one shop in the entire complex and pedestrian connections to nearby retail outlets are dicey, which means the residents depend heavily on their vehicles.

For many years, Lawrence Heights, designated as one of Toronto’s “priority” neighbourhoods, has had more than its fair share of violent crime, the latest case being the horrific execution-style shooting of six Somali-Canadian teens last March. The stigma of the address is such that young people who live in Lawrence Heights are often excluded from part-time jobs at Yorkdale Mall.

The existing housing stock, though not outwardly crumbling, has not aged well and would be difficult to renovate. In fact, some 1950s-and 1960s-vintage public housing projects were deliberately built with substandard construction techniques to make them “less socially desirable” as a matter of policy, according to archival documents from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Sterling says most buildings have leaking roofs, mold, and rickety boilers. In the walk-ups, the hallways tend to be narrow and the units lack balconies, even though residents like the layouts. “And,” as Sterling notes, “there’s not one elevator in the entire community.”

While Lawrence Heights is situated between two subway stops (Lawrence West and Yorkdale, both on the Spadina line), access to either is difficult due to the divisive presence of the Allen Expressway, which slices through the middle of the area, dividing it into two halves known locally as Canada and America. According to urban legend, the Canadian side has all the social servi ces, while the American side is close to a nearby mall, RioCan’s Lawrence Square.

For all the problems, the area is intensely green and residents have made it known to the TCHC that any redevelopment plan should seek to protect as many trees as possible. Indeed, visitors are invariably struck by the leafy, spacious ambiance. “It is weirdly pleasant,” observes Sterling, whose firm has done planning and implementation studies for Waterfront Toronto. But all the trees and open spaces come with a cost, he adds. “This is one of the least dense neighbourhoods you’ll find within a mile or two of a subway station anywhere in Toronto.”

The economics of revitalizing well-located public housing complexes has been thoroughly tested in many North American cities, such as Chicago. The housing agencies allow private developers to build on parts of their land, and the proceeds are used to underwrite the cost of demolishing and then rebuilding subsidized apartments. After several false starts, the TCHC embarked on such a campaign in Regent Park in 2004. Besides the new housing, the agency and the city used the opportunity to restore the downtown street grid through Regent Park, to create a central public space and to encourage the development of sustainable buildings. The entire redevelopment–which will double the density of the area–is expected to take about a dozen years to complete.

Lawrence Heights, by contrast, presents a host of built form and urban planning dilemmas that didn’t exist in Regent Park. “As an architect, you have to look at it with somewhat different eyes,” says Guslits, who has spent much of his career developing affordable housing.

Because the area sits in the flight path of the Downsview Airport located about a kilometre north, new apartments can’t be more than about 10 to 12 storeys high, thus precluding the point towers that will be a feature of the new Regent Park (the first, a 22-storey apartment for seniors on top of an eight-storey podium with family-sized units, is being designed by architectsAlliance). As a result, Guslits predicts the Lawrence Heights redevelopment plan will likely resemble that of St. Lawrence (a. k. a. Crombie Park), the highly successful mixed-income/mid-rise neighbourhood developed east of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto in the 1970s.

Land ownership is another complicating factor. Unlike Regent Park, the property within the Lawrence Heights precinct is a patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions, with parcels owned by the TCHC, the City of Toronto, the province and the two public school boards. “We’re all joining forces to do this,” says Cappe. But much tur
ns on the willingness of the school boards to allow some of their valuable land holdings–playing fields and parking lots–to be used for staging the development of transitional housing for residents whose apartments are being demolished, as well as the creation of a central “campus” of schools and community agencies.

Without question, the most tenacious planning issue facing the TCHC has to do with unravelling the area’s gnarled transportation network, which serves to isolate the residents from local services. One day last summer, two City of Toronto planners took me on a tour and we began by running the gauntlet of traffic along an unsignalled highway on-ramp that segregates the east side of Lawrence Heights from a nearby transit stop. “This is the full experience of trying to get to the subway,” said senior planner Kyle Knoeck as he dashed across towards a forlorn traffic island known as “the porkchop.” “In the winter,” added Lawrence-Allen revitalization project manager Anne-Marie Nasr, “this is not easy. Everybody recognizes that the transit connections in the area obviously need to be improved.”

There’s a laundry list of failings associated with the road system: the Allen and the way it bisects Lawrence Heights; the proliferation of cul-de-sacs; the lack of commercial activity on the area’s one major internal road; and the absence of street access between Lawrence Heights and surrounding neighbourhoods. As Cappe puts it, “There need to be connections back to the city.”

In Regent Park, the City chose to re-establish the traditional grid network as a means of reintegrating the area with its surroundings–a “no brainer,” says Guslits. But both City and TCHC planners say that the redevelopment may not involve reintroducing a grid street pattern. “It’s not obvious how to do it,” he notes.

One alternative in consideration is intensifying land use along the two major roads inside Lawrence Heights–Flemingdon Drive and Varna Avenue–with an eye to developing mixed-used apartment buildings with retail at grade. Currently, Varna is dominated by single-family rental houses owned by the TCHC; many of the inhabitants have told the TCHC they’d like to purchase their homes but, as Cappe says, “We need to consider all the homes and land in Lawrence Heights for revitalization in order to benefit everyone. Leaving some homes and property out of the plan reduces our ability to build a better neighbourhood.”

Yet much more drastic ideas are in play. Local councillor Howard Moscoe has said he wants to build a deck over the Allen along a 200-to 300- metre stretch that runs through Lawrence Heights, using the new space for schools, shops or public parks. Mainly though, that kind of land bridge would make it easier for residents to move across the Allen and access services ranging from schools to shops and transit. No decisions have been made, but the City is already beginning to study decking and variations on the theme, such as substantially widening existing bridges over the Allen to create space above the highway that could accommodate small retail outlets. As Nasr says, “We’re looking at both small and big moves.”

Over the past year, TCHC officials have been meeting with groups of Lawrence Heights residents to begin the consultation process, with an eye to releasing a development proposal in the fall of 2009. Cappe shows the result of one session, during which participants were asked to affix red and yellow dots to a large map of the area, denoting troubled and valued areas respectively. The take-away lesson, he says, is that there’s no shortage of yellow dots.

Meanwhile, there have been meetings with school board officials, who control large tracts of strategically important land. And the City of Toronto planning team–led by Nasr and Knoek, along with consultant John van Nostrand of planningAlliance–have begun hosting a series of community open houses to introduce residents from the neighbourhoods astride Lawrence Heights to the parameters of a secondary plan that will encompass a far broader area.

Along the way, TCHC officials and Sterling’s team have come to know a growing number of residents, and they’ve been impressed by the pride that many take in their community, warts and all.

One is a tenant representative named Wellesley Thompson, who has run a thriving community plot garden on the east side of Lawrence Heights for the past five years. On the day we strolled around the area, Cappe and Sterling came to the garden and paused. Cappe predicted that Thompson would emerge from his apartment to give an impromptu tour of the latest crops. As if on cue, he popped out of his townhouse a few moments later. “Do you want to see what I’ve got growing here?” he asks.

As the TCHC embarks on this vast endeavour, Sterling says he’s acutely aware of the “echo” of the utopian, well-meaning plans of a previous era. How should they avoid creating a plan that will be dated and troubled half a century hence? “The answer,” he says, “is to beware of design ideologies. We have to learn from what’s good here, because there’s a lot that’s good here. If we can’t come up with a plan with a sense of greenery and connection to open space, we’ll have failed.” CA

John Lorinc is a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail and is the author of The New City, published by Penguin Canada.