Park and Re-creation

PROJECT Regent Park Revitalization
TEXT Alex Bozikovic

Regent Park was Canada’s first attempt at imposing large-scale urban renewal on the city. It was a broad experiment that signalled clear results. During the development of the neighbourhood between 1948 and 1957, the City of Toronto expropriated and erased 69 acres of Victorian workers’ housing, and replaced that messy swathe of urban “slum” with a perfectly blank slate. Nearby, parts of the Cabbageown neighbourhood soldiered on, with its narrow brick houses and backyard shacks remaining largely intact. Only one generation after beginning a process of urban renewal that gave birth to Regent Park, the neighbourhood was considered a slum, or as The Toronto Star simply stated in 1968, a “disaster.”

Why? Because it shattered the bones of this part of Toronto. The plan, initiated by the influential planner Eugene Faludi, consolidated the area into a massive superblock largely free of streets; it sprinkled a series of low-rise and mid-rise towers across the site, interspersed with unprogrammed green space and parking. The buildings and plan bear only glancing relationships to the major thoroughfares of Dundas and Shuter Streets, which cut across the site; as with superblocks in other cities, navigation is difficult and locating addresses even more troublesome. The buildings mixed Garden City-scaled walkups (four- to-five-storey cruciform brick structures with Spartan detailing and little landscaping, by J.E. Hoare) and five Corbusian 14-storey towers (by architect Peter Dickinson). It was, in detail and as a whole, a radical break from Toronto’s 19th-century urbanism. So there is a heavy irony in the fact that the current revitalization project, equally bold, is essentially turning back the clock to a healthier urban life before the superblock.

It is, on a grand scale, a neat illustration of the cyclical nature of ideas about urbanism, social engineering and dwelling in the metropolis. Looking down at a scale model of the site that depicts a massive array of new, still-faceless towers, it would be easy to imagine the project as monolithic and institutional. But despite the scale of the project, no singular authority is in charge here. When I saw such a model, I was standing in the sales office that a private developer, the Daniels Corporation, has established to sell the market apartments it will build over the next 15 years in an equity partnership with the beleaguered Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC).

This plan, led by Markson Borooah Hodgson Architects and Greenberg Consultants Inc., is centred on the deliberate integration of market and social housing. Since the first iteration in 2002, its proposed buildings have grown taller while this part of downtown has undergone a rapid and increasing pace of gentrification and development. Under the current projections, Regent Park will include 3,000 units of private market housing, and nearly 1,600 units of subsidized housing, down from 2,083 in the previous plan. And all of this redevelopment is being monitored by the City’s planning department. Under the City’s Social Development Plan prepared for the TCHC in 2007, a few other broad principles are equally important to the success of the area: strengthening physical and social links between Regent Park and the city around it; slow phasing so as to maintain the social fabric of the existing community that lives here; and a program to allow social-housing residents to return to the area if they wish. Indeed, this project fundamentally illustrates different ideas than its predecessor about class, social mobility and the ideal form of the city.

And yet, the scope of the project cannot be denied. It is urban redevelopment and social engineering on an enormous scale. Its urban planning success, both in terms of social and economic development, will depend on the skill with which the builders bridge the gap between its massive scale and the fine grain of its architecture and streetscape.

The results so far are generally good. Most importantly, there is a common aesthetic language that links the public and private-sector projects: a humane Modernism of simple massing and materials, principally red brick, that are compatible with the Toronto vernacular. There are through streets, which reconnect Regent Park back to the adjacent 19th-century city grid. There is a large park and recreation facility at the heart of the development, and its buildings are sited squarely to the secondary streets that now extend through Regent Park which address the major east-west streets in some cases.

The first building completed in the project is right next to the park: the architectsAlliance (aA)-designed Sackville-Dundas apartments which were completed in 2009. This two-tower complex imports the typology of the podium and point tower that aA have employed to good effect in commercially built condominiums around Toronto, as well as a material palette from that register: purple-grey brick façades and expansive windows with irregular, staggered mullion patterns. The taller 22-storey tower is home to 224 TCHC family-oriented apartments (and within its base, the infrastructure for the neighbourhood’s district energy plant); the shorter, eight-storey tower to the south is a seniors’ residence with 159 units, and a daycare on the ground floor. The building’s parti is intelligent; the small footprint of each tower means the apartments tend to be wide and shallow, therefore bright and comfortably laid out. Meanwhile, the podium provides a site for infrastructure and, on its roof, a large terrace and green roof to be shared between the buildings.

The complex’s design, led by two aA partners—the late Adrian diCastri, and then by Peter Clewes—follows a laudable sustainability program; it is designed to approximate a LEED Gold standard, largely through green roofs and reflective roofs, passive solar strategies and stormwater management. This despite the project’s broad use of glazing units and energy-inefficient protruding balconies on one side. (It is only 50 percent glazed, according to aA associate Adam Feldmann.) More importantly, the design projects an impression of quality and it gives no overt visual clues that it was developed for subsidized housing—an explicit goal for the project which seems to backfire in some aspects of the architecture. For example, the lobby employs rich Carrara marble used for accent walls and solid, substantial counters in the mailroom. They are expensive and carefully built; yet they differ dramatically from the vernacular of the suburban residential market that many new immigrants coming to Canada—the target purchaser of the development—are most familiar with and may not carry connotations of comfort or domesticity to such residents. However, TCHC’s reported feedback is positive, and so were the comments I heard from the residents I met. On a weekday afternoon, an ethnically diverse group of elderly women hung out in the very chic lounge, comfortably watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show together.

Most importantly, the Sackville-Dundas complex is well detailed at street level. Its entrances, landscaping, and the ground-related townhouses that stretch along its north side all feature attractive proportions and material choices. The gardens are just large enough to create a comfortable visual relationship between private residences and the sidewalk; the outer layer is gravel, and the hardy evergreen hedges add privacy. These are sensible decisions; aA has competently handled this interface between residences, landscape and the city, which is so crucial to the area’s long-term success.

The nearby 40 Oaks project presents a similar approach to the street. Located around the corner from the Sackville-Dundas development, it is
a bit of an oddity in terms of program and client: it’s the only building in the Regent Park footprint that is neither the work of the TCHC nor Daniels. The client, the Toronto Christian Resource Centre (CRC), was housed in a church that was one of just two sites in the area not owned by the TCHC. That property stood in the way of a planned linear park along Oak Street.

The CRC hired Hilditch Architect, a 25-year-old firm with extensive experience building in the non-profit sector to advise them about a land swap with the housing corporation. CRC agreed to give up a parcel of land with a church that was subsequently demolished in exchange for a new site along the north edge of the new park. The design brief was then revised to accommodate 87 seniors’ residences upstairs—from bachelor units to two-bedroom units—and a range of public services on the main floor. 

The residential spaces benefit from an unusual structural system: massive two-storey-tall steel trusses cut through the building along the north-south axis at different points as the building rises. This allows for column-free spaces through much of the upper floors, creating for flexibility both now and for later. “We like that in the future, if the demographics change, they’ll be able to rearrange the units as needed,” says Charles Rosenberg, an associate at Hilditch who worked on the project. It’s a stark contrast to the immovable shear walls that are standard in market-rate condominium buildings and which—as some local architects, and downtown Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan have been arguing for years—may prevent adaptive reuse of those buildings, and doom their small apartments to become slums.

But the 40 Oaks building’s most important notes are urbanistic ones. There was no capital funding from the city for any public spaces; the CRC’s membership generated that portion of the budget through fundraising—a powerful civic gesture. The main level now includes offices for social service agencies, a non-denominational chapel and a kitchen that can, and does, serve 200 people at a meal. Rosenberg, who led the project together with associate Ken DeWaal, describes this as “a large living room on Regent Park.” They wanted “to create a ground floor that was open and welcoming,” Rosenberg says, “where people could come in, have a shower, take a meal, and rest.” The façade’s combination of red and yellow brick helps visually divide the mass of the building; brises-soleil cut direct sunlight and add visual interest; and its substantial glazing links the kitchen at the front of the building with the park out front. Thanks to extensive advocacy by the project architects, much of the park will become a community garden that supports the CRC’s activities that include such programs as fresh food delivery to the local community.

At the same time, the architects were charged with making a distinction between the residences and the public services, which the CRC has historically provided to the entire community. The answer: separate entrances to the residences on the west façade and to the non-denominational chapel on the east side. A chandelier comprised of constellations of suspended rough glass animates the inside of the cylindrical chapel space located on the southeast corner of the building. The chandelier was created by Public Displays of Affection, a non-profit collective of designers who supplied over 100 furnishings, fixtures and installations throughout the interior of the building. Invited by Hilditch, the group’s members—a collection of adventurous craftspeople including Made, Brothers Dressler, Lubo Brezina and Kathryn Walter among others—have added a layer of humanity and rusticity to the public spaces. They worked with light fixtures, wood and pews salvaged from a demolished United Church in affluent North Toronto.

One of the area’s market-housing counterparts is One Cole, the condominium tower designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc. (DSAI), which has anchored the redevelopment at the major corner of Dundas and Parliament since fall 2009. It houses a grocery store clad in an attractive glass façade with well proportioned, narrow mullions. Its addition is a boon for residents in the area. Adjacent to the grocery store is a large and extremely busy Tim Hortons coffee shop. Above this podium, two point towers—one nine and the other 19 storeys—full of condominiums rise above. One Cole is a close match to the Sackville-Dundas complex, just one block away, in both form and parti—amenities and green roof space along the top of the podium with some very well designed red brick townhouses along one side.

One Cole was a test case and a billboard for the commercial component of the Regent Park revitalization—and the sales of the condos were quickly successful. So successful, in fact, that The Sun, Toronto’s right-wing tabloid, has accused City and Daniels officials—such as local councillor Pam McConnell, who now lives here—of profiting from their involvement.

Once those accusations are resolved, One Cole will retain its importance as a signpost of the good design and urbanism that have shaped this project. DSAI principal Don Schmitt, who led the design, has been a loud advocate for the entire revitalization project. It shows some of his skill, and reflects DSAI’s long-running commitments to community causes and well-made “fabric” buildings—including the Regent Park Community Health Centre (1999), a gem of a building right across the road.

With One Cole, DSAI has established an appropriate tone for the architecture in and around Regent Park in many ways, despite the unnecessarily fussy articulation of the spandrel panels on the upper floors. Similarly, One Park West by Core Architects, the other condo Daniels has completed at Regent Park, compromises its fine massing with awkward façade detailing; the irregular pattern of vertical lines crashes into the top of the building in a pile-up of stucco, mechanical units and (again) unattractive spandrel panels. Nonetheless, its three-storey townhouses hit the mark with simple, well-designed façades and pedestrian-friendly design. Another adjacent set of townhouses, these by Graziani and Corazza—which inexplicably won a Toronto Architecture and Urban Design Award—employ a similar scale and material palette, but their façades are both clunky and fussy.

Across the street from One Cole is One Oak Street by Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. (KMAI), a TCHC building development that follows a more sober approach to the aesthetic problems of Regent Park. This 12-storey building, housing 84 mostly family-sized units, makes a self-conscious effort to build on the loft conversions and quasi-loft condos that have become ubiquitous in downtown Toronto. “We wanted to get that Toronto language in, through the loft building,” says KMAI principal Jonathan Kearns, who led the project. That meant adopting (and slightly stretching) the foursquare proportions of early 20th-century industrial mid-rises, and cladding them with matte red brick and matching grout colour.

This project, like One Cole, was subject to the design review panel that the City has established for Regent Park, and the heights and envelope were largely set by the area plan. “Our main play was in manipulating the building planes and the windows,” Kearns says. His team chose to group the windows—which make up only 31 percent of the façade surfaces—into discrete elements that extend across the floor plates so that, according to Kearns, “You get the scale, but not the number of floors.” Formally speaking, it is a successful move that yields a cleaner composition for the building. Kearns is most proud of the building’s straightforward plan with its single-loaded corridors that provide unif
ormly pleasant apartments. The building’s formal modesty and attempts at a friendly, vernacular aesthetic were some of the other goals for the project. “We’ve done a lot of affordable housing,” notes Kearns, “and we’re very conscious of the end users’ perception of the building. The residents’ quality of life is the most important thing.”

This raises an important point regarding the cultural connotations of Modernist architecture, especially in the social-housing context. Regent Park is evolving at a time when the Toronto real estate market is fully embracing contemporary design. Driven by architects and clients free of market pressures, the design vocabulary at Regent Park is in a similar Modern idiom, and harmonizes with the architecture being sold by intelligent developers such as Daniels. But while Modernism may be what established and assimilated professionals want, is this what lower-income citizens and recent immigrants want?

The planners and architects shaping Regent Park have collectively made the best possible response to that conundrum, being neither too formally bold nor too timid. Hopefully, there will remain room for more architectural bravado within individual buildings over time. The TCHC is currently under siege for its allegedly spendthrift practices and high-handed approach to tenants; even if most of the specifics are disproved, the accusations have left the organization on the defensive. Because of the TCHC’s focus on long-term sustainability and its freedom from market constraints, its buildings can and should be laboratories for responsible architectural innovation. Their next projects with DSAI, the Paintbox condo and the Regent Park Cultural Centre, will be slightly unusual—but only in a superficial way, applying rainbow-hued spandrel panels on buildings of grey and black brick and glass. One other building on the Regent Park horizon, a TCHC tower currently under design by Giannone Petricone Associates, has more of an adventurous spirit and promises some very creative but economical brick detailing.

Thankfully, the TCHC has invited in a variety of architectural voices, including the firms already mentioned in this article. Over time, involving a variety of architectural approaches will accomplish a sense of vitality to Regent Park that avoids the stigma of a “housing project,” only encouraging its integration into the neighbouring context.

By all accounts, it’s important to note that the TCHC is ensuring that each building functions well at its most important benchmarks for success: the layout of the units themselves and the urban design principles shaping the area. Social-housing clients deserve buildings and civic neighbourhood blocks that can effectively serve their needs. With this latest version of Regent Park, the people are getting what they need—and happily, Toronto is learning how to appreciate the bold and thoughtful architecture that it deserves. CA

Alex Bozikovic is a journalist and critic based in Toronto who focuses on architecture and design.