On June 7, 2012, the OWN Housing Committee visited Regent Park, a downtown Toronto neighbourhood east of Parliament Street. Regent Park, which has been largely segregated from the rest of the city until recently, is now undergoing a remarkable transformation that will open it up to the city. The product of a partnership between Toronto Community Housing (TCH) and The Daniels Corporation, a private developer, the revitalization aims to turn the aging and problem-plagued public housing project into an integrated mixed-income community tied into the street grid and with a full range of retail opportunities, social services and cultural venues.
Our group visited three of the newly completed buildings in Regent Park: the Christian Resource Centre (CRC) at 40 Oak Street (also known as “40 Oaks”); the One Cole Condominium, developed by Daniels; and the TCH’s Seniors’ Tower at 252 Sackville Street. However, most of the afternoon was spent touring the CRC, a highly original and attractive building that exemplifies the communal values at the heart of the revitalization. We were fortunate indeed to have as our guide Debra Dineen, the CRC’s executive director. It was Debra’s vision and enthusiasm that inspired the construction of the CRC and that continues to shape its evolution as a community hub.
Initial funding for the CRC, built on the site of the former Regent Park United Church, came from three levels of government, the sale of naming rights to some rooms, and generous donations in money and kind from other United Churches and supportive individuals. The CRC also took out a mortgage for $4 million, to be repaid from revenue generated by the 87 rental housing units on the higher floors, as well as by renting out spaces on the ground floor and in the as-yet-unfinished basement.
We were unable to view any of the housing units, as all were occupied. Indeed, Debra proudly told us that there was already a waiting list before the first tenants moved in last January, thus enabling the CRC to meet its mortgage obligations from the start. According to Debra, the rooms are small, ranging from 287 sq. ft. for a studio to 430 sq. ft. for a two-bedroom unit, of which there are only five. But even the smallest unit is sun-filled and comes fully furnished, thanks to donations. For example, IKEA gave a 50% discount and free installation on tables and chairs, Leon’s gave a discount for sofas and chairs, Sears donated range hoods, and GE supplied 87 stoves and fridges for $60,000 including installation. All rental units have new one-piece metal beds and bed-bug-resistant mattresses. A “hope chest” campaign garnered essential linens and kitchen items for residents, many of whom come to the CRC from homeless shelters, and used clothing is also distributed to those in need.
Former residents of Regent Park occupy 40 of the CRC’s 87 units. All are subsidized, with maximum rents of $400 for people on Ontario Works, $500 for those on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) and up to $778 for working people. Free breakfast and lunch are provided downstairs, using food supplied. In addition, committees meet monthly, including the Housing Committee, the Housing Support Workers group and the executive directors of supportive agencies (including Dixon Hall, St. Jude’s, Regeneration Place, Genesis Place), and there is one Tenant Support Person on staff.
A notable feature of the CRC’s ground-floor rooms is the inventive interior design produced by an unusual local firm called Public Displays of Affection (PDA). Described on its website as “a group of dedicated community members who use design as a tool to shape, build and improve society,” PDA used mostly (93%) reclaimed materials from the old church and elsewhere to devise highly imaginative handcrafted wall decorations, chairs, tables and other furnishings, light fittings and stained glass windows that make the most of the bright spaces created by Hilditch Architect.
Best expressing the community-building mission of the CRC are the Rogers Family Room and the Chapel. The family room, where 250 free breakfasts and lunches are served each day from the adjoining commercial kitchen (run by a single staff person with the aid of 10 volunteers), is open to all. Whether they live at 40 Oaks or in one of the new condos of Regent Park or in a homeless shelter, all are welcome to share the food and other amenities, which include a wonderful old donated grand piano.
The light-filled non-denominational Chapel invites solitary meditation as well as providing an ideal worship space. The modern “chandelier” lighting particularly entranced us. Designed by Parimal Gosai, the head of Public Displays of Affection, they are made of clear beach glass collected from Toronto’s waterfront, then hand-strung on nearly invisible fishing wire and hung from white tiles. Local religious services are held in the Chapel at lunchtime on Thursdays, but a number of other congregations also use it regularly. Yoga classes and a hearing clinic are also held in this space. Larger gatherings can be accommodated by folding back the partition that separates the Chapel from the Rogers Family Room, creating a 500-seat multi-purpose auditorium, which can be rented.
As we left the CRC, Debra called our attention to the new front garden which next year will provide fruit and vegetables for the kitchen, and to the memorial Peace Garden, relocated to the east of the site, that is created by and for local women whose children were killed by guns.
For the remainder of our Regent Park tour, Debra handed us over to Heela Omarkhail, Project Coordinator for The Daniels Corporation, and Bryan Sherwood, an assistant in the Development Division of Toronto Community Housing. In the Daniels Corporation’s onsite presentation room, Heela showed us a model of the entire Regent Park revitalization project and answered our questions about it. We learned that Daniels is applying the same LEED Gold-certified standard to the TCH buildings to the TCH buildings as to the market condominiums, townhouses and community facilities in the new Regent Park. Green roofs and advanced heating-cooling systems will characterize every section of the redevelopment.
Heela then took us to One Cole, a 300-unit condominium building, one of the first of several condos planned for Regent Park. There, we toured the impressive Sky Park atop the third-floor roof of the adjacent grocery store. This large park is beautifully landscaped and furnished with three barbecues and seating for residents. We also toured the 10th-floor rooftop community garden. Here some residents, after receiving instruction in FoodShare-run workshops set up by Daniels, are growing their own vegetables and herbs. Overall, the ratio of market condo units to rental units at Regent Park will be 60/40. Daniels offers two affordable ownership programs: First Home Boost and the Regent Park Foundation program. These help low-income buyers or TCH residents to become home owners.
At the end of our tour, Bryan showed us around the TCH’s 22-storey Seniors’ Tower at 252 Sackville. We entered through an attractively furnished hotel-style lobby with a fireplace, flat-screen TV, and big comfortable chairs where the residents are encouraged to congregate. Unfortunately, we were unable to view any of the building’s 159 one-and-two-bedroom units. Bryan told us that the one-bedroom units are not tiny, about 600 sq. ft., and that several of the units are fully wheelchair-accessible. We then went up to the 7th floor, which is all common space for the residents to use and enjoy. The amenities there were impressive and included two small lounges, a large meeting/party room, a gym area, a well-equipped laundry room and an east-facing terrace with spectacular city views overlooking Regent Park and the new Regent Park Aquatic Centre.
A single afternoon did not give us sufficient time to explore all that the revitalized Regent Park has to offer its current and future residents and the rest of Toronto, but we came away impressed and encouraged by the magnitude and scope of what has already been accomplished and what is proposed.
“Helping Hands” memorial
near the entrance to 40 Oaks / CRC
Unique wall decoration in the CRC lobby
Waiting in the CRC lobby for the tour to start
CRC Board/Meeting Room
The Rogers Family Room (CRC)
Ceiling light fixtures in the CRC Chapel
Viewing a model of Regent Park
at the Daniels Presentation Centre
Concierge desk in the lobby of One Cole
A view of the Sky Park “green roof”
from the 7th floor of One Cole
Entrance lobby in the TCH’s Seniors’ Tower
A laundry room with a view! (Seniors’ Tower)
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Page last updated: August 26, 2013