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Tag Archives: massive overhaul

Is public housing ready for the yuppies?

Donovan Vincent – Toronto Star

They’re not quite teenagers but clearly at that impressionable age when adolescent swagger starts creeping in.

It’s a bright Saturday afternoon, and the group of boys is exchanging friendly banter on the doorsteps of a subsidized home in the former Don Mount housing complex, just east of the Don River.

A stranger approaches and asks them what they think of their new neighbours, the condo owners who’ve recently started moving in.

“Uh-uh, it’s not going to work,” one of them offers.

“Why?” he’s asked.

“It just wasn’t meant to be,” the boy replies.

Don Mount — or Rivertowne, as some are renaming it — is, like Regent Park, undergoing a massive overhaul that is transforming the community from 100 per cent public housing to a mixed-income model.

Key to the Don Mount revitalization is a concerted effort by Toronto Community Housing Corp. — which operates the subsidized units — local city councillor Paula Fletcher and others to encourage social cohesion between the condo purchasers and public housing tenants.

There’s even a “community development coordinator” whose job is to forge positive relations between the two groups.

“One indicator of success is the differences start to melt away … and people begin working together in a positive community-building atmosphere, regardless of owner or tenant,” says coordinator Dale Hamilton.

Laudable goal or pipe dream?

If the young boy’s attitude is any indication, it’ll be a challenge bringing people of different races, classes, incomes and educations together in the reborn Don Mount, a community with a troubled past.

At Regent Park, just west across the Don Valley, the scale of the revitalization is much larger, and what has emerged there so far provides limited opportunities for intense interaction between income groups.

That’s because as Regent Park’s old stock is gradually being destroyed, the new structures that have sprung up to this point, including a condominium and a high-rise with subsidized units for families, are fairly self-contained — separated from each other and the older Regent Park.

Don Mount/Rivertowne, a development near Dundas St. E and Broadview, has been evolving differently, however.

With the first phase complete, rows of attractive townhome-style buildings now overlook the Don Valley Parkway. Deliberately, the builder constructed subsidized units and market condominiums that look virtually identical from a distance. Differences in design details, such as window trimmings, are only apparent up close. The public housing tenants were removed from their dwellings pre-demolition and resettled later in rebuilt units.

The goal was having buildings that didn’t accentuate differences between the two groups, TCHC officials have stated.

Notably, many of the units in Don Mount/Rivertowne — there will be roughly 230 public housing units and nearly 200 condos when the project is complete — are very close together.

Encouraging interaction among residents, regardless of social standing, “was the original intent,” explains Tony Whitaker, vice-president of sales and marketing for Intracorp Development Inc., one of the building partners. He adds that TCHC was on board with the approach.

And purchasers of the now sold-out condos were well aware of this going in, he noted.

“We tried to sell to end-users, rather than investors,” Whitaker says, adding, “Anyone looking to buy there would have an enlightened attitude,” about mixed housing.

Still, strolling through the community one gets the sense of a divide.

As she watches her relatives struggle with a couch that’s too wide to fit through her front door on move-in day, condo owner Cici Gatere, 39, a public health worker, says she intends to get to know her neighbours regardless of their backgrounds.

“We’re all in this together, and we’re sharing the neighbourhood,” she says enthusiastically.

The same for new owner Christine Kirch, 44, a registered nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital, who’s excited to be living in her first condo, and that it’s in a mixed-income community.

“The last apartment I lived in was in the Beaches, an affluent neighbourhood,” Kirch says in an interview in the dining room of her condo. “But I was looking for, how do I put it? The mixed neighbourhood was an attraction. I like mixing with people of different backgrounds … It’s just more interesting.”

But Pamela Brown, 34, a long-time resident who lives in one of the new public housing units, says she has no time to “mix and mingle.

“I’m not trying to have any friends,” she says. “I stay to myself.”

Another resident — a single mom in public housing who asks to be identified only as “L” — expresses sentiments similar to Brown’s.

“I think the condo people will separate themselves…” she says, adding that they may not like the sight of young people from the community congregating, or the fact the area can get a bit noisy in the summertime.

“(The condo crowd) might not like the way things are here,” she adds.

Attitudes like hers aren’t surprising if one considers results from research published last year by the University of Chicago’s school of social service administration. Exploring interactions among residents in two new mixed-income projects, researchers found “low to modest” levels of casual interaction — essentially conversations in passing.

The study, in which 65 people — about 80 per cent of whom were African American, 9 per cent white and 9 per cent “other” — found most respondents seeing “significant benefit to maintaining some distance.”

Despite its new look and attempts at rebranding, Don Mount/Rivertowne carries some baggage from the pre-demolition days, when it was infamous, a past that residents like Brown and “L” feel could get in the way of bringing people together now.

There were drug dealing, robberies and a few murders. The community was a shambles, and not just socially. In 2000, an engineering study found extensive concrete deterioration in the original buildings, which were constructed in 1968.

Demolition began in 2004.

The new subsidized units in phase one were completed first and the displaced tenants were resettled two years ago. As with Regent Park, the sale of condos has been used to help finance the redevelopment. (Phase two has already begun and is expected to wrap up soon.)

Hamilton, the community development coordinator, says challenges and conflicts are “inevitable” in any community, but she’s confident the two-year pilot project she’s spearheading is paving the way for open dialogue among residents.

“Action teams” have been or are being established to tackle concerns such as the environment, training and jobs for residents, seniors’ and youth issues, and crime and safety, she explains.

One recent event provides an example of the opportunities, but also the challenges, for relationship building in the neighbourhood, says Hamilton. The event was called a chocolate fountain welcoming party and it was held a few weeks ago to greet the new condo residents.

Hamilton’s task was taking some of the community housing tenants with her to knock on the doors of the newcomers and invite them.

“There was some hesitation on the part of some (public housing tenants), who felt it was like crossing a border,” Hamilton recalls. “They were nervous and wondered how they’d be received. Some just weren’t willing to go.”

But the event turned out being a success with some 90 people attending, about 60 per cent tenants, 30 per cent condo owners and 10 per cent people who live in single-family houses nearby.

Hamilton proudly points out that when the party ended, one couple who own a condo invited some of the tenants back to their unit for an after-party.

Paula Fletcher, the city councillor whose Ward 30 takes in Don Mount/Rivertowne, hopes a planned two-acre community park will also help galvanize residents. Right now there’s a small parkette in the area, but it isn’t very “animated,” she points out.

A groundbreaking is expected sometime this summer, and city parks officials hope work on the new green space can be completed in early summer next year.

“How do people come together in a new community?” says Fletcher. “They come together through public spaces.

“You have to help social cohesion along. It’s like a birthing process.”

Fletcher’s dream is to see Don Mount/Rivertowne become a success like the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, a mixed-income community of municipal rent-geared-to-income housing, co-operatives, private non-profit rentals and market condos.

St. Lawrence is hailed as a model for a planned community of housing that works well — as opposed to some of the neighbourhoods across the city that over time evolved organically into mixed-income areas, such as Parkdale.

Despite the cynicism expressed by the boy out in front of the subsidized unit, housing expert Scott Sorli believes Don Mount/Rivertowne’s youngest residents will steer change and social cohesion there.

“Maybe it’s too late for some of the older residents, and maybe that’s not a big deal,” says Sorli, a long-time Toronto resident currently teaching a studio in mass housing at the University of Waterloo. “You can’t force people to be friends.”

But children will go to the same schools and become “oblivious” to differences in class, income, race, etc., Sorli says, adding: “My real dream here is that the daughter of a lawyer will fall in love with the son of a welfare recipient.”


Contact the Jeffrey Team for more information  –  416-388-1960