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At 60 Atlantic in Liberty Village on this Friday morning, refuse from artists' studios that are no more is piled high, awaiting trash pickup: irregularly shaped styrofoam, plastic bags full of cardboard, boxes of empty paint cans.
The moving bustle is evident as denizens of the 48 work spaces clear out their stuff before the building, an Artscape refuge, is turned over to Hullmark Developments.
Compared to the cluttered common areas, the artists' studios are eerily empty. In 109B, artist/filmmaker Kirsten Johnson is finishing a portrait and a painting on a wooden door, the only pieces left in the barren space.
Heaps of debris didn't always spill out of 60 Atlantic. For 21 years, the building, owned by the city, was a cultural hot spot in Liberty, kept afloat by a lease agreement between Artscape, a non-profit providing below-market rent, and the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO). But thanks to an alteration in city policy, as of November 30 Liberty has lost another hive of creation.
"I'm very sad that we have to move, because it was a wonderful community," says Madi Pillar, president of the Toronto Animated Image Society, a non-profit promoting animation that occupied suite 102 and workshop studio 9 for the past seven years. "The general response of tenants is disappointment and discontent," says Pillar.
This year, spaces went for $9.90 per square foot in the basement and $14.42 on the second floor, substantially less than other area rents (office space in 2011 could cost up to $35 per square foot and retail $90).
The seeds of the current shift began in 2002 when the Policy and Finance Committee issued the first report of many setting out new rules for city tenants paying below-market rent. The goal was to formalize the city's provision of such spaces. The new regulations stipulated that organizations had to meet eligibility criteria that included offering programs and services to the public.
Two years later, Artscape started renegotiating the lease with TEDCO, and rent was jacked up by $230,000. In 2005, to avert evictions at the building, the Economic Development division began giving Artscape a grant of $230,000 per year.
But this was a temporary solution. The building didn't fit the new eligibility criteria, and while Artscape tried to team up with a developer who was ready to renovate the site, that partnership was short-lived. At the end of last year, 60 Atlantic was sold to the highest bidder, Hullmark.
Artscape president Tim Jones says his organization worked hard with the city to forestall evictions, and has fond memories of the project because it served as Artscape's headquarters for the first nine years of his tenure.
But the writing was on the wall. "The new policy is a sign of the times, not about individual artists being singled out," he says. "Since 2002, there's been an emphasis on determining what the public benefits are [of low rents]. Although it's unfortunate for those who have benefited, we have to recognize that when we accept public dollars we have to deliver tangible public value."
Still, some tenants are crying foul. Artist Kirsten Johnson, who had her space for 10 years, says many of her neighbours feel that Artscape could have fought harder. She's working on a short film, I Hate Change, in response to losing her artistic home.
While tenants aren't too pleased, others are applauding the new development. Lynn Clay, executive director of the Liberty Village BIA, says she's impressed by the developer's plans. "We are thrilled to have Hullmark move in," she says.
According to Clay, renovations will include adding two spaces for restaurants at street level and small to mid-sized businesses on the first and second floor.
Says Leona Savoie, VP of Hullmark, "The building needs a lot of TLC. We are introducing new energy-efficient HVAC systems, cleaning the exterior and adding some new, smart pedestrian entrances that will activate Liberty Street better," says Savoie.
But a refurbished building won't mean much to the artists. "It is really difficult to access unique working space at affordable industrial rates," says Pillar. Most of her fellow tenants, she says, need industrial-style studios with high ceilings, concrete floors and wide doors to accommodate heavy equipment and large canvases - just the kind of buildings available in the old Liberty Village.
Of the old community, Clay says, "It was all raves, dumpster diving and warehousing. It was cut off, without street lights, and had little investment," says.
But back in the 90s, Artscape's Jones points out, space in the nabe's Victorian factories could be rented for as little as $5 a square foot, but Liberty Village has changed fast. By 2003, the number of businesses had increased from 345 to 506, and the rents were becoming too expensive for artists, though he says that there are still pockets of affordability.
"I know it's painful, but we're not immune to real estate pressures," he says. Upcoming Artscape projects, he adds, include the redeveloped Shaw Street School, opening next summer, which will devote half of its 75,000 square feet to affordable spaces.
"We're continuing to work with the displaced artists to make things as easy as we can," he says.