The mood is upbeat as locals mix with city bureaucrats and consultants at the Regent Park Community Centre on this late December evening. Food and drink are shared by a cross-section of hopeful residents, while Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) staff give enthusiastic speeches about the prospects for redeveloping the 69-acre downtown property known as Regent Park.After decades of failed efforts to revamp the troubled community, the newly released Regent Park Revitalization Study seeks to tear down existing buildings and turn the area into a socially mixed neighbourhood of public and private housing similar to the St. Lawrence Market district.
While most observers agree that consultations have been a success, particularly in terms of resident participation, some have nagging worries that once the highly touted redevelopment gets underway with its influx of private developers, current Regent Park residents will find themselves lost in the shuffle.
Activist Michael Shapcott, research associate in the University of Toronto's Urban and Community Studies program, is concerned, for example, that guarantees for tenant self-management have yet to be encoded in the new design.
Shapcott is hopeful that the year-old TCHC will treat tenants better than earlier housing authorities but worries about the threat of privatized housing management. "That's certainly part of the provincial agenda, to push municipalities as much as possible to privatize management. Privatized management leads to lower standards, because the things necessary to involve people, community development initiatives and so on, get cut because they're seen as frills. And then bad maintenance practices that were a hallmark of the old era of Regent Park could well come back again."
He wonders as well about the reliance on private developers. "The big question is, are we getting housing that is truly affordable and that remains affordable for ever and ever? Or will it be the Cinderella-and-the-pumpkin story, where on day one of the 11th year the housing starts being very expensive?" he asks.
A co-op strategy like the one carried out by the Cooperative Housing Federation of Toronto with residents of Alexandra Park, a public-housing crime hot spot near Dundas and Spadina, would be helpful in the Regent Park situation, says Shapcott. "The housing (at Alexandra Park) is owned by the city, but the residents will manage it."
Tom Clement, executive director of the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto, also believes housing management will be "where the fork in the road is. What I would want to see is some government-managed housing, some private non-profits by community groups like Woodgreen Community Centre, some co-ops -- a mix like the St. Lawrence. One size doesn't fit all."
Those who know the community best seem to have the most reservations. Sean Purdy, a Queens University PhD candidate who has published several academic articles on Regent Park, warns that throughout the community's history "many tenant initiatives to improve maintenance, build recreation facilities and establish services have been watered down, stalled or simply nixed by paternalistic and tight-fisted state officials at all levels. If there's a lesson, it's that tenants will have to fight tooth and nail for everything they want."
From his vantage point, the proposal "does nothing to improve the educational and employment infrastructure in the area that has contributed to Regent's status as the poorest area in Canada. It assumes that architectural and aesthetic issues and a social mix are solutions. Will an architectural facelift and middle-class neighbours next door really make a difference in poor people's lives?"
A similar question occurs to Mitchell Kosny, a professor in Ryerson's school of urban and regional planning and chair of the city's committee of adjustment. "The project could end up looking nice, cute and trendy, but where are all the people who were there before?"
Regent Park Resident Council vice-president Debra Dineen, who sat on the revitalization council for eight years, herself worries that "some Regent folks might go missing" as the plan is implemented. But as a parent and agency worker in the community, Dineen says she knows many kids who are ashamed of coming from Regent Park. "I am happy to move out for two years, knowing I'll be coming back to a much nicer home."
Certainly, those involved in the renewal are counting on the changes to boost morale. They point out that in 15 years Regent Park's population will double from its current 7,035 , with the new residents living in market-rent housing. But it is a daunting scenario.
"How will the increased population affect local community agencies?" asks Regent Park Focus coordinator Adonis Huggins, who also runs a local newspaper called Catch The Flava. While residents are buying into the redevelopment process, he says, there are many unanswered questions. "An issue now is the lack of businesses in the community. There's no corner store. There are a lot of plans to build economic viability, but these things tend to be more organic. You don't just plop a store down."
Former mayor and former head of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority John Sewell, who tried to lead redevelopment of a portion of Regent Park in 1995, is now working with tenants in the Donmount housing project, a smaller complex east of Regent Park currently being redeveloped. He has his own reservations about the TCHC. The corporation, he says, doesn't see itself as a leader in making things happen. "There is no sense of urgency. They're bureaucrats, and they're worried about taking chances. The board is full of politicians without experience in affordable housing."
But the councillor representing the area, Toronto Centre-Rosedale's Pam McConnell, is nevertheless enthusiastic. "This is perhaps the most exciting discussion I have seen in the 20 years I have been in politics." The building phase, she suggests, could start within 18 months.
Regarding reliance on private developers, Social Housing Services Corporation chair Gordon Chong says there's little choice. "I don't think any level of government will get back in without a lot of prodding," he says.
According to TCHC CEO Derek Ballantyne, "We've interviewed about a dozen developers. We think the terms will be very positive." He's says he's open to different styles of housing management, calling it healthy, including private-sector management. "Our business plan," he says, "allows residents and members of the wider community a much greater say in how the housing is run."