It's easy to see why writers and readers over four decades have revered the small headquarters of the influential Coach House Press as a historical landmark and one of T.O.'s literary treasures, and why there is such an uproar over the plan to move part of its Huron Street operation.
But Coach House just happens to be a tenant of Campus Co-operative Residences, where I live, and I'm starting to feel that in the furor, no one seems terribly worried about whether our own fabled institution survives as a vital part of the city's fabric.
The co-op has been struggling, and as the cost of maintaining 100-year-old homes skyrockets, the management has hatched a rejuvenation plan to balance the books. They decided to sell several of the co-op's less important properties to finance building a new residence on unused land, thus increasing profitability.
After considering proposals from 17 leading architects (with input from iconic Coach House publisher Stan Bevington, I might add), the co-op settled on the firm of Hariri Pontarini, which came up with a plan that centres on the parking lot between Campus Co-op and Coach House Press. The low-rise project designed to be integrated with its surroundings was called a poster child for infill development by planner Robert Glover.
But the development requires that Coach House sacrifice two one-storey garages at the south end of its offices that currently house the presses and bindery. I can understand press enthusiasts' misgivings, given the hands-on spirit of the thriving enterprise, which has yielded works by the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Christian Bök, Guy Maddin, Margaret Atwood and Allen Ginsberg. Bevington's supporters call the garages "sacred space."
Still, I'm not sure why the co-op's proposed - and to my mind reasonable - compromises aren't getting more air time. The co-op has told Bevington he can move the presses to the intact buildings if he shifts his storage space to the new residential facility, which it will rent him at market value. Currently, Coach House's rent is one-quarter that paid by students for equivalent space.
If the four-hour-plus general members meeting earlier in September is any indication, many students are concerned that without rejuvenation the co-op will go broke. Their organization has supported the publisher for decades, and they feel it's now time for the whole community to take on that mandate. The students are acutely aware of Coach House's literary significance but can no longer afford to subsidize it. Over a a third of them actually supported a losing motion to evict.
Further complicating matters, Coach House is in rough shape physically. Years of improvised maintenance have left the building in urgent need of repair. According to the original verbal agreement between the co-op and Coach House, Bevington is responsible for maintenance. Thousands of dollars' worth of upgrading is required to bring the building up to city standards.
When I interview the charismatic publisher, he tells me he is currently trying to raise money to fix a leaky roof through an online fundraising drive, and hopes to establish a charitable foundation to maintain the structures. And he says the reason he hasn't signed a formal lease with the co-op is that it would be "an excuse to evict us." Losing those two garages, he says in his characteristically colourful manner, "would be like being half a Christian."
Yet co-opers face major liability issues from these maintenance problems. It's also difficult to explain to frustrated students new to the realm of significant democratic decisions why they should subsidize a for-profit Canadian literary landmark while their tuition skyrockets and their non-profit housing co-operative struggles with mounting debts.
The more than 60-year-old co-op, too, has a rich and giving history in this city, as alumni like former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent and current provincial leader Howard Hampton know well. When I call Hampton for a comment on the organization that twice provided him an affordable home, he remembers his tenure fondly, calling the kitchen a "hotbed of political discussion" and praising the co-op for "creating a sense that people have a responsibility to the whole."
Here we are: a tale of two histories, an ugly impasse pitting good guy against good guy, with no happy ending in sight. When public spending dries up, trickle-down economics dictates that the good guys are left fighting amongst themselves. Bevington is a passionate defender of the arts, a role enhanced by his tremendous charm and resourcefulness. But the primary mandate of the co-op is to provide students with affordable housing.
Co-op developers, who are after all from the non-profit sector, are aching for a win-win resolution. Campus Co-op general manager Randy Daiter notes, "We are trying to accommodate Bevington as much as we always have."
But it's hard to say what members will decide when they meet again in late October. The main point should be clear: Campus Co-op should not be called upon to compensate for government underfunding of the arts.