Regent Park revisited

While creating new social housing, the ambitious revamp of the notorious public housing complex has also pushed former residents out of the neighbourhood


A sign in front of an empty lot seems like a strange place to proclaim that “The new Regent Park is coming soon!” when barren streetscape is all the eye can see.

But the “park” in this case is the greenspace proposed for a stretch on the north side of Dundas that will be known as Regent Park. The “new” Regent Park, as in the notorious public housing complex bounded by Shuter, Gerrard, River and Parliament, is already here, mostly, thanks to the ambitious redevelopment plans started under former mayor David Miller that have been ongoing for the better part of the last decade. Phase two of that project is well underway. How time flies.

The squat, post-Second World War row housing that used to dominate the area is almost all gone, relegated to the periphery or replaced by condos and townhouses. Odd bits and pieces of the old Regent Park still peek out from this or that corner. But like other vertical neighbourhoods in the city created by condification, you’re more likely to come across dog walkers than the kitschy, street-level patio set ups. The grit is gone.

A FreshCo, RBC, futuristic-looking Aquatic Centre and the Daniels Spectrum arts and cultural centre, now anchor the Dundas strip that used to mark the dividing line between Regent Park north and south. Off Shuter, a new sports field backs onto Nelson Mandela Park Public School, next to which another “integrated community hub” – they’re not just community centres anymore – is planned.

A focal point of the neighbourhood near the Regent Park Community Centre, where a tree-filled courtyard and wading pool used to be, has been razed to make room for an extension of Sackville to connect Shuter to Dundas.

Over on Regent Street, the old 51 Division that stood watch over the community, somewhat ominously in the eyes of many, was among the first to find itself downed by the wrecking ball, replaced by glassy walkups.

Across the street from that, the basketball court opened to much fanfare back in the day – for the longest time one of the best things going for kids here – is practically unnoticeable, crowded out by encroaching development. And all around, yawning holes in the ground beckon the next additions.

Regent Park has definitely acquired a different feel. Here’s what I wrote about that in 2009, just as phase two of its reconstruction was getting underway. But let’s leave it to the social anthropologists of the future to determine if the latest transformation is a good thing or not. History has shown that attempts to revamp Regent haven’t exactly worked in the long run. But there’s a danger of being too nostalgic for the way things were in the neighbourhood when in truth they weren’t very good.

This isn’t the first time there has been an attempt on a grand scale to remake Regent Park. The area has been ground zero in a number of social planning experiments dating back to the 1930s when it formed part of Cabbagetown, Irish immigrants dominated and it was dubbed “the worst slum in Toronto.”

There were enough economic and social reasons for the latest “revitalization,” although some activists would argue with that. The public housing complex had fallen into disrepair, rundown and overcrowded. The city didn’t have the money for upgrades, so the decision was made to leverage the value of the empty spaces around the complexes to rebuild from scratch, and replace the old subsidized units with new ones. In return, developers would be offered higher densities to build condo units and sell them at market rates.

The plan was sold as a win-win for the city and developers. Perhaps more subsidized units could have been built. Real estate market forces would not allow that, or so we’re told. But whether this latest revamp will succeed in its larger social engineering goals, is an open question. The ripple effects of gentrification are already being felt down Dundas.

No doubt, the influx of outsiders will expose poorer kids here to a social stratum they might not otherwise know. And with that might come other opportunities, we can hope.

It seems, however, that anti-poverty activists were right about one thing: mixing up the socio-economic balance of the neighbourhood, some call it forced gentrification, seems to be pushing former residents out. There has been a significant demographic shift in the neighbourhood.

Not all residents who were displaced by the construction have returned for one reason or another.

According to Toronto Community Housing (TCH), the agency guiding Regent Park redevelopment: less than a quarter, 206 of the 820 households temporarily moved to other TCH housing to clear the way for construction, have returned to occupy new units in the revamped Regent Park 144 households have chosen to stay where they were temporarily relocated another 210 households have been moved outside Regent Park, scattered in other TCH housing in nearby downtown eastside.

TCH is now contemplating what to do with the rest of what’s left of the old tenements which, in sheer area take up as much real estate as phase one and two combined.

TCH’s director of development suggested in the Globe last month that no part of the old Regent Park will be left standing when all is said and done, including the three remaining towers along Dundas designed by Peter Dickinson.

There had been talk of preserving and repurposing 14 Blevins Place. The 14-storey structure was placed on the city’s list of heritage properties in 2005 as an important example of modernist architecture for its two-storey apartment units. It’s one of five designed by Dickinson as part of the public housing visioning exercise that took place in Regent Park South in the 1950s, which was meant to mirror the redo of Regent Park North that took place right after the Second World War. Both embraced the planning ideas of French architect Le Corbusier’s (aka Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) Unite d’Habitation housing project in Mersailles, with the housing cut off from vehicular access and built around courtyards in park-like settings.

The concept was viewed as innovative at the time, but came to be deplored by urban thinkers, among them former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who argued that the design cut Regent Park off from its surroundings and led to an isolation of the community that contributed to its well-documented social problems.

Regent Park has always offered important lessons in planning and social reform. No doubt this century’s will be no different.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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