Editor’s Letter (June 2013): Regent Park proves that big, visionary projects can get off the ground

Editor’s Letter (June 2013): Regent Park proves that big, visionary projects can get off the ground

Editor's Letter: Sarah FulfordWe all have places in Toronto we like to show off to guests from out of town. In the summer, I take my visiting friends to Kensington Market or the Brick Works. If they have young kids, I take them to Centre Island. When it’s cold or rainy, I take them to the AGO. Now there’s a new destination on my list: Regent Park. The $1-billion transformation won’t be complete until 2019 (or thereabouts), but big swaths are already built. It’s not just a fascinating and unique experiment in mixed-use housing, it’s also a surprisingly fun place to hang out.

This year, in our fifth annual Reasons to Love Toronto package, we feature two buildings in the new Regent Park development—the ultra-modern, light-filled public pool (page 58) and the Daniels Spectrum cultural complex (page 72), which has, astonishingly, 10 performance spaces. The fact that the Regent Park revamp appears twice on our list is fitting: no municipal project quite as ambitious has happened in Toronto in my lifetime, and this is the year it has started to bloom.

The overhaul began roughly eight years ago, with the demolition of hundreds of decrepit housing units that had been erected, in the ’40s and ’50s, with the best intentions. The architects wanted to give decent, affordable housing to the people who were living in what was then a slum. But it was a disaster. The low-rise units were oriented around cloistered courtyards that became breeding grounds for crime.

This time, Regent Park is doing everything differently. The new buildings are integrated with the surrounding area. And instead of imposing a plan on residents (as the city did last time around), community members have been heavily involved in every stage of the process. The most radical idea, which is fuelling the redevelopment, is the mix of 3,000 market-rate condo units with 2,400 social housing units. To make this hybrid work, Regent Park needs to be attractive enough to appeal to condo buyers in a competitive environment. And so far, so good. All but 55 of the first 1,100 units have sold, and 400 more will go on the market later this year.

A few months ago, I took my kids for a swim at the new pool (it’s beautiful), then for snacks at Regent Park’s Paintbox Bistro (a social experiment in which area residents volunteer their time at the restaurant to gain work experience). The house-made croissants were superb—buttery and impossible to put down. Regent Park now has better amenities than many highly sought-after, bidding war–rife Toronto neighbourhoods: in addition to the pool, the restaurant and the Daniels Spectrum complex (which has already appeared in Toronto Life’s entertainment listings), there’s the nearby Citadel dance centre (used for performances and yoga classes), and a public school that has just reopened after a $25‑­million renovation.

In Toronto, we complain that big, visionary projects never get off the ground. We’ll never bury the Gardiner the way Boston buried Interstate 93. We’ll never create a giant downtown green space like Millennium Park in Chicago. We’re too mired in bureaucracy, too dependent on too many levels of government, too risk-averse. But here, in an era-defining team effort involving the city, the province, the feds, the private sector and the residents themselves, is a spectacular counter-example.

(Image: Christopher Wahl)