Regent Park is well on its way undergoing an exciting and dramatic transformation that has to be seen to be appreciated. One of the largest and oldest housing projects in Canada, Regent Park runs east along Gerrard to the north and Shuter to the south from Parliament Street to River Street. Originally built in the 1940s as social housing for low income families, in 2005 the area has been razed and is being rebuilt as a one-billion dollar redevelopment project for mixed housing, incorporating condos along with rent-geared-to-income units.
This history of Regent Park was never pretty. From the early 1900s Regent Park started out as a slum. It housed British and Irish immigrants and was called Cabbagetown because the residents used to grow cabbage in their front yards. What we know as Cabbagetown now, was once a slightly more affluent slum called Don Vale that took the name many years later during its gentrification in the 1970s. After the first world war, there was no way the original C-towners in their shanty shacks could keep up with the Jones in Don Vale with their decrepit Victorian mansions so in the 1940s the city decided create a community housing project. They razed the land in the original Cabbagetown and called the area Regent Park. Don Vale, which was also on the chopping block, stayed put for the time being, its history would later serendipitously take a different course and be restored instead.
Regent Park was structured with a design that was appropriate for its time. The buildings were built around courtyards, park-like settings, with open spaces for ventilation and sunlight. It began being built in the 1940s, was completed in 1960 and brought in immigrants from around the world. Although it was designed to alleviate crime problems and was successful for awhile, it didn’t last. By the 1970s and 80s crime escalated with gang activity. The courtyards and the parks were blind spots from the street, prime places for drug dealing. At the same time, poverty began to grow and there was a waiting list of new immigrants hoping for subsidized homes and a backlog of deferred maintenance in all of Toronto public housing. It was Slum Town the Sequel, only much worse, and clearly not the answer to safe city living.
In the 1970s and 80s, some of the politicians, including mayor Crombie and Sewell, brought forth a new reformed approach to community housing by building higher density, mixed income, co-ops and in-fill housing projects designed to fit in with their urban surroundings. This actually worked very well with the St. Lawrence Market area and inspired the TCHC to create the Regent Park redevelopment project. The master plan was to redevelop instead of fix it up. Using Chicago’s Housing Authority Plan of revitalization to sell to private developments, TCHC’s plan was increase density by building a variety of housing such as townhouses, mid-rises, and towers and Dundas Street as a commercial spine. And so close to the downtown core, this area is prime real estate.
Daniels Corporation won the bid with the plan to build 5000 new market condos with 2000 units of mixed housing for the rent-geared-to-income community. The current residences had to be temporarily relocated around the city and were offered an option of buying their new apartments instead of renting. Daniels Corporation created a financing program for the residents called the Foundation Program, for those who could almost afford a down payment, but not quite. The idea here is they can get a loan that can be paid back with the proceeds of the eventual sale of the unit. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for people who have worked hard but home ownership was always just out of reach.
The First Phase opened in 2010. Using different architects to create visual variety, the beauty of this development is that it is impossible to tell which are condos and which are subsidized. Completing the neighbourhood is a community health center, schools, parks, sports field, and of course the most amazing indoor pool in the city, the Regent Park Aquatics Centre. The Centre for Social Innovation on Dundas was opened up which can be described as a “diverse cross-section of social mission organizations who come together to share ideas, resources, advice and inspiration.”
At one point this neighbourhood was synonymous with crime and violence but now is a community where 60 languages are spoken with programs for new immigrants, safe buildings, and a hub of artistic, cultural, and educational activities. As this redevelopment continues, the community grows, and time passes, this area will blend in with the rest of the city with compact blocks and businesses and people of all incomes and backgrounds living together. Soon the boundaries of Regent Park will be invisible and will blend in. And this is exactly how to build a city neighbourhood.