UrbanToronto sits down with Tom Dutton, Senior Vice President at The Daniels Corporation, to talk about the prolific developer's corporate ethos and its history. Part 2 of 2. If you missed Part 1, it's here.
At Regent Park, you’re expanding what you’re giving back to the community, I think, in a number of ways and obviously it’s a huge project. Is it the biggest thing Daniels has ever taken on, in a single area?
Well yeah, I guess it would have to quality as being the largest overall, single project that we’ve done. I mean, the Lake Shore project was a very large project, that was 12- or 1300 units, well, 1299 units to be exact! [laughs] I would say Regent Park is at another whole magnitude beyond that.
You weren’t the only developers who bid to take on this project, but there were very few companies that thought it could be done, period. Tell us a little about the way Daniels approached the issues at Regent Park and what your goals were.
I think our ultimate goal is to make it Downtown East, part of Toronto like any other Toronto neighbourhood, so that if you were walk around the community, or drive through the community, you wouldn’t single it out for being any other part of the city, even though we’re still retaining each and every rent-geared-to-income subsidized unit that was there previously. So that was the mandate, which was to recreate all of the rent-geared-to-income housing that will be owned and operate by Toronto Community Housing, but then on top of that, to increase the overall density of the neighbourhood and to balance it by adding ownership housing into the mix of the community. It would become much more like the St. Lawrence Market area, for example, where you have co-ops and non-profit housing living quite comfortably next to condominiums and it all seems to work very well; it’s a very livable community.
That was certainly the goal and the objective that Toronto Community Housing had when they did all their master planning. We met with them on occasion as they consulted with various companies in the industry, to give them our thoughts and ideas when they were developing their master plan. And then when the proposal call came out, we did send them our proposal. The first time around we were not successful, we didn’t get the call from them. And you know, we said ‘That’s fine, keep going, we’ll do what we do’. Then, for whatever reason - I’m not sure what all the details were - but they weren’t able to proceed with that developer, so they went out for another call, and we essentially dusted off our original proposal and resubmitted it. The approach was to create a true partnership, because, as you say, at that point in time, no one could really be sure what the marketability for the Regent Park community would be. For the initial stage I think people were quite rightly concerned that it’d be tough to sell.
It is a place that has had a bit of a stigma, which everyone wants to remove.
That’s true, and for a long time there were debates about whether the name should be changed. You know, maybe there’s too much associated with the name Regent Park, but ultimately I think we all agreed, together with Toronto Community Housing that that’s also the strength of the community. From the outside looking in Regent Park might look like a tough community, or might appear to be a place where people aren’t that invested in their community, but in fact it’s just the opposite. It has very strong sense of place, and the people who live there are very loyal to that community, and they’re really committed to seeing it thrive and move forward. We’ve developed some amazing working relationships with the people who actually live in the community.
It’s become just as much as, or maybe more of a community development project, as it is a bricks and mortar, pour-the-concrete kind of project. We’ve forged all kinds of great relationships with the various groups and associations that are in that neighbourhood, and I think the key thing that Toronto Housing wanted to make sure happened when they went there was that they wanted to make sure that current people who were living there didn’t feel like they were being pushed out of the community in favor of people who could come and afford to buy a house or $300,000 condominium. We put a lot of effort into making sure it’s still a livable community for the people there who are on lower incomes, but that they will also benefit from having a more complete and more balanced community.
We’re very fortunate to bring some of our retail partners back into the neighbourhood. Even in the first phase we felt it was very important to get some retail on the street. That would send a message to the rest of the city “Hey, this is like any other community in the city!", and so we’ve got a major food store there with Freshco by Sobeys, the Royal Bank has come back into the neighbourhood - this is the first bank that’s been there in 60 years or something like that - the Tim Hortons outlet has been extremely successful, and all of these businesses that are there have bought into this notion of hiring people from the community to actually work in their establishments. To date I think we’ve created something like 350 permanent jobs for people in the community, who are now working everyday in those types of establishments or working for our sub-trades, or for an engineering company that is doing work in that community.
What's the breakdown between market units and TCHC?
It’s something like 60% ownership and 40% rent-geared-to-income.
Phase 1 is essentially finished. Over a year ago now was the opening of Cole Street…
…which was one of the first new streets that was built in the neighbourhood.
One of the key things of the revitalization is to rebuild those streets through the neighbourhood and tie it back into the fabric of the city. In that way Regent Park truly does become just another neighbourhood in the city. You have people with their front doors and people who can bump into each other on the street whereas with the existing Regent Park set up, that wasn’t really possible.
It was all cul-de-sacs.
Yeah, it was sort of a fortress, where things were really isolated and cut off.
The Cole Street opening party featured a number of local community groups, giving neighbours a chance to participate in the celebration. And Mitchell Cohen even wrote a song for the day?!
That’s right, he did! ‘Dancing Down the Avenue’. He’s actually written a number of songs that have benefited the various agencies in Regent Park. If you go to our website, you can download them. You make a small donation and the money goes to one of the groups that’s there in the neighbourhood and you get to listen to the songs.
Now, with Phase 2, Paintbox Condominiums is underway, and it’s topping off now.
Yeah, the structure is almost complete, I think we’re at the top, and the windows are coming along now. We had some hiccups with the windows, but now they’re going full tilt. We’re well on track for occupancies there.
Were the hiccups regarding the coloured spandrel panels at all?
No, it was just some detail questions that had to get sorted out with the way the window walls were being integrated into the building - it took a little longer than it really should have - but our contractor is incredible, and I have no fear that that they’ll catch up for sure.
We've gone to the market with Paintbox. The public launch will be happening shortly, but we’ve had the sale for our inner circle members, and inner circle events, and had tremendous success with Paintbox. The sales have been phenomenal, so we’re very pleased to see that we’ve taken the success from Phase 1 and we’ve kept that going with Phase 2, because as you said, in the initial stages, people wondered would you be able to sell condominiums here. I think that we’ve shown that not only can we sell them there, but we can sell them with a lot of momentum, and we can still build buildings that are notable and architecturally interesting, and you know, they don’t have to be cheap and cheerful for it to be able to make the sales.
In this case you have a condominium building that’s not just a condo, but it’s also connected to the new Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre, the whole complex being designed by Diamond and Schmitt. Tell us about the cultural centre.
There was always this part of the master plan that had this little block on it that said cultural centre, and it was to be in a much later phase, but we promoted the idea that it would be better if we could do it in one of the earlier stages, because it would bring value to the community upfront, and people would start to see that this is a more complete community, and start to imagine themselves living there.
The Arts and Cultural Centre is really intended to be for the use of people in that immediate neighbourhood. We’ve got a wide range of ethnic backgrounds that are living within the Regent Park area, so it’s really designed as a very flexible kind of space. There will be one main performance hall which will seat up to about 450 people, but all of the seating will be able to be pushed back into the wall. And they’ll be able to use that room for film festivals - the Regent Park Film Festival will be able to happen there - dance groups could come in there, there’s all sorts of music groups. Theatrical productions could take place there, as well as just day to day cultural events that might happen from time to time. People that just want to rent the space to do whatever type of event they dream up. I think it’s going to be well used by the people who live there - and by all means be welcoming to people from other parts of the city as well - but primarily it will be there as the heart and soul of the neighbourhood.
There will be some permanent tenants there as well: Regent Park School of Music’s going to be moving in there; COBA, the association of black artists will be moving there; the CSI offices - the community services group that helps incubate new businesses and providing opportunities for people who want to start businesses - they’re taking some space there. It’s going to be a real mix of full-time people who live there and work there, as well as other groups who will come in and use the space from time to time.
In the base of Paintbox we’re creating our new bistro which will have a large catering operation that will serve the Arts and Culture Centre, we hope. We still haven’t finalized the arrangements around that, but we’re hoping they’ll be able to serve it as well as create a whole catering business for the whole of the city. Our plan there is to create this catering business together with the restaurant and the performance space, almost like a cabaret or a drop-in where artists can come perform, you’ll be able to get a great meal, it’ll be reasonably priced. We’ve formed an association with George Brown College and their culinary arts program. People who are studying culinary arts at George Brown will be able to get on-the-job training within this Regent Park bistro. We’re thinking of it as a social enterprise type of operation, and our intention is to make some of the profits available from that business available to go into scholarships for people who want to study culinary arts at George Brown. There’d be a fairly hefty social component to that operation as well, and we’re looking forward to opening that. It’ll have some great patio space right there at the corner of Dundas and Sackville.
Are you aiming for next summer for that?
We’ll be doing, hopefully, a soft opening of the catering operation probably in the summer, and then it’ll be the fall when we open the actually doors to the restaurant itself.
Can you say what’s next for Regent Park, or is everything under wraps for the moment?
We’re well under way with construction on our next two buildings. The next rental building we’re building for TCHC is happening there at the southwest corner of Dundas and Sackville, just west of Paintbox, and on the east side of Paintbox we have our next condominium building - which we don’t have a name for yet - under construction. It’s a two tower condo project, around 700 units between the 2 phases, and there’ll be a fairly significant component of office space and retail space for that project as well.
In a podium along Dundas?
…so to create an urban setting right there.
Yeah, that’s right.
Also in phase 2, we’ve just retained the architects to do a rental project for TCHC, which will be a little bit south of there and towards Shuter Street, and we’ve got the drawings well under way for the next condo project there as well, which will be coming forward after the big one that’s just east of Paintbox.
We’ll look forward into looking for all these things! So how do we wrap up?!
You mentioned before about creation of community, so maybe that’s a good place to wind up. You know, we sort of view what we do as a bit of a privilege, not a right as developers. We’re in a very responsible position I think, in that we’re making decisions about how people are going to live. We’re making decisions about how communities are going to come together for the next 20 - 30 - 50 years, and so we put a lot of effort into that notion of what makes a community. And like you said, it’s not necessarily always just about the building, sometimes it’s other things that factor in, and that's always something that’s been really important to us. We look at each site in its own individual way, and you know we’re not really known to take the same design and move it - ‘Well it worked well here, let’s just put it over here’ -we try to look at every site in it’s own context, and particularly what happens at the street level, and how people are going to relate to each other. This concept goes way back to 1989, when we built the first single family homes in Erin Mills that had verandas, to try and bring people together so that they could meet their neighbours in a semi-public space, where they could get to know each other in a place that felt safe and secure, without having to look over somebody’s backyard fence to meet them.
Right. Verandas had disappeared for a while; it was a case of a giant garage out front and that’s what met the street, right?
Yeah, so we kind of pioneered that, and I think it had a bit of an impact because almost every new community that you see now has the front veranda coming up quite often.
I think this notion of making communities and making places for people to live and feel good about raising their family - whether it’s creating a pathway at our City Centre site in Mississauga which meanders down and takes people to the park in a safe environment where kids can learn to ride their bike without having to go out on the main streets, or whether it’s making townhouses in front of the parking garage at NY Towers, so that when people are walking down the street to go to the subway it feels like a normal residential community, as opposed to a very high density thing with big towers looking over you’re shoulder - we always try to approach it from that point of view, and for me personally it’s been a great opportunity to not only combine my passion about building and doing a better job of building, but my architectural background and thinking about design and what is possible, and how can we achieve these design goals and still meet the budget! It’s been a great opportunity.
Tom, thanks for this. We have been, obviously, keeping an eye on Daniels projects, and we’ll continue to: we look forward to the next one!