It’s a rare occasion when urban enthusiasts get to watch a huge portion of their own city get razed and remade, but this is what's happening with Toronto’s Regent Park. Over a period of 15 to 20 years, nearly the entire parcel of land bordered by Parliament, Gerrard, River and Shuter will be redeveloped into a wholly new neighbourhood, with new residences, public athletic and green spaces, community and cultural centres, and retail development. At 69 acres, and within walking distance to Yonge Street, the scale and importance of the project can't be understated. It will address urban and social concerns differently—and hopefully more effectively—than it did in its former, currently disappearing iteration.
Regent Park is Canada’s largest social housing project. Constructed in the 1940s and 50s on what was then the southern half of Cabbagetown, it was meant to improve the lives of the thousands who lived there. Their rundown houses were replaced by largely uniform, smaller buildings, built around and throughout a series of green spaces and cul-de-sacs. Regent Park was meant to revolutionize how we looked at social housing, but it became an experiment gone wrong. The elimination of through traffic led to the isolation of the neighbourhood and its residents from the rest of the city. Circulation was stifled and crime flourished.
One of the main objectives in the current redevelopment of the community is the restoration of the conventional city grid: previously severed streets are being knitted back together. Housing will also be transformed from mostly low-income, to a mix of geared-to-income and market-priced. Toronto Community Housing Corporation oversees all of the land that Regent Park sits on, and it's the Daniels Corporation who has been contracted with its redevelopment.
There are still several buildings that remain from the disappearing old version of Regent Park. A number of low-height walk-up residences still exist along the Gerrard Street corridor, and there are several townhomes as well, mostly along River Street.
Other remnants of the past include Regent Park / Duke of York Public School—a low and linear modern building that is in dire need of some care to restore its good looks, (which aren't far away – come on, TDSB!) and Nelson Mandela Park Public School—a project that took a lot of heat recently, due to its higher than foreseen renovation costs.
Looking forward, several new buildings have already been completed, while others are under construction now. Among the latter is One Park Place – the new Hariri Pontarini-designed Daniels project at the southwest corner of Dundas and Sumach. With two towers (hello, sweet white cladding!) and a collection of townhomes designed by this local architect, the project promises to be a local design jewel.
Another building that has already made a splash (please forgive!) is the new Regent Park Aquatic Centre, easily among the best looking new public buildings in the city, with its asymmetrical roofline and clerestory for days. When working through its design with the architect, Toronto firm MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, Daniels was mindful of the neighbourhood’s culturally diverse community. As a result, all change rooms at the centre are single, private cabins. To the west of the centre, construction has just begun on the new centrally located park, the core green space for the entire neighbourhood. It's expected to be complete in 2014.
On the south side of Dundas Street is the Daniels Spectrum, the new multi-level arts facility that houses performance, rehearsal, exhibition and office space for the numerous arts organizations that operate there. The centre—like nearly all new buildings in Regent Park—was built to LEED standards, (Silver here at Spectrum; Gold in many other of the neighbourhood's buildings.) Environmentally sensitive features include a green roof, high-efficiency HVAC, and low-maintenance landscaping to reduce water use, among several others.
Public artwork at Daniels Spectrum is very much about the public, especially the people of Regent Park. One piece, The Keys to Swinging by local artists Christina Ott, Andra Hayward and Shannon Linde, is made from the house keys of past and present Regent Park residents. This is just one example of the collective fingerprint on the cultural presence of the new neighbourhood.
To date, only two of the five phases of this massive remake have really been underway. The next phase will be beginning this year, with a huge new athletic grounds coming to Shuter and Sumach. A series of smaller towers will be sprouting up along Gerrard and a larger, 32-storey tower designed by KPMB is slated to eventually arrive at the south-east corner of Parliament and Gerrard. We—and likely many of you—will be anxiously awaiting that.
Here are some other images of what's happening as Regent Park takes shape.
It will be another dozen or so years before the final building is complete in the rebuilding of Regent Park. That's when the next version of this neighbourhood will finally get its chance to show us how we did, and if we got it right this time.