Toronto Alexandra Park Revitalization | 53.48m | 15s | TCHC | SvN



From Globe Toronto:

Concrete ideals
KATE TAYLOR takes a sentimental journey to a housing project co-designed by her father-in-law that was once considered a model of livability. Today, she writes, it's a work-in-progress as residents rally against crime and vandalism


It's a miserable Sunday afternoon, but the people huddled underneath umbrellas in the middle of the Atkinson Housing Co-op seem oblivious to the rain: They are vigorously debating the merits of a brick wall.

Four decades ago, Jerome Markson co-designed the public-housing project originally known as Alexandra Park. An 18-acre pedestrian precinct of low-density family housing, south of Dundas Street and west of Spadina Avenue, it was considered a model of livability when it opened in 1968. It rapidly went downhill, however, partly because its maze of walkways and commons fostered street crime.

Today, Mr. Markson is trying to justify his work to a vocal critic.

Phil Deneault -- a post-office worker who has lived here for 19 years -- is vice-president of the co-op, and chairs the safety and security committee. Mainly, that means he knocks down walls.

"It was a haven for drug dealers," Mr. Deneault complains.

"How were we to know?" Mr. Markson responds.

The architect tries to explain this particular wall: At the end of a row of townhouses, it runs the length of the last property's back garden like a fence. On one side, it provides privacy, but it also defines public space on the other side, drawing the pedestrian into the common.

Mr. Deneault shows us what has happened. The townhouse resident has run a small wooden fence across the bottom of the garden. It hits the brick wall a few feet before the end, creating a corner just large enough for someone to stand in. And someone does -- there are cigarette butts all over the ground and a sandwich board has been balanced on the wall to create a little roof. This is where a drug dealer does business.

The co-op has torn down all sorts of walls: brick dividers like this one; and the short concrete privacy barriers that originally separated one back door from the next. Mr. Markson explains that concrete was cheap, lasted longer than wood fencing and was harder to deface. He never dreamed these walls would harbour crime, but Mr. Deneault tells him that there were six shootings here last summer. (No one was killed.)

"Sure, you think about security," the architect says, recalling the demands of the 1960s. "The police or an ambulance can drive up the main drag. But guns? When I graduated from university [in 1953], the police didn't carry guns."

In this instance, he has some practical advice for the co-op's vice-president: Let the resident move the fence forward into the common by a few feet, so that it meets the end of the wall and thus eliminates the dealer's hidey-hole.

Maybe this visit wasn't such a bad idea after all.

It was my husband, Joel Sears, who organized our rainy day walkabout. His father, Henry Sears, was another of the Alexandra Park architects, alongside his partner Jack Klein, Mr. Markson and members of a third firm, Webb, Zerafa and Menkes.

My father-in-law died in March, 2003, 10 short months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. That summer and fall, Joel had the difficult job of closing his father's architectural practice. I was heavily pregnant by then: Our son, Jed, was born 10 months after Henry's death.

There hasn't been much time for grieving in the years since, but recently Joel has started investigating his father's legacy, driving his mother, Doreen, and other family members to suburban housing projects to see how they are faring. He gets angry at the way Toronto, considered an architectural leader in the sixties and seventies, neglects its modernist heritage, but even he ended up having to throw out boxes and boxes of his father's papers.

With Mr. Markson as our guide, our party passes the discarded tricycles, patchy grass, jury-rigged fencing and windows with torn screens that distinguish exterior views of Alexandra Park.

I am cold and skeptical: How can a trip to a public-housing project, where the banishment of street traffic so notoriously backfired, be anything but a depressing reminder of the naiveté of sixties urban planning? What kind of tribute will this be?

As we penetrate deeper, however, meeting up with Mr. Deneault and visiting a few interiors, we become engrossed in the issues raised.

The two medium-rise apartment buildings, and especially the 207 townhouses, have weathered well. Their lines are still pleasing; their scale welcoming, and their brick exteriors warm. Meanwhile, the residents, long inured to car break-ins, vandalism and needles discarded on the ground, were shaken by last year's shootings and they are newly determined to take back the public spaces.

Mr. Markson, who last walked through the place about a decade ago, is a vigorous 77. He is eager to explain the thinking behind the project, and ready to defend some elements but also prepared to admit mistakes.

Phil Deneault, meanwhile, is looking for answers.

He introduces us to Anna Mendonca, a resident for nine years, who lives with her two daughters in a cozy three-bedroom townhouse. She is committed to the place -- she has brightly painted all the walls with sponge effects -- and she appreciates the proximity to Queen Street. When asked how she likes living here, however, she pauses, looking for an answer that will encompass her comfort and her fears.

"It's been hard, scary at times. You constantly have to keep an eye [on the children], let them know how it is out there. Any loud sound, the kids run." At the same time, she loves her corner of the development and the car-free street out front where, in summer, the neighbours barbecue together and wash their kids on their steps. "We stick together. We are more of a community than any other place out there."

The whole point of Alexandra Park was to get the cars out and give children room to play. The small, decaying Victorian streets that the city so happily bulldozed 40 years ago were being forced to bear traffic for which they had not been designed. The residents of public housing own few cars, by contrast, and they do have lots of kids.

"It's not de rigueur now," Mr. Markson explains, "but we separated people and cars. . . . We hated cars." Today, planners have realized that streets carry not merely cars but also street life. (Mr. Markson recently closed his firm, Markson Borooah, to go into private consultancy, but one of its final jobs involved the current redevelopment of Regent Park, where the street grid is being purposefully reintroduced.)

While the first residents were effusive when reporters asked them about their new homes, Alexandra Park started off on the wrong foot. The neighbouring streets, part of a 75-acre area slotted for the now-discredited program of bulldozing and rebuilding known as "urban renewal," never recovered from a decade-long threat of widespread expropriation. The uncertainty that accompanied all this drove out business and lowered property values as homeowners of aging properties postponed repairs; Queen and Bathurst has been a tough neighbourhood ever since.

After it was built, the architects soon recognized that the commons, intended as places where children could play within view of their own kitchen windows, were becoming trouble spots because no one was taking responsibility for them. Separation from the street made the public areas ideal for dealing drugs, the presence of which was well established by 1980. As criminals took over the outdoors, residents retreated indoors. Alexandra Park was considered progressive, in its day, because families were to be housed at ground level -- a rejection of the soulless towers of previous projects. Once crime took hold, however, residents at ground level felt unsafe.

Fixing Alexandra Park would be hard. In a phone interview, Derek Ballantyne, head of Toronto Community Housing, says the problems are not merely a matter of walls but reflect the lack of money for upkeep, the way in which waiting lists of "neediest cases" concentrate poverty in public housing and the increase in street crime everywhere. He estimates that TCH's 58,000 units need $250-million in capital improvements. Unlike Regent Park, Atkinson isn't slated for redevelopment.

Making it work lies increasingly in the hands of the residents. The city still owns the development, but in 2003, after years of wrangling, residents took over management of the non-profit housing co-op they had incorporated in the 1990s. It's named for Sonny Atkinson, an activist who had pushed for the conversion and who died in 1996.

Today, some of the back gardens are filled with spring flowers and the co-op has plans to tear up more concrete, plant grass, standardize the garden fences and erect bright street lamps. This summer, in an infamous cranny known as The Pit, off Cameron Street, residents want to plant a community garden. They blame last summer's violence on gangs displaced by the redevelopment of Regent Park, and they make a point of working with the police. Both residents and police agree that the key is not merely to stop crime but to make people feel safe.

"You have to get out there and not be afraid," Mr. Deneault says. "If you hide, they've got you."

Mr. Denault pulls out some keys and takes us inside a vacant townhouse. It's a three-storey, with five bedrooms squeezed into less than 1,000 square feet. Joel and I, perpetual house hunters, would consider all the bedrooms about the right size for the baby, but Mr. Markson is right when he bets us that we have neither a hall closet nor a window in the stairwell of our current house. Most of the bedroom windows are high horizontal bands. From the outside, they can make the units look bunker-like, but inside it turns out that they let in a lot of light.

As we explore this place, we catch each others' eyes: This is really nice, we think; small but smart. Mr. Deneault tells us that only a family with six children would qualify for the townhouse, but that several prospective tenants have turned it down. The issue is always safety.

Depending on income, tenants would probably pay about $500 a month; the highest rent anyone could be charged would be around $2,000. Only a handful of residents pay these top rents, however. Most people who start to earn enough just move, but a handful do elect to stay, even though they no longer qualify for subsidized housing.

"There are tenants here . . . you couldn't get them out with a bulldozer," Mr. Deneault says.

"Sure," Mr. Markson says. "Low density, in the middle of downtown."

Joel and I hurry home to the babysitter. Maybe some day, when Jed is bigger and the sun is shining, we can bring him to Alexandra Park and see if the residents have won their battle to make it the place his grandfather meant it to be.

cute but bring out the wrecking ball

okay maybe it's worth preserving as a failed experiment from the sixites eventhough the amount of space the 207 townhouses and their half dozen, ancillary surface parking lots could be put to better use
But how failed *is* it?, really? It seems richer and more resilient than Don Mount Court, somehow.

Ironically, this is where a St. James Town-in-reverse spontaneous salvage operation might've been cause for hope; that is, for Alex Pk to morph from "social housing" into a chic "Swinging Sixties chic" kind of place, Habitat furniture and all. (Sure, that's "gentrification", and vaguely Thatcherite-privatization-spirited, but maybe that tells you something--and if I had a choice, I'd rather gentrify Alex Pk through a shagadelic Markson-spirit rehab than through new-urbanist redevelopment.)

Honestly. Call me daft, but there's this weirdly seductive otherworldly vibe about Alex Pk, like it's such a stylish (yes, stylish) time capsule of a certain welfare-state 60s urbanist spirit, appreciating it, getting into its soul is practically a subversive antidote to Queen W *and* Chinatown *and* Kensington. Walking through there is just so, uh...ummagumma. (And maybe the fact that its present-day denizens are "too grubby for the grups", so to speak, heightens the subversion--or maybe the empathy which may secretly lay behind the subversion. Y'know, more true ungentrified warts-and-all heart and soul here than in the late great Secret Swing, etc. Yeah, I know, speaking on behalf of gentrification one second, speaking on behalf of non-gentrification the next, might be paradoxical; but, hey.)

In that light, blithe statements like "cute but bring out the wrecking ball" oughta be relegated to the lunkheaded Joe Blow urban connoisseurship mentality which Mayor Pitfield might pander to. Personally, I'd rather advocate keeping the Aaltoluscious Vanauley Walk core, at the very least, and building around it, if you gotta "intensify" at all.

And let's be fair. That 70s Crombie-era cause celebre, Diamond/Myers' Sherbourne Lanes, was in the end little less "ill-starred" socially or urbanistically or architecturally--the fact's just camoflauged by the milieu it was born under. Maybe it's more the nature of the social-housing beast, than the simple fact of urban form...
"if I had a choice, I'd rather gentrify Alex Pk through a shagadelic Markson-spirit rehab than through new-urbanist redevelopment."

interesting yet unrealistic

"Maybe it's more the nature of the social-housing beast, than the simple fact of urban form... "

good point
I walked home through Alexandra Park Co-op on Saturday. Even on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when the sidewalks were packed in Chinatown, Kensington, and Queen West the inner walkways of the project were abandoned and foreboding. I don't think there is anywhere in this city that I have felt so unsafe in broad daylight. It is a textbook example of Jane Jacob's call for eyes on the street and permability. The buildings are terrible and there really are no redeeming qualities for those who have to live there.

It might be nice for an outsider appreciate the bunker-inspired design of the project, but the simple matter is that the people living here are unable to live safely and confidently in their own nabe. For their sake and for the sake of the urban fabric I look forward to the demise of this terrible mistake.
I honestly feel Toronto has been taken the wrong approach with subsidized housing.

Take a look at singapore and hong kong gov't housing. they are more pleasent and upkeep oriented. because they are owned by the tennant.
Excellent news! I was recently wondering about whether this area would see some large scale redevelopment similar to Regent Park, because lord knows it desperately needs it. It's a horrifically ugly, dreary, dated example of poor community planning, and the time has come for it to go. Erase the entire thing and start with a blank slate. As far as I'm concerned, option E in the report is the only option. That's the kind of serious makeover that needs to be done here - re-integrate this isolated island with the vibrant neighbourhoods it's surrounded by.
I agree, E is the right option. It will make a huge difference for the whole surrounding area. Dundas Street is mainly a retail street and needs to be lined with retail all the way up to the school. (on Dundas) Alexandra Park is one planning disaster that needs to be corrected as soon as possible.
Somehow, as an "issue", I'm more inclined to think of this as the TCHC answer to Boston City Hall, i.e. there's just so much raw embodied architectural/urban-distinction energy here, that I can't help approaching a tabula rasa solution with qualification. It'd almost seem more disarmingly Torontonian, to me, to approach this with a more constructive, quasi-preservationist approach to the existing fabric--sort of in the same way that Gehry's AGO is no Bilbao or Disney.

Though I agree that the most problematic part is the Dundas face--indeed, to "urbanize" that might well wind up enhancing for the better the existing AaltoBrutalist inner-sanctumness of the place. Because as it exists, it's a core with no boundary; but there's something wonderfully womblike about the core, in that 60s Anglo-Canadian welfare-state-romanticism kind of way--if only there were a way to nurture that positive "god bless this womb" spirit among the residents...
What are you talking about adma, this place is god damned ugly, just tear it all down and build something beautiful. (We got enough ugly already)
Alexandra Park Redevelopment

Apartment buildings will range from 9-19 storeys.

On March 11, 2011, Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) submitted Official Plan Amendment and Rezoning applications to permit the revitalization and redevelopment of Alexandra Park and Atkinson Housing Co-op. The master plan proposes to demolish and replace 333 townhouse and apartment units, renovate and retain 473 apartment units, and incorporate 1,540 market condominium and townhouse units. The master plan also proposes an extended public street network, a series of public parks, and private and shared outdoor amenity spaces.

Site plan:

Landscape Plan:

Phase Plan:

3D Models:

Last edited: