Hot! Alexandra Park slated for revitalization

TheGlobeandMail.com – National – The public housing project may soon become trendy Kensington Market South
Published on Friday, Apr. 23, 2010.   Kelly Grant, City Hall Bureau Chief

For a small street, Augusta Avenue has a big place in Toronto lore.

The spine of Kensington Market, which evolved from a bustling Jewish bazaar into the city’s nearest approximation of Greenwich Village, is about to make another historic transformation. More important, so will the 18 acres to its south.

As part of a dramatic plan that will revitalize the decrepit environs of Alexandra Park, Toronto Community Housing is proposing to turn the 1960s-era housing project into a mixed-income community through which Augusta would extend. In what is a Canadian first, the TCHC will use revenue from newly constructed condos to cover the full cost of new rental units for social-housing tenants.

“With Kensington Market, Chinatown and Queen Street, a huge surge in development in downtown and a major hospital on its doorstep, this neighbourhood has a lot of advantages other neighbourhoods don’t,” said Adam Vaughan, the Trinity-Spadina councillor spearheading the effort. “You can harness that economic activity. That’s where the land value comes from.”

The TCHC will literally capitalize on Alex Park’s location in the city’s core of cool to pay for tenants’ new housing – an experiment that would not have any traction if it were, say, in Scarborough or North York. But the proposal has generated skepticism: Many tenants don’t necessarily want the traffic and the new tenants that come with the overhaul. It might also be too much, too quickly, for a neighbourhood that has seen its share of trouble over a half-century.

“I don’t think it’s for us,” says Marwa Eldardiry, 23, a life-long resident who has been working on the revitalization plan while studying urban planning at Ryerson University. “I don’t think they want to hurt us. But this area’s been needing help all along and I’ve seen what kind of help comes. Now all of a sudden we have a whole army coming to help us.”

Pending approval next month, Alex Park will be demolished in stages and rebuilt. More than 333 new rent-geared-to-income townhouses for social-housing tenants will replace 263 brown brick townhouses and a six-floor apartment building. Tenants will get a sparkling new community centre and the opportunity to start small businesses in non-profit storefronts that will line Dundas’s south side. About 1,100 condo units in mid-rise towers will be available to newcomers at market prices.

The design they’ve settled on calls for Kensington’s stretch of Augusta to punch south through Dundas Street all the way down to Queen Street. Surface parking would go underground, leaving room for the new buildings and more green space. A series of linear parks would run south from Kensington Avenue to Queen and two new pedestrian-only streets would run east-west through the complex.

Mr. Vaughan hopes Alex Park’s redevelopment will kick-start wider neighbourhood regeneration.

Already, groups such as the Scadding Court Community Centre and Toronto Public Library’s Sanderson Branch are in preliminary talks with the Ontario College of Art and Design about redeveloping the area with a new OCAD graduate school, which might brighten the grey, scruffy corner of Bathurst and Dundas.

“We’re really hoping to see this take off,” said OCAD president Sara Diamond. “We think it’s an incredible project – not only for the city, but for the province and, frankly, for the country.”

Nearby neighbours also have hopes for what a redeveloped Alex Park might bring.

“[Alex Park] is close enough to Kensington Market for it to rub off,” said Shamez Amlani, co-owner of La Palette restaurant on Augusta and a founder of the market’s beloved car-free Sundays. “There are already so many artists hanging around the market. To have incubator spaces like that, galleries or arts collectives and stuff for kids, I think it’s a noble effort.”

Though Mr. Vaughan and the housing agency have devoted more than two years to a painstaking consultation, the plan’s benefits haven’t assuaged fears, especially among teens and twenty-something residents who’ve lived in Alex Park most of their lives. Some worry that the influx of wealthy condo dwellers might spoil the intimacy of a place where everyone knows their neighbours and shares the struggles of poverty and recent immigration. Others express concerns about the sudden introduction of commerce and traffic. “I don’t like the idea of making streets through neighbourhoods,” said Obaid Wahidi, 17, who is also worried that the newcomers might ruin the Park’s first-name familiarity.” Right now we know everyone who’s in the community.”

Alex Park could have used the help a lot more in the 1980s, when crack dealers sold to locals and better-off outsiders while a low-level gang war raged between Alex and Regent parks. While locals praise the pleasures of its enclosed atmosphere, its meandering pathways have made it easy to give police the slip. Drug dealers can slip into its dark nooks. The lack of straight through-streets isolates tenants from people who live outside the complex.

Don White, property manager for the site, called starting his new job in 2005 “baptism by fire.”

“In the first month-and-a-half there were three shootings here. Then over the course of the next year-and-a-half to two years, I noticed a ton of drug activity. … The dealing was rather brazen. It was right out in the open. They would plant themselves on somebody’s townhouse front porch and literally take it over and deal their drugs all day.”

The situation gradually improved when cameras were installed and lighting improved, Mr. White said.

But a turning point came in 2007, when Yonathan Musse, a 19-year-old Alex Park drug dealer beloved for protecting kids and helping his neighbours, was fatally shot in an alley outside the complex. His still-unsolved murder was a “wake-up call,” said Donna Harrow, executive director of the Alexandra Park Community Centre.

“I think a lot of the young people felt, ‘Shoot, my life could be over at any time. So I must make the best out of it,’” she said.

Donnohue Grant was one young Alex Park resident who seized that moment. Mr. Grant had been caught with a handgun when he was 18. He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court of Canada which last year issued a landmark ruling in his case restricting how police can obtain evidence from suspects they haven’t formally detained.

In 2007, Mr. Grant became one of four older, tougher guys who rejected lives of petty crime to become de facto outreach workers, recruiting the brightest and best of Alex Park’s youth to run for five open spots on the complex’s board. (While Alex Park is owned by TCHC, it is run by residents. It was the first social-housing project in Canada to go co-op, formally changing its name to the Atkinson Co-op in honour of Sonny Atkinson, the local activist who led the campaign.)

“We came out on top,” Mr. Grant, a tall and muscular father of two, said of the election. “The youth actually came out in force. It was a very good turnout.”

The students called taking control of the board the “Atkinson Revolution,” and it was the clearest manifestation of the neighbourhood’s gradual – and still ongoing – turnaround.

To complete that turnaround, Alex Park needs a physical overhaul, say proponents of the redevelopment.

Alex Park’s original architects didn’t foresee the physical problems when they drafted the plan in 1965. The design, considered enlightened by the standards of the day, was in keeping with the 1960s trend of housing the poor together in park-like projects closed to traffic.

Architect Jerome Markson, now 81, and the firms of Klein & Sears and Webb, Zerafa and Menkes created a community of sturdy brown-brick townhomes with backyards facing snaking pedestrian walkways, interior courtyards and patches of green space.

They eliminated through-streets, banished parking lots to the edge, and erected brick walls on the fringe, “to separate out clearly pedestrian and vehicular movements and to provide a pleasing environment for people to walk or children to play,” according to the architects’ 1965 proposal. Or, as Mr. Markson recalls, “It was an attempt to make a pleasant, decent place for people with less.”

Love or hate it, they will now have more.

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