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Housing in Focus workshops aim to make urban planning a more inclusive conversation

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Cheryll Case had barely graduated from Ryerson University last year when she made a splash as an urban planner with a project that laid a map of the city’s zoning boundaries over census data.

Her peers are still hailing the work that shows how vast tracts of Toronto are effectively overhoused, squeezing younger, less affluent residents into smaller areas.

Urban planner Cheryll Case (from left) stands with Penny Fisher, a Housing in Focus workshop participant; Jennifer Oliverrie, a housing support worker at Women’s Habitat in the Etobicoke Lakeshore area; and Tetyana Bailey, who helped facilitate workshop discussions, outside LAMP Community Health Centre in Etobicoke. LAMP was the charity sponsor of Case’s Housing in Focusing project, designed to elicit ideas for city building from residents in under-served communities.
Urban planner Cheryll Case (from left) stands with Penny Fisher, a Housing in Focus workshop participant; Jennifer Oliverrie, a housing support worker at Women’s Habitat in the Etobicoke Lakeshore area; and Tetyana Bailey, who helped facilitate workshop discussions, outside LAMP Community Health Centre in Etobicoke. LAMP was the charity sponsor of Case’s Housing in Focusing project, designed to elicit ideas for city building from residents in under-served communities.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

But rather than joining Toronto’s urban planning establishment, Case’s after-graduation encore is a project called Housing in Focus, which challenges the status quo in her chosen field.

Using grants from the Laidlaw and McConnell foundations, Case, 23, organized a series of workshops, drawing about 140 participants from low-income areas — people she says have little say in how their neighbourhoods are developed — and asking for their ideas on how to make more affordable housing in vibrant, well-serviced communities.

“My goal is to bring forward a conversation that communities have been wanting to have — the whole idea that the planning process should be serving those with the most needs. It’s to see how the planning process can best suit their interests — ensuring the conversation is welcoming to those communities,” she said.

The ideas Case collected ranged from a waterfront marketplace in Etobicoke to new rules that would allow residents to convert their garages into homes — something that might provide more affordable shelter since it doesn’t involve buying more land.

“As a planner trained to think a certain way, I have certain ideas of what good development looks like. Talking to these communities they had different ideas about really cool, neat ways to build complete neighbourhoods,” she said.

Affordable housing was the jumping-off point for the discussions. But the participants talked about their desire to mix subsidized rentals with market-rate units, to build equity through co-ops and rent-to-own programs.

“They’re open to providing opportunity. They acknowledge that to have opportunity you need to have development,” Case said. “They see really holistically the way you can use development to build more affordable housing, to build more culture, more vibrancy in the neighbourhood.”

Participants in six workshops were drawn from community groups and services in Etobicoke, Scarborough, Weston, Parkdale and the Danforth area. There were also five workshops dedicated to building youth engagement — developing their leadership and research skills.

The women, who meet at a weekly cafe at Women’s Habitat in the Etobicoke Lakeshore area, are hungry for opportunities and believe they have a role to play in making their neighbourhood function better, said Jennifer Oliverrie, a transitional and housing support worker, who helped co-ordinate one of Case’s workshops.

“They want their neighbourhood to be safe. Women who use our services need rent geared to income housing,” she said.

Oliverrie cited an example of a building in the area where some of the agency’s clients live for which rent on a two-bedroom unit jumped from $750 a month plus hydro to $1,775 in less than two years.

Those women wanted to see more consideration given to shared accommodation — something similar to a program that connects seniors with students who exchange affordable rent for help around the home.

“If seniors can do this why not other individuals?” she said. “Why not youth, why not people with families … to help them not use their entire paycheck plus their child benefit to pay rent.”

Gerry Dunn of the Danforth Village Community Association admits he was skeptical when Case approached him about helping organize a workshop.

“She presented a document, an outline of her idea. At first I thought it’s a bit academic. It’s like somebody looking for a thesis,” he said.

He said he was leary right up until the event.

“What she did was fairly spectacular. There were four tables of about 10 people each. Not a big crowd but they got going. They were engaged,” Dunn said.

If he has any criticism of the project it’s that, so far, it was a one-off.

“The question that is on everybody’s lips is, ‘Where do we go from here, what’s next,’” he said.

Case says she is developing a report on the workshop ideas that will be released later this month and distributed to the city and as many planners and housing professionals as possible.

Although community consultations are part of virtually every development project in Toronto, Case thinks there’s room for improvement.

“These communities, when I’m talking to them, they’re feeling they’re not included or they’re not being asked the right questions or they’re not being invited to the right spaces. I’m trying to help both sides figure out what conversations do we need to have, what kind of spaces do we need to build to make sure everybody is included in the decision-making process so we can actually develop an adequate supply of affordable housing that meets all our needs,” she said.

If it sounds like advocacy, Case insists she is a planner first.

“As a planner, I’m seeing a gap I’m trying to fill — discussions with people who are underserved.”

Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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