Sureya Ibrahim stands on an icy sidewalk in Regent Park and surveys a neighbourhood she fears is headed toward an uncertain future.
Beyond the new townhouses and the state-of-the-art aquatic centre, she points out a site under early construction, the future home of a condominium building that will also house space for a catering collective and sewing studio.
That property will be built by The Daniels Corporation, in partnership with Toronto Community Housing — the third of five phases that make up a massive redevelopment project that began more than a decade ago and was designed to transform what was once one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods.
“We went through so much and we built relationships,” said Ibrahim, the supervisor of community connections with the Centre of Learning and Development. “Now, we don’t know the future because there will be a change that is taking place that wasn’t revealed to us.”
The root of Ibrahim’s apprehension comes from what she describes as a surprise announcement last spring, that new developers could bid to build for the final two phases of what was originally meant to be a 12-year, $1-billion project.
A shortlist of bidders has not yet been made public and the people at the heart of what many already hail as a success story are worried about what an unexpected shift in course and lack of communication could mean for completion and hard-fought-for community benefits.
“Are we a stakeholder or are we just going to be on the side?” asked Ibrahim. She believes having one company at the helm has allowed the community to form a relationship with the development team, and that communication is key if the actual needs of Regent Park residents are to be considered and met.
That uncertainly is fuelled by instability at the top of TCH — the country’s largest housing provider, responsible for some 110,000 people and $9 billion in public assets — with yet another scandal putting senior leadership of the corporation in question.
The Regent Park revitalization was designed to leverage the 28-hectare site by offering developers the opportunity to build more than 5,000 market-rate units. In return for the prime downtown land, they would rebuild all of the area’s roughly 2,000 rental housing units.
TCH awarded the first phase to Daniels in 2005. When the second phase was officially awarded to Daniels in 2009, TCH said the developer would handle the remaining stages of the project as well; TCH would provide the land in exchange for a large share of future profits on market-rent units, which would be built alongside public housing buildings.
But as phase three approached, TCH decided to go in a different direction — Daniels was sold a chunk of land instead of continuing the previous profit-sharing arrangement, and Daniels no longer had the automatic right to develop phases four and five. A tender process is now underway.
Phase four and five are made up of the final seven blocks to be redeveloped, and include the northern quadrant from just east of Parliament St. to River St. and north of Oak St. That area’s iconic lowrise brick buildings with their green awnings are some of the final remnants of the old Regent Park.
Vincent Tong, TCH’s chief development officer, said the public corporation has an obligation to undertake a “fair, open and transparent” process rather than awarding a sole-source contract to Daniels.
He also acknowledged the failure to properly communicate that process to residents. TCH learned from those concerns, Tong says, and redesigned the current tender process to require shortlisted bidders make community presentations. He said scores from residents based on those proposals will be factored into TCH’s ultimate decision.
But with that next stage yet to get underway, it’s not clear what weight the resident feedback might have in the overall selection of a development partner.
Tong said TCH hopes to make that decision by the end of the year, with the final phases now expected to be completed in 10 to 15 years.
Daniels declined to answer the Star’s questions for this article. But in a statement provided to media in May, after the new bid process was announced, vice-president Martin Blake wrote that, despite the change in course following the 2010 election, “Daniels would very much like to continue the partnership with TCH and the residents of Regent Park through to completion of the revitalization.
“The work of this transformation, which is as much about building social infrastructure as bricks and mortar, is far from complete,” he said.
As the revitalization now moves toward its final chapters, the question that remains is, did it work?
Regent Park was a place, it was noted in the early 2000s, where it was difficult to even have pizza delivered to your front door through its winding maze of lowrise buildings and highrise towers, in an insular neighbourhood largely free of sidewalks and set back from main roads. There had never been a supermarket or a bank branch, and the overall design meant that parts of the cut-off properties were fertile ground for criminal activity.
But still, a community existed there. It was home for many new Canadians who were trying to raise their families amid the poor design, lack of services and a dearth of government support.
To understand what is at stake requires some reflection on the mistakes of the past. Regent Park was Canada’s first public housing project and one frequently described as a failed experiment. Planners tore down slum housing in what was South Cabbagetown and the first part of what would become Regent Park was ready for habitation in March 1949.
For Toronto’s low-income families, it was meant to be a safe and modern community in the heart of the city, one with green space for children and close to public services; thanks to poverty and poor design, it resulted in them being separated from their fellow citizens.
Today, the heart of the area that’s already been transformed is barely recognizable. A green central park is home to a gleaming aquatic centre and nearby there are colourful community spaces like Daniels Spectrum, which hosts both the arts and public meetings. There is a bistro that hires local residents. New TCH apartments are difficult for outsiders to differentiate from their condo counterparts, and both are now accessible from a simple city street grid. There is a Shoppers Drug Mart, a FreshCo and a Royal Bank branch. Residents flock to farmers’ markets in the summer months.
But in hindsight, says former interim CEO Greg Spearn, TCH should have planned the rebuild differently.
“There should have been a contractual arrangement that identified one developer for the entire revitalization, with a structure that protected both parties,” Spearn, who was pushed out of the organization in the spring of 2017, told the Star. Guaranteeing the whole project to a single developer would have allowed the public housing agency to leverage more assets for the community, he said, and avoided ongoing funding shortfalls and confusion over its future.
Since the beginning, the revitalization was never fully funded. City staff projected an early shortfall of just over $50 million — but where that funding was to come from was unclear. As the project continued, construction costs and changes to the redevelopment plan saw that figure climb to $108 million in 2017. City council, at the recommendation of housing officials, agreed to take on that debt to complete the project in a “timely manner,” leaving city taxpayers on the hook for up to $6 million every year for the next 30 years. The shortfall for phases four and five is expected to be as much as $182 million. It’s also unclear how that will be covered.
Spearn said how the final phases will be financed will be a key aspect of any proposal going forward.
Whether there will be a steady hand at the head of the housing corporation is also uncertain.
Since the Regent Park revitalization was approved by city council in 2003, TCH has been destabilized by corporate churn, with numerous senior managers embroiled in controversy and the departures of four chief executive officers. Its current CEO, Kathy Milsom, was put on paid leave in December after the board determined a “flawed” process” was used to award a $1.3-million consultancy contract.
Among the former CEOs is Derek Ballantyne, who advocated for Regent Park before leaving TCH in 2009.
The early vision for redevelopment, Ballantyne told the Star, was to avoid previous mistakes by designing an equitable and integrated environment that was guided by clear direction from the people who lived there.
“Without a doubt, this is a very different place and it’s a very different place to live in,” said Ballantyne, who is now chair of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. “This is not about being rich or poor. This is about simply having what anybody in other neighbourhoods in the city had.”
And while the goal was to create a healthier environment, Ballantyne said TCH never set out to design a perfect society.
“Was it going to get rid of violence? Was it going to end youth unemployment? It was never going to do all of that. I think what it did is it laid out the framework for how you might be able to better program into a neighbourhood and how you might be able to better address those issues.”
As of today, 800 of 1,360 households that had been relocated during the redevelopment are back and in new buildings. About 350 households have decided to stay where they are or have moved out of community housing. Another 200 are waiting to return as future phases are completed.
Making sure that everybody in Regent Park gets a say in the neighbourhood’s future is why resident Walied Khogali Ali supports opening up the bid for the final phases. The neighbourhood has undergone dramatic change, not just architecturally but also in the composition of its residents — many who haven’t built relationships with Daniels and who would benefit from learning about past and future plans and get a new chance to engage in what must be a transparent process, he said.
“I think it is crucial for residents and the city to have confidence in a process where residents were not just consulted for the sake of consulting, but there was actual progress when it comes to specifically understanding the communities needs and building a relationship with the developer,” he said.
A New York Times article from 2016 declared Regent Park “a blueprint for successful economic and cultural integration.”
But one need look no further than its aquatic centre, where many local children have not been able to get into programs offered there, to see the challenges that remain for Regent Park’s residents.
A city policy that dictates children from any part of the city can access any community centre’s programs, the lack of overall spaces and a notoriously challenging sign-up system have created a competitive process, one usually dominated by families with multiple adults using high-speed Wi-Fi on several devices to sign up online.
That means children who live within a block of the aquatic centre can be squeezed out of programs by people from as far away as Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York.
“You actually have some children who have never ever taken swim lessons in Regent Park because they couldn’t get in — because when they got to the front of line or when they got on the phone, registration was already filled,” said Mary Ann Scott, a mother of three and founder of Access to Recreation.
Scott’s group wants a pilot project that prioritizes local access.
Her family lives near Church and Dundas Sts. On the night before registration starts, she heads to the Wellesley Community Centre for 8 p.m., and stands outside until sign-ups begin at 7 a.m.
If she’s one of the first four in line — and lucky — her children might get spaces in the gymnastics, swimming and cooking classes they’d picked out, she said.
Jason Kucherawy and his wife had no luck enrolling their two sons in the last round of local programing, despite using every electronic device in their home. They moved to Regent Park in 2012 after buying a two-bedroom condominium in the completed phase one.
“We wanted our kids to be global citizens and we wanted them to have friends and schoolmates from different backgrounds and different cultures and grow up in that environment,” said Kucherawy.
Given the past history of Regent Park, he said the idea that the final phases could go to the lowest bidder, rather than a company that has built trust and relationships in the community, is concerning.
“We are building a neighbourhood here and definitely want it to last a very long time,” Kucherawy said. “This is not supposed to be temporary housing.”
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam asked city staff earlier this month to continue reviewing the access problems for parents who pushed for these recreation spaces and participated in earlier consultations.
Wong-Tam said she want to be ambitious in filling the gaps and listening to what the community has long been asking for.
That includes a multi-faith space, she says, and the promise of a new library that could replace the Parliament St. branch and facilitate more after-school programs.
“Once those lands are developed upon, they are done,” she said. “I know that we can build it because there’s no point in finishing Regent Park and not completing all the facility service gaps.”
It’s important as well, she said, to build capacity for the future, not simply for demand that exists right now.
“I certainly do not want to see the problems that have emerged from the inequitable access to the recreation centre as well as the aquatic facility be replicated in the final development phases.”
New residents agree there is still more to do to make Regent Park a success story.
Megann Willson, who is part of the leadership team of the Regent Park Residents Association, said she was interested in the “intentionality of trying to build a different way of living” when she moved to a condo there more than three years ago.
She said the association is paying close attention to the redevelopment and said the change around Daniels not being signed on for the final phase came as a surprise to residents who were not consulted.
As for what comes next, Willson said she is wary about certain proposals, calling ideas like a new library “a carrot that’s been dangled” by prospective developers.
What’s clear, she said, is the need for more community space, improved neighbourhood safety and economic opportunities for residents.
“We want far more than just building buildings,” she said. “We have to move beyond the ribbon cutting.”
Ibrahim is also looking towards the future, focused on building a community that will continue to thrive long after the developers are gone.
“We are still going to be here. We are still going to be doing what we love to do and building the community, identifying who the leaders of the future are and passing on the torch,” she said
“They could do amazing stuff.”
With files from Toronto Star staff, Toronto Star library
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar