Holla at u later, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art :(
Toronto is about to lose several respected galleries so that yet another big shiny condo can be built. The Queen West buildings that currently house the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), the Edward Day Gallery, the Clint Roesnisch Gallery, and the Mutt Animation Studio are slated to be torn down over the next year to make room for a new development.
It's a depressingly familiar story in Toronto, but also throughout most major cities in the world (like Vancouver).
Thanks to a perfect storm of falling crime rates, flocks of boomers and their children fleeing the suburbs for the glamour of the big city, and the popularity of real estate speculation, major metropolitan centres all over the world are booming.
Like many North American cities, Toronto is fairly low density, so housing prices have skyrocketed due to lack of supply. This has encouraged a massive increase in the number of new condos going up over the past decade.
These new developments tend to pop up in whatever neighbourhood has been recently declared trendy, and that pushes us cool kids away to the next area with cheap enough rent to suit the terminally unemployable. It also drives away the poorer immigrant communities that usually predate the art school kids, and that helps make us feel guilty about our own role in the process of gentrification.
However, this process is nothing new, and it’s a perpetually ongoing process. To stop it, you'd have to stop capitalism itself, which is a discussion for another day. Besides, it would be even weirder if a neighbourhood stayed the same forever, and as depressing as those dudes who peaked in high school and are still wearing the same stupid t-shirt a decade later.
Some people are angry about this process, though. Very angry, actually. Specifically, the Ossington Community Association, who also have some problems with most of the other developments in the area. They're worried that the condo is replacing nice cultural stuff like art galleries, and that it will be too tall, resulting in shadows and lack of privacy for houses around the proposed building. They also don't like that it's not designed to be family friendly, since most of the units are only 700 square feet. Other problems include the lack of green space, no cross-ventilation in the units, and that there will be a driveway. Some of these complaints are obviously less convincing than others (they didn't respond to requests for further comment).
What really comes through on the OCA blog post though, is the sense of frustration that they're not going to be able to stop any of this. The artsy-fartsy West Queen West that sprang up in the late 90s is on its way out, and there's nothing anyone can do. After all, they've been fighting similar battles whenever any big new building goes up, and losing most of them.
You can feel the rage in the last paragraph of Jessica Wilson's post on the OCA site:
“So, here we go again. A building in blatant non-conformity to both existing and planned context, completely alien to the character of the area, that will clearly negatively impact dozens of residents, a developer and architect who are quite used to getting their way, and City officials that, if past and recent history is any indication, are completely ineffective at maintaining the integrity of our long-standing cultural, residential and business district communities. ‘Art and Design District?’ Not for long.”
You'd think the gallery owners themselves would share the outrage, but Clint Roesnisch doesn't seem nearly as riled up about losing the gallery space he's had for the past nine years.
“Personally, I'm not against the development. I don't think a six storey (or whatever it is) condo building is evil like the OCA might think it is. I just don't think more condos are interesting. Certainly if the MOCCA were an amazing, historically important building then I would be upset and vocal, but it's not: it's a generic bullshit building from the 1970s.”
He's also not so worried about the changing character of West Queen West.
The sentiment of many people in Toronto regarding this development, summed up on a chainlink fence.
“Queen St West is done. It's unfortunate but it's also the same story of gentrification that has unfolded hundreds of times before. You already know that. My gallery has been here for nine years and this development is an opportunity for the gallery to change as the tenth anniversary approaches.”
MOCCA is a much bigger institution, but it was already planning on finding a larger home before the eviction notices went out. Besides, it gets significant funding from the city, and will easily survive this kind of disruption.
If anyone might have something to say that might convince me to get angry about this, it would be my little brother, Jesse Boles. He not only lived in the nearby 48 Abell lofts a few years ago when the same developers evicted everyone to build the another condo, he's also a photographer who's currently represented by the soon-to-be-demolished Edward Day Gallery.
“Bastards!” he says, laughing, after I tell him about how UrbanCorp appears to be stalking him.
Still, I can't seem to stir up any genuine outrage in him. He's only a bit more nostalgic about the loss of his old warehouse studio space.
“There was just a familiarity and a certain comfort level within the building. It was a neighbourhood in a building. The building itself had lots of issues though.”
That's the thing: if you've actually lived in the rundown post-industrial warehouses that we once called lofts, you know that they weren't generally known for being great places to actually live. High ceilings have less appeal when you're heating your place with your stove. Raw hardwood floors seem less like a selling point when you can see the light from your upstairs neighbour through the floorboards. The main selling points were cheap rent and being able to do artistic shit that you can't do in a normal apartment.
There are actually good reasons to be supportive of the big influx of shiny tall new buildings. They're typically more energy efficient than living in single family homes, and are the only way to effectively fight sprawl without inhibiting growth. There is much debate about whether mid-rise or high-rise is better, but one way or another, Toronto has to get taller.
“We can actually get good things out of higher density. It just has to be done right,” explains Councillor Mike Layton, whose ward the contested development falls in. As he explains to me, there is a process to help make sure that new buildings aren't going to ruin the neighbourhood around it, but there's not a lot that can be done about gentrification pushing the artists out of the areas they made trendy.
"Much of that is just a matter of capitalism. This is one of the big reasons that when the city owns sites, we don't want to sell them. Now the current administration, on the other hand..."
In case you hadn't heard, Toronto elected a cartoon villain/buffoon for a mayor a little while ago, and he believes that inheriting a printing company from his dad means that he's a business expert. Unfortunately, he thinks that means selling off assets to pay for tax cuts.
Which is more what this all comes down to: if you want to protect culture, you can't expect that to be done by capitalism. Either society decides it’s willing to have tax dollars going to making sure the infrastructure exists to facilitate a cool art community, or we accept that we'll be stuck in this loop until all of Toronto is too expensive for art school dropouts like myself. Personally, I'm kind of into the idea of a mass exodus of artists to the less fashionable and much more affordable smaller cities, except that I'd have to finally learn how to drive a car. Anyone feel like taking a road trip to Hamilton?
Follow Ben on Twitter: @benjaminboles
Vancouver has a condo problem too:
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