The rejuvenation of Lawrence Heights

Friday, February 26, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

A modest urban tweak it isn’t.

The city’s plan for the Lawrence Heights area aims, over a quarter-century and multiple construction-intensive phases, to build a model community from scratch and revolutionize the way people live, shop, work and commute in the 110-acre area.

There is no price tag on the project.

The 1,208 units of social housing alone will cost an estimated $350-million.

But it’s unclear how much it will cost to build the other 6,300-odd units of condominiums and townhouses the city envisions or for the green space and other renovations planned.

But the city and Toronto Community Housing Corporation officials who unveiled the latest plans yesterday were optimistic the long-term vision will become a reality.

“This takes time,” says community housing corporation CEO Keiko Nakamura.

“Today is about putting all those dreams and plans together.”

Trudy-Ann Powell peers at an aerial map of a reimagined Lawrence Heights, trying to find her apartment among the colour-coded blocks.

Of course, she wants a drastically different neighbourhood for DeReign, her seven-week-old son; but she’s also wary of losing the valuable aspects of community she’s come to cherish in her 12 years living here.

“The main thing is inclusion,” she says – breaking down barriers both physical and otherwise.

“But I’m worried we’re not going to have a say. This is our community.”

The plan revealed this week, clumsily dubbed “emerging preferred plan,” head into further community consultation, to North York Community Council and then city council – by September, if all goes according to plan.

****

CURRENT RESIDENTS

Hodan Hassan Farah sits with her son Abshir at the back of the community centre’s gym. She has been going to these sessions for years. But despite repeated assurances from the community housing corporation that none of Lawrence Heights’ approximately 3,500 social-housing residents will be displaced by the project, she’s still hungry for answers.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. They keep saying, ‘It’s going to start this year.’ … It’s a great idea, but we need to know what we’re going to do, where we’ll live.”

FUTURE RESIDENTS

A man sidles up to look at plans for housing, community centres, bike paths and green space.

“They could use a synagogue.”

He lives near the Lawrence and Bathurst area just south of 110 hectares the city has set its sights on reinventing, and sees an opportunity here: Many in the area’s tight-knit but increasingly cramped Orthodox Jewish community could use the housing. But he says it’s going to be a hard sell to lure potential buyers like him with the promise of future condominiums and townhouses in a neighbourhood better known for drugs and violence than coffee shops and parks.

COMMUTERS

The chronically congested William Allen Road slices through the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood like a traffic-heavy maw. A major part of the city’s plans to reinvent the area revolves around making the commuter artery more liveable, traversable and commuter-friendly.

What isn’t clear is how that will happen.

The city is undertaking an environmental assessment that will evaluate all the options on the table, which range from improving ramps near the corner of Lawrence and Allen, to bringing the entire roadway up to grade.

DEVELOPERS

Three years ago, Lanterra president Barry Fenton plunked down $40-million to buy 11 hectares of land at the corner of Dufferin and Lawrence.

People didn’t think he was crazy exactly, he said, but, “people thought that we were aggressive.”

“We have always been visionaries – in this business, you have to be.”

Now, he’s developing 1,500 condominiums he hopes to sell for around $400,000 each.

“I don’t know how the city is going to go about entertaining offers on the site,” he said. “But I would look at it. I think it’s a great concept.”

SCHOOLS

There are several of them already, and more may be on the way for both the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

The plan is to take Bathurst Heights Secondary School and Flemingdon Elementary School, renovate existing educational facilities and add both social and market-price housing above and adjacent to the classrooms. Rahim Essabhai, a teacher at Sir Sandford Fleming high school, is moving with his students to Bathurst Heights in September, 2011.”For our students it’s a great move, because Bathurst Heights will offer a lot of hands-on learning opportunities.”

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