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Features / August 6, 2013

Condos: Boon or Blight for the Toronto Art Scene?

Earlier this year, a sign appeared on the side of 952 Queen Street West—home to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art—announcing that an application had been made to develop of a 9-storey, 151-unit condominium tower on the site.

To some observers, it read as the latest instance of an ongoing battle for space between the cultural scene and condominium developers in the Queen West area. In 2011, the nearby 48 Abell Street—a studio space since the 1980s—was demolished to make way for condominiums. Before its demolition, artists tried to call attention to its fate with a performance-art funeral and other tactics. Its site is now a massive pit where construction cranes dance and concrete mixers hum, and large new condo towers in various states of completion rise on its west, south and south-east sides.

But in an indication of changing conditions in this struggle for arts space, MOCCA isn’t holding any funerals or calling for condo development to cease. It is actually hoping to find a new, permanent home in—where else?—a condo.

“When we started looking at the next step for MOCCA, we never in a million years imagined a scenario where we would be partnering with a condo developer. We always thought of a purpose-built standalone building,” says Yves Theoret, MOCCA’s managing director. “But then you know what happened? TIFF Bell Lightbox happened. That building showed that if it’s done well, it can be a win-win for all involved.”

Opened in September 2010, TIFF Bell Lightbox is a five-storey complex of cinemas, galleries, offices and classrooms at the base of a 46-storey condominium tower. It hosts TIFF’s annual festival as well as yearlong programming.

“It [TIFF Bell Lightbox] is so well designed… you can’t even tell there is a condo tower up there,” Theoret says. “And there are tremendous economies of scale when you are working with a partner that is building a larger building. Even the loading docks or the elevators—all that [cost] is being absorbed by the building itself.”

It seems that MOCCA isn’t the only organization inspired by the possibilities of putting more art spaces in condominium developments.

This past month, the Toronto Arts Council launched a pilot project called Space for Art that intends to offer affordable gallery and workshop spaces in Toronto condominiums. The first space, a 1,000-square foot storefront, opened at 568 Richmond Street West on July 12, and three more Space for Art galleries are due to launch by the end of the year at condominiums in Toronto’s rail lands neighbourhood.

Under TAC’s pilot project, groups or artists wishing to use these spaces only pay the condominium fee, hydro and other incidental costs, but no rent, and the project is operated on a cost-recovery basis. Applications are now being accepted on the TAC website.

“The Toronto Arts Council is dedicated to helping the artists of Toronto get their work out there in the community,” says Peter Kingstone, acting visual and media arts officer at TAC. “The space is there for the community if they can figure out a use for it.”

Space for Art follows a March release regarding the Toronto Media Arts Cluster, a 36,000-square-foot facility for six artist-run organizations and festivals to be housed on the second and third floors of a condominium building at 2-6 Lisgar Street, just a few steps from the old 48 Abell site. Gallery TPW, InterAccess, the Images Festival, Charles Street Video, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and Le Labo will all own purpose-built facilities in the space, which includes shared resources like a 208-seat cinema and a studio apartment for visiting artist residencies.

“Even in our own community, there has been some criticism and complaint—not about us, specifically, but about the development in the area because of local artists who may have been displaced from their studios,” says TMAC board president Laura Barazadi, who is also executive director of InterAccess. “Why we took this once in a lifetime opportunity is we want to ensure that the arts remain relevant in the neighbourhood, and this is one way we can stabilize our operating costs and continue to operate in that neighbourhood.”

The projects by MOCCA, TAC and TMAC are in many ways the tip of the iceberg. In October, David Mirvish and Frank Gehry proposed a three-tower development including a 25,000-square-foot space for OCAD University as well as an exhibition area for Mirvish’s own art collection. In a separate process, OCAD University has secured 8,000 square feet for a professional gallery in a Richmond and Duncan condominium. The Epic, the new condo building being constructed on the 48 Abell site, also has space reserved for a gallery and workshop. And in other arts sectors, Crow’s Nest Theatre has partnered with Streetcar developments to open a 200-seat theatre in a Leslieville condo in 2015.

All these planned projects join existing condo-art-space endeavours in Toronto like the Artscape Triangle Lofts, which opened in 2009 to provide affordable rental and below-market purchase live/work spaces for artists at the base of a condominium across from the old 48 Abell site, and Daniels Spectrum, a multi-arts facility that opened in Regent Park in fall 2013.

Confluence of Factors Contribute to Art-Condo Trend

Other Canadian cities have condo-based art spaces too. The Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver moved into its purpose-built space on the ground floor of a condominium in 2001. The City of Ottawa recently proposed that its Arts Court facility, which includes the Ottawa Art Gallery, be relocated in part into the base of a yet-to-be-built 23-storey tower. And plans for the Telus Sky residential and commercial skyscraper in Calgary advertise a 5,000-square-foot public gallery.

But a variety of factors are contributing to a particular surge in these types of projects in Toronto.

Factor one is the extremely high rate of condo and commercial tower construction in Toronto at the moment. According to Canadian Business magazine, no other city in the Western Hemisphere is building more high-rises than Toronto. Last October, the city had 147 of them under construction, twice as many as New York, it wrote. As of June 30, the Toronto Star also reported that across the Greater Toronto Area there are a record 251 new condo projects being built.

“I’ve been in this city for 25 years and this is the biggest condo boom I’ve seen,” concurs Lynda Macdonald, a planning manager with the city of Toronto.

MacDonald helps manage a second factor in the trend: the city’s planning processes and priorities. Almost all of the art spaces being created or proposed for condominiums in Toronto are made possible through Section 37 of the city’s planning act, which allows the city to authorize increased height or density for a given development in exchange for community benefits.

Section 37 community benefits can range from a playground or daycare to parkland and affordable housing. But space for arts is a growing Section 37 area, says Macdonald.

“Places we have felt [dedicating Section 37 spaces to arts] made sense were in communities where there was a lot of concentration of creative industries or creative employment, and a lot of those areas are gentrifying,” Macdonald says. “One of our concerns was that these nonprofit [arts] organizations are moving to other neighbourhoods, even to other cities.”

Macdonald’s observations are echoed by City Councillor Adam Vaughan, who touts 20,000 square feet of Section 37 art space in his ward. Councillor support is also key to getting Section 37 condo-artspace deals approved.

“A neighbourhood without artists isn’t a very interesting neighbourhood,” says Vaughan. “And a neighbourhood with artists has all kinds of capacities and all kinds of opportunities to grow. Artists have been part of Toronto’s downtown for a long, long time, and we want to make sure that those things that have created a really great downtown continue to have space to create a really great downtown.”

A third factor is the increased openness among arts organizations of finding a permanent home in a condominium—and the exhaustion that many organizations have experienced from having been frequently on the move, some of them for decades.

“This [TMAC at the Edge] opportunity is the only way that organizations like ours, which are artist run-centres, can own space,” Laura Barazadi says. “Most organizations like ours rely on government funding and arts councils, but those don’t provide opportunities to buy into space. So what happens over the years is organizations like us will move into space, make significant improvements, change the neighbourhood, and be priced out. This [TMAC agreement] means we can maintain relationships with members with the community and set affordable rates for members and the larger public.”

A fourth factor is the development of specialized organizations that try to repurpose urban developments for the art, like volunteer group Active 18 and non-profit developer Artscape. Active 18 initially tried to save 48 Abell from demolition and now focuses on creating a “livable city” out of the proposed developments in the Queen West Triangle. Artscape began with renovating older buildings in 1986 and has since moved into partnerships with new developments like the Daniels Spectrum as well.

To create a space like TMAC, Active 18 took “at least two or two and a half years” going to weekly and biweekly meetings with “the developer and engineers and planners and city culture department and architects,” says Michelle Gay, artist and Active 18 member. Out of these meetings it also was able to advocate for a nearby art park and $1 million in support for a new Theatre Centre home.

Last but not least, developers like Urbancorp—which is building the condominium where TMAC will be housed and has made a $10 million contribution towards the facility in exchange for a density bonus—also see benefits from these arts-condospace arrangements. (Urbancorp was also involved in the creation of the Artscape Triangle Lofts, and it is also constructing the Epic and is contributing to the Theatre Centre move. Additionally, it is the company that put forth the development proposal for MOCCA’s current site at 952 Queen Street West.)

“There are both cultural and community benefits to us, as well as economic benefits,” says Urbancorp vice-president David Mandell. “We are a for-profit business and we feel that both [cultural and community Section 37 projects] affect on our bottom line. Cultural impact to the area certainly affects our ability to sell and develop in a ‘hip, cool’ place, and additional density yields additional profits.”

Mandell notes that several of Urbancorp’s developments have been in the Queen West and King West area, and that working on cultural projects for Urbancorp’s Section 37 agreements also allowed it to offset some of the destruction of artist spaces that they were enacting there.

“We may be demolishing a warehouse full of artist studios,” Mandell says, “but we are giving back to that cultural segment through arts-based not-for-profit groups.”

Critics Note Problems of Displacing Originating Art Communities

Yet there are downsides to the condo-artspace boom.

Chief among the critiques is the fact that the new developments can’t maintain the level of creative vitality and community that the old neighbourhoods did.

“I’ve never seen any of these manufactured ideas of neighbourhoods or communities ever work out,” says artist Michael Toke, who lived at 48 Abell for 20 years before it was knocked down.

Artist Mark Laliberté, who also lived at 48 Abell, concurs. He is concerned that some new art-condo developments are “just square footage and a concrete floor that is suddenly magically supposed to fill up with good art.” He also notes the irony of the Queen West area being labeled an art and design district when “there was an exodus out of that area” in terms of the arts community due to development pressures.

While Toke does have some friends at Artscape Triangle Lofts, he says the condos there “seem way too expensive” for most artists.

Indeed, while some might find the Artscape lofts affordable, others may not. The development is a mix of affordable rental units and below-market ownership units. Rental rates are established at 80 per cent of Canada Mortgage and Housing Canada average market rent, and currently range from $607.20 to $884.80 (plus utilities) for units 500 to 835 square feet in size. To buy a below-market ownership unit, an artist pays 75 per cent of the market price, and also pays condo fees. For example, for an 835-square-foot unit that would normally retail for $350,700, the purchaser only pays $267,200, while Artscape picks up the rest. When condo fees and utilities are added in, however, monthly costs can rise to $2,000 for a 1,000-square-foot unit. Also, when an owner sells their unit, the sale price is set at a “fair market value” as determined by an independent third-party appraiser.

Condo fees might also make Toronto Arts Council’s Space for Art project untenable for some artists. The condo fee and utility costs for one month at 568 Richmond are $1,200.

Some Artscape Triangle Lofts residents also feel ambivalent about the way the new spaces were created.

“I really feel badly for people who are forced to vacate spaces that are larger and less expensive. But that’s the reality, and I don’t know how to resolve that,” says artist Ed Pien. Pien bought one of Artscape’s live/work units, and says he mainly enjoys having a newly built space to work in after many years of dealing with dusty, smoky and sometimes dangerous older buildings. He also enjoys the location compared to Brampton or Brantford, where he once thought he may have to relocate due to cost and space factors. “Toronto is crazy,” he surmises. “There are certain challenges you have to confront and one of them is the cost of living and working in this city.”

Artist Nicholas Pye has lived in Toronto since the 1990s and has rented one of Artscape’s apartments for the past year. He calls the experience “totally positive,” but he also hears where some critics are coming from.

“I do understand the feeling of nostalgia for these kinds of old buildings that are being taken down and the animosity around buildings being put up relatively fast, and with sometimes poor quality,” Pye says. “But it’s like, you have to adapt, or else you move to Hamilton. That’s it, basically. There is no real option otherwise.”

Active 18’s Michelle Gay, who has invested large amounts of time into creating TMAC, Artscape Triangle Lofts and related developments, says the art-condo model is not a panacea for what ails the art community in the Queen West Triangle neighbourhood, or elsewhere.

“We call [what has happened to the neighbourhood] ‘the Triangle disaster,’” Gay says. “The stuff that we got going, like TMAC and the Artscape under-market value live-work spaces—they just take some of the pain away of the overbuilt, overcrowded, too-tall buildings.”

Gay says she is also cautious about the condo-artspace model being extended to other districts. “It worked as a kind of model here… but is it the model you want to use all over the city?” she asks. She is, however, resigned to the idea that this may be the only option left in the local context. “If you look at land and building in downtown Toronto, there is just nothing left.”

MOCCA’s Yves Theoret is also cautious when it comes to working with new developments, to a certain extent.

“MOCCA doesn’t want to be used as a reason for bad planning,” Theoret says. “All parties have to agree that makes sense for MOCCA, for the city of Toronto and for the residents in the neighbourhood [the development will be in].”

“One of the key challenges,” he continues, “is the sustainability of the operation in the long run. It’s about more than just a building. If we’re talking about increasing the size of MOCCA threefold, we don’t want to build a white elephant.”

Indeed, a condo artspace isn’t always the right fit for an arts organization. Art Metropole director Corinn Gerber says that Art Met recently turned down an offer of condo space in part because it wasn’t the right location, and “we are actually really happy where we are right now”—in a rental storefront on Dundas West.

Gerber notes that the condo option also didn’t seem a good fit for Art Met because it would have required dedicating the coming years to fundraising. “It’s still, for us, a huge investment,” Gerber says. “Even if it [the space] is offered below market price, it would involve a real capital campaign, for which there needs to be a meaningful reason.”

The Way Ahead

The condo-artspace trend, like the condo boom itself, shows few signs of slowing, however.

Yves Theoret says that by the end of this year, he hopes to have a better sense of whether the particular arrangement MOCCA is working on with a condo developer will work out.

“We are hopeful,” he says. “We have done a lot of studies and explored a lot of options, and if it does work out, it will be a great addition to the landscape of Toronto.”

For its part, TMAC, which recently received charitable status, is in the beginning stages of a capital campaign for its new facility, planned to open in Spring 2014.

“There has been a lot of rapid growth in the city of Toronto and that means a lot of rapid change to neighbourhoods,” TMAC’s Laura Berazadi says. “This will allow us to stay and adhere to our mandates and allow us to serve publics we have been serving for 30 or 40 years. I think these private-public partnerships are really beneficial and I hope the city continues to support it.”

Some artists are also appreciative of what Section 37 agreements have brought to them. In a public-art piece on the construction hoarding at the old 48 Abell site, artist Corwyn Lund traces his mixed feelings about development in the area and his negative experiences with moldy, leaky live/work spaces in older buildings elsewhere.

“When the demolition of 48 Abell Street began in November 2011,” Lund writes, “I was able to watch from the balcony of my new third-floor live-work apartment. I felt like I was witnessing the closing of a chapter in Toronto artist housing and the beginning of a new one. That I now live in the most secure, stable, suitable, well maintained, and reasonably priced space I have had in my 13 years as an artist in Toronto can be attributed to the efforts of community activists and developers who reached a Section 37 agreement with the City of Toronto to build new space for artists and arts organizations in the Queen West Triangle.”

On that note, Michelle Gay of Active 18 says it is crucial that even more people become involved in the development process, whether for art spaces or otherwise.

“I guess the trick is for community groups to actually know that they can have a voice in these negotiations,” Gay says.

“The worry for me is that people think, when they see those development notices posted, that things are a done deal,” Gay explains. “There is an apathy that comes out of that: ‘Oh well, another condo, what can I do?'”

“Get in there!” she answers—and start negotiating.

This article was corrected on August 7, 2013, and September 3, 2013. The original article misspelled Lynda Macdonald’s name as Linda MacDonald.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via