The question of heritage and what we collectively deem worth preserving is fundamental to a city’s cultural and physical identity. In Toronto, these notions are mostly equated with Victorian homes and early 20th-century neoclassical and industrial buildings. But what about everything else? In particular, what about our modernist structures?
In a city that came of age in the postwar years, modernist architecture accounts for much of Toronto’s built realm. Yet, unlike the recent outcry against demolishing the Foundry buildings in Corktown, support for saving prominent modernist buildings has often been slower to materialize. Take the gradual dismantling of the Eaton Centre’s high-tech style through a series of poorly considered renovations, or the demolition of Peter Dickinson’s apartment towers in Regent Park. Toronto has been too quick to discard much of its important and ambitious architecture.
More recently, there’s Alexandra Park, a modernist social housing community near the downtown core currently undergoing redevelopment as part of a massive revitalization project commenced in 2014. Nearly all the remaining buildings and many of the mature trees on the 18-acre site are slated to be removed — and many already have been.
The original housing project was completed in 1968 by architects Jerome Markson, Klein & Sears and Webb Zerafa Menkès Housden. In their initial plans, the designers sought to depart from a tabula rasa approach which levelled existing neighbourhoods and instead proposed a “repair and replace” strategy that would integrate new social housing with the area’s existing Victorian buildings. Though it didn’t proceed as originally intended, much of the final design was informed by the materiality and homogeneity of surrounding neighbourhoods. Compared to some of its contemporaries, Alexandra Park was highly successful in its sensitivity to the human scale and in its well-crafted, tactile architecture.
With car-free streets, mature trees, brick homes and diverse unit types, today’s Alexandra Park resembles the type of neighbourhood that progressive urbanists advocate for. So why tear it all down? Why repeat the blockbusting of past generations?
For some redevelopment projects, the answer — in part — lies with inadequate funding for social housing by all levels of government. Consequently, private redevelopment is required to finance below-market housing. At Alexandra Park, the new plan replaces and refurbishes 806 existing rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units financed through the introduction of 1,540 market units. This increasingly common private-public partnership can be successful, but is shortsighted considering that there will be no more RGI units in the completed Alexandra Park redevelopment than there were in 1968, when it first opened. Meanwhile, Toronto’s population has nearly tripled and the shortage of affordable housing continues to grow.
This formula of selling public land to maintain existing housing stock is a one-time policy trick that can also threaten existing buildings that don’t satisfy development pro forma metrics. Additionally, the enforcement of parking minimums makes demolition a foregone conclusion, since below-grade facilities require extensive amounts of excavation that render preservation a costly endeavour. For the most part, however, parking minimums and developer pro formas aren’t the reason Alexandra Park is being levelled; the site is large enough to accommodate both. The answer is more simple: The neighbourhood is regarded as an urban blight, a modernist failure provoking trauma on its residents, and a problem to be fixed.
The notion that architecture is the root cause of socio-economic issues is neither new nor particular to Toronto. The creation of Alexandra Park and communities like it — including Toronto’s larger Regent Park complex — were guided by similar thinking that saw the destruction of Victorian-era city blocks for modernist superblocks. Once unappreciated, Victorian neighbourhoods are ironically now some of the most prized and expensive in Toronto. Opinions and values change, and perhaps our views on places like Alexandra Park will too.
This is not to say Alexandra Park’s original design doesn’t have shortcomings. Rather, it’s too simplistic to believe that architecture is the root cause of all social ills. In reality, the neighbourhood’s fundamental challenges stem from decades of civic neglect — on both a micro and macro level. As such, many of the valid criticisms about poor ventilation and leaky windows and roofs are misplaced in their focus on architecture instead of on the lack of funding for maintenance and upkeep.
One of the more potent critiques of Alexandra Park is that it isn’t safe. This is in part true — with its meandering and insular pedestrian walkways, the site departs from a city that is largely car-centric. But shouldn’t this be seen as a potential asset rather than an irredeemable flaw? Wychwood Park and Rosedale are both cherished neighbourhoods removed from the boisterous urban core. So are Eden Smith’s Bain Street and Spruce Court Co-ops. Like Alexandra Park, these communities were based in a humanist view towards planning. To lay blame solely on design removes these layers of nuance.
Demolition is anything but nuanced. It bulldozes complexity, contradiction and history — the ingredients that make cities special. It is also unsustainable. Particularly at Alexandra Park, a project that entails demolishing townhomes only to replace them with similarly sized new townhomes. Though much of the planned architecture is handsome and well articulated, this approach is wasteful and needlessly carbon intensive. Even more striking is the destruction of the community’s verdant canopy, much of it more than 50 years old. This means it won’t be until the 2070s that a sapling planted today will reach similar maturity. A green canopy is particularly vital considering low-income neighbourhoods are often several degrees hotter due to a lack of trees.
This is not to say the ongoing redevelopment is without merit, or that all modernist architecture and planning is inherently noteworthy and in need of protection. All the same, Alexandra Park’s architectural and urban qualities are worth coalescing with the new. The challenges of accommodating new density, safety, connectivity and dignified housing can be addressed without razing the entire site.
We often lament that Toronto’s new residential architecture is generic and soulless, yet we are quick to discard a simple way of creating character: working with existing conditions and buildings.
This concept of soul brings to mind the opening scene of Season Three of The Wire, where the characters Bodie and Poot reminisce as their former homes in the Franklin Towers are demolished. Poot retorts to an unsympathetic Bodie, “I’m talking about people, memories and shit.”
This simple yet poignant statement captures the essence of heritage far beyond any debate of modernist architecture could, focusing the conversation around people and collective memories rooted in place. Alexandra Park has many such memories, 50 years and counting. Why wipe clean the site where they were formed?
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At the Studio of Contemporary Architecture (SOCA), we asked ourselves: Could Alexandra Park be revitalized without fully purging its past? Could the shortcomings of the original design be addressed while rehabilitating the existing natural and built environment? In posing these questions, we explored a design concept to test our belief that existing neighbourhoods could be kept largely intact.
Following the current master plan’s ambition of densification and community revitalization, our design strategically places most of the new density in point towers on existing surface parking lots along the site’s periphery.
It also allows for the majority of existing trees to be maintained and for apartment buildings and townhouses to be retrofitted. Additionally, it enables new opportunities for connecting Alexandra Park back to Chinatown and Kensington Market with retail, community spaces and an animated public realm.
Existing open space is programmed with an array of amenity types catering to the needs of Alexandra Park’s diverse demographic. A community park is created as a recreational anchor for local residents while a hardscaped plaza on Dundas Street acts as a gateway to the vibrancy of surrounding neighbourhoods.
Vanauley Street — Alexandra Park’s meandering north-south spine — is rejuvenated with amenities and fine-grained retail, while Grange Avenue is reintroduced as a woonerf connecting Spadina and Augusta Avenues. The neighbourhood remains pedestrian focused and largely car-free.
Though this proposal is conceptual — and the revitalization of Alexandra Park is already underway — our broader intent is to reflect on the importance of heritage, cultural character and everything else that is lost when we’re quick to tear down. Our hope is to encourage a different approach when revitalizing future social housing communities.
Architect Tura Cousins Wilson, of the Studio of Contemporary Architecture, argues that the modernist-era social housing community – and others like it – can be revitalized without resorting to demolition.