Design Ingenuity: My wknd stay in Canadian public housing

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the second highlighted OKC’s citywide park redevelopment plan. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

1-year ago, after learning about development processes and policy mechanisms behind American public housing at an accelerated rate, I had a hair-brained whim to go explore the Canadian equivalent.

daniels-spectrumI particularly wanted to see Regent Park – Toronto’s “most notorious” public housing estate (for all the wrong reasons, if you could imagine such a thing in Canada) – which underwent an ambitious revitalization project in 2005. Regent Park’s Daniels Spectrum community centre (an art gallery I believe?) recently won the UK’s prestigious Civic Trust Award, along with a bevy of other awards. This is not your grandfather’s public housing, or even Drake’s – see MTV article likening a co-appearance with the Toronto-native rapper to “a passport out of Regent Park.” The NY Times has hailed Regent Park, once a “neighborhood in despair,” as an international “model for inclusion.”

In case it seems odd (or insensitive) to “vacation” in another nation’s public housing…

  • I am very interested in the culture of public housing, which is quite rich.
  • I am very interested in the design opportunities surrounding public housing, which are limitless.
  • I am very interested in the social and equity implications of redesigning public housing, which are a double-edged sword.

Regent Park was an amazing thing to check out for all those reasons and more. It turns out that, thanks to the mixed-income composition of the replacement housing, you can find AirBnB units within Regent Park itself. It might even be the best AirBnB location in Toronto, for someone on a budget who wants a sleek rental near downtown TO.

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I stayed in the extremely cool Paintbox building, which is a 26-story, 282-unit mixed-income housing tower designed to evoke its namesake. In the elevators you truly rub shoulders with people from all walks of life, and from the balcony, look down on the entirety of Toronto’s vast cityscape. You also look down on Regent Park’s namesake park itself, also redesigned as an excellent space. The view was highly instructive:

The park itself integrates all the amenities you would expect on-site for 1,800 public housing units, including an aquatic center (toward the right), greenspace programmed with active- and passive-recreation spaces, the Daniels Spectrum, and a church that was preserved. The most interesting thing in these photos are the older units, what remains of Regent Park (the next phase to be replaced), across the park.

The redevelopment is replacing roughly the same number of units – 2,083 units existed in 2005, and 1,800 will be rebuilt along with another 266 off-site (“nearby”) – while 5,400 market-rate units will be introduced on-site. Those market-rate units sell for around $400,000-$500,000 for a 2br, and around $200,000 for a studio. I have been told that they are completely indistinguishable from the public housing units, although I am not sure whether the unit I stayed in was public or market; I can attest that there are no separate entrances or “poor doors.”

All in all, Toronto Community Housing’s redevelopment will take 15-20 years to accomplish the following:

Y:2009 Projects916 Regent Park MP Phases 3-6Drawings00 Sit

  • Replaced RGI Rental Units: 2,083 (over 1800 in Regent Park and 266 in new buildings nearby)
  • New Affordable Rental Units: Over 210 in Regent Park and 100 in new buildings nearby by the end of Phase 2. Additional affordable rental units in future phases will be subject to funding availability.
  • Market Units: 5,400
  • Project Start Date: 2005
  • Anticipated Project Length: 15-20 years
  • Total Size: 69 acres
  • Amenities: New amenities include the Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, the new Regent Park, and the Regent Park Athletic Grounds
  • Retail Space: Freshco by Sobeys, Rogers, Tim Hortons, RBC and Main Drug Mart have moved into newly created retail space
  • Employment: 1,100

All of which looks good on paper, but looks even better in person – as it such amidst Toronto’s beautiful cityscape, replete with open modern design, green rooftops, and “red rockets” (Toronto streetcars).

Perhaps it is not only possible for public housing to raise people up, but to more importantly immerse people in an immersive community that naturally provides better social supports than a community action program ever could.

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Mixing Architecture

While my design soft spot has always and will always be architectural contrast, my professional work has led me to realize there is a strong consensus against that in most cases. To make matters worse (or better), anytime you can simplify design through a public process (where design literacy may vary), the better the outcome.

German Village, Columbus, Ohio

Looking straight north up 3rd Street in Columbus, where the German Village’s iconic slate roofs and brick cottages comprise the theme listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing notes three styles: Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic Revival (Photo credit: German Village Society)

Historic districts promote uniformity, whether we admit this or not (through the theme of contributing properties, which may be one style or several that go together). Urban design guidelines and design districts do this as well through strict standards. That said, we also must admit uniform standards do work wonders toward preserving the quality of a district.

Design is subjective, and design standards and historic districts have been proven successful in objectively raising the bar toward an enactable minimum with which we can all accept. Toward that end, this post is not meant to be an attack on standards, but rather merely pointing out what lies outside the box.

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Outdated aerial (just showing the older Georgian section) of the Chesapeake Energy HQ Campus in OKC (Photo credit: The Lost Ogle)

Most esteemed university campuses with which I am familiar also have a distinct style, often part of their brand. Oklahoma State University is Georgian. So Georgian that the Chesapeake Energy campus in OKC, with its older core of OK State knock-off buildings, is often called OSU-style and not Georgian. #SoGeorgian. University of Oklahoma is prairie gothic, which I always found to be weird. University of Texas is mission-style. University of Kansas is romanesque. KU really is stunning, as a non-Jayhawk.

The aforementioned examples revolve around classical styles, which are most commonly found in authentic samples. Developing anew in a historic motif, like Chesapeake, is rare and should be discouraged as far as architectural authenticity is concerned. That said, the future will not have homogenous 21st Century districts simply because we are almost always working with a pre-developed context. 100 years from now, the 21st Century styles that we will be preserving will be more mixed amongst older styles, so far as urban context is concerned. If we don’t reconcile our perspectives toward mixing architecture, we risk the chance of enacting the wrong standards and following the wrong approach altogether. Preservation must eventually become more sophisticated, just as development has.

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Corner of NE 2nd and Walnut in OKC’s Deep Deuce area, with the new Aloft Hotel, LEVEL apartments, replete w/ Native Roots grocery store and a bikeshare station in front (Photo self-attributed, taken in 2013)

Modern design districts come in two forms. On one hand you have something like Deep Deuce in OKC, which is almost entirely new infill, developed over parking lots for which OKC’s historic black main street was demolished in the 50s and 60s. With very few original pieces still extant, those have been mostly restored, and some of the infill features nods to the red brick warehouses that once were. However, most of the infill, for lack of an authentic surrounding context, has been pretty outrageous – with free reign for architects to create a 21st Century neighborhood. Steve Lackmeyer, downtown beat writer for The Daily Oklahoman, wrote about Deep Deuce as the “complete” mixed-use neighborhood other cities dream about.

Cleveland Botanical Garden and CWRU

Mixed design built within landmark historic district in Cleveland’s University Circle. Modern landmarks such as Frank Gehry’s Weatherhood School and Uptown CLE wedged between CWRU’s historic quads and Little Italy. (Photo credit: Bill Cobb)

The last and most common case is where modern design truly coexists in a mixed environment, which usually includes a more nondescript historic building stock (else the modern would be toned down). In the case of University Circle in Cleveland, perhaps Ohio’s most magnificent square mile, few neighborhoods have so masterfully blended old and new, landmarks alike. That said, sometimes the new does endanger the old. CWRU has famously targeted entire historic districts for demolition, such as Hessler Street – giving rise to the famous Hessler Street Fair where the historic street stands tall against outside threats. Little Italy, (the smattering of cottages between the tracks and Murray Hill in the above photo), is better-protected – but its corners have been reinforced with high-end modern condos.

That mixed context, in my opinion, is the most impressive. I hate seeing historic landmarks in University Circle threatened, but as long as the neighborhood can evolve and retain ALL of them – University Circle remains the unquestioned most spectacular square mile of Ohio. It’s a rich and varied architectural cultural that befits Ohio’s cultural district. It’s as simple as that. Tearing down a building is not unlike the Cleveland Museum of Art moving out the Monet to make room for the Chihuly (which they would never do!), however refusing to make room for the Rothko also diminishes the overall value and authenticity.

That said, you don’t put the Rothko, Chihuly, and Monet in the same frame, let alone gallery. In Columbus, a locally-significant developer Jerry Solove (his family name is on the new OSU Medical Center), has proposed to demolish one of Old North Columbus’ most historic High Street blocks. While within two blocks there exists entire blocks of strip malls that could easily be demo’d for their concept, they of course must demolish the best block to make way for 11 stories of modern student housing. Worse yet, the entire project is designed to cleverly slip through zoning and design review in a city with shockingly weak development controls. The only two homes whose zoning would need to change have been swallowed into the development as a façadism nightmare. The setbacks going up every two floors also circumvent the height limits inherent within the zoning classification. With the city zoning administrator’s signature in hand already, the development could practically begin tomorrow and irrevocably demolish what little historic integrity remains on High Street, north of the OSU campus.

Just because there isn’t much integrity left doesn’t make that low-hanging fruit for redevelopment. Sophisticated cities, which Columbus just isn’t quite yet, find ways to retain the good and focus redevelopment opportunities where those opportunities actually exist. The flip side is the argument that “this argument is irrelevant because said development has this site, not that site.” That is the developer’s problem, not the city’s, or community’s. Otherwise there is natural development pressure to keep building up on the good sites, continuing to ignore the bad sites. What gives in the end? When that happens, you get the below nightmare (which really should also render the empty block of strip mall parking two blocks away).

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Google Earth Aerial of Old North Columbus, with the Pavey block outlined in red on the right, and a strip mall screaming for redevelopment outlined in red on the left

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Pavey Square at High and Northwood in Old North Columbus, notice the two otherwise beautiful Second Empire homes swallowed up (Photo from Columbus Underground)