Housing coop still thriving 30 years later

by David Hayes, The Toronto Star, November 14, 2009

I recently moved into a two-bedroom townhouse in Cathedral Court, a housing coop in St. Lawrence neighbourhood, and attended my first annual general meeting. Rather than a for-profit landlord, coops elect a board of directors from among the members and decisions are made democratically. Aside from an array of interesting neighbours, all of them committed in their own ways to the ideal of a coop, I was struck by how well-managed things seemed to be.

For example, members pay for hydro and the units are heated electrically. A weakness in the original design of Cathedral Court is the heating system, which results in higher-than-usual hydro bills. Collectively, the members voted to pursue plans to test solar panels and other solutions to fix this long-standing problem. Afterwards, I chatted with a few of my neighbours about homemade fixes, like turning off the water heater during the day. (“There’s enough hot water all day, then you turn it back on at night,” I was told.)

A committee is dedicating itself to communications within the coop and I’ve decided to resuscitate a newsletter that was once a popular feature. One item that would have been front page-worthy is the coop’s 30th anniversary, just celebrated on Nov. 10.

It’s a reminder that the St. Lawrence neighbourhood is a landmark development, designed according to the great urban theorist Jane Jacobs’ progressive ideas and studied by urban planners around the world.

But it’s also a reminder of the optimism and activism – from the streets to political offices – that briefly animated civic politics, including housing policies, in Toronto during the early-to-mid 1970s. Sadly, it’s a given that today, a St. Lawrence neighbourhood and coops like Cathedral Court, are unlikely to be built.

In the 19th century, the area was the centre of the Town of York (renamed Toronto in 1834), its city hall located where the St. Lawrence Market now stands. As the centre of the city shifted west, the market area became dominated by warehouses built to house all the goods streaming into the growing city by ship and rail.

Beginning in the 1950s, the industrial base began migrating outside of the city and the area went into a period of decline.

St. Lawrence neighbourhood was a product of the urban reform movement of the early ’70s, which included Mayor David Crombie, John Sewell, a community activist-turned-alderman who later served as Toronto’s mayor, and other like-minded reformers whose political base was in neighbourhood groups keen on progressive urban planning.

Having stopped the Spadina Expressway, a project that would have destroyed several downtown neighbourhoods, the next ambitious goal for the reform movement was to create the St. Lawrence neighbourhood on 18 hectares of derelict industrial land. Unlike most U.S. cities, people were moving into downtown neighbourhoods and the reformers wanted to buck the prevailing trends – suburban highrise sprawl and low-income public housing projects that became ghettos for the poor.

Instead, the St. Lawrence neighbourhood was to be a municipally planned (with cooperation from the provincial and federal governments, private sector corporations and community organizations), socio-economically mixed, inner city residential development. It was based on Toronto’s 19th century grid street plan and featured brick row houses and townhouses, along with higher density eight-to-10 storey apartments, that resembled the streetscape of the old town of York. At its centre was the six-block long Crombie Park with its pedestrian pathways, fountains, playgrounds, basketball courts and ash trees that line the sidewalk (built later).

In the first phase of the development, Crombie Park Apartments (a public housing building) went up, along with four coops: David B. Archer, Woodsworth, Harmony and Cathedral Court, which was sponsored by the Ceci Heinrichs Foundation for Developmentally Handicapped Children, known today as New Visions Toronto. (There are units occupied by a number of children — and their caregivers — who would otherwise have to live in institutions.)

The first members of Cathedral Court moved into their homes in September 1979. Bonnie Handy, an administrative assistant in the downtown core, had been living on Toronto Island until her marriage dissolved. She didn’t drive and wanted her daughter to be close to her father so the new St. Lawrence neighbourhood sounded ideal. One of the early pioneers, she remembers that it was still a construction site: “There was plenty of mud and dust, no sidewalks and one pay phone at the corner of George and the Esplanade.”

The pay phone got a workout. Ed Knuckles, who works in theatre as a dresser, was, with his partner, Clive, the first to move in just as Bell Canada went on strike. “We had no phone service for two weeks,” he recalls. “There was no laundry room, the elevator didn’t work and construction workers were wandering around…”

At first, Cathedral Court was just a good downtown housing situation for Knuckles; he had no particular feeling about coops one way or the other. “I ended up living there for 25 years until we bought a house,” he says, “and I really enjoyed the community feeling, knowing your neighbours and working with them.”

Today, taking in the entire St. Lawrence area (bordered on the south by the railway tracks, it stretches from Yonge to Parliament and north to Queen), about 25,000 people live in 12 housing coops, half a dozen public housing complexes and more than three dozen condos.

But coop housing effectively died during the years of Premier Mike Harris, whose government was ideologically hostile to non-profit ventures and seemed oblivious to the need for reasonably priced homes. At a time when there is a desperate need for affordable housing, the question is how to convince political leaders that coops, like Cathedral Court, are the solution staring them right in the face.