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Bridge Beat

May 28, 2013

Learning to Hang Out at Regent Park – Part 2

Last Friday, I chaired a wonderful session at the Canadian Urban Institute trying to extract lessons from the Regent experience that might be applicable to other sites. The panel was John Gladki, who led the original planning exercise, Remo Augostino from Daniels, Tim Jones from Artscape, the indefatigable Adonis Huggins from Regent Park Focus and Toronto Community Housing’s Greg Spearn.  

The audience was equally impressive including two former TCH development execs (including me), one former chief planner of the City of Toronto, TCH tenants and one of the true revitalization originals – Debra Dineen who is somehow as forceful an advocate for her community  as she is understated about  her own central role in the revitalization.

The Panel – and many members of the audience -  had important lessons to share from their Regent experience to date. I wish it could have gone longer. So here’s the thing. There are some lessons TCH learned right away. They seem obvious now and are penned into the “How-To” manual for revites elsewhere. I think we know how important tenant engagement is. TCH has its best moments when it acts in concert with tenants. TCH has improved its relocation and communication procedures based on its first experiences. And there are many other lessons.  

What’s really interesting is to try to get at lessons that it actually takes 10 years to learn or start to see a pattern. Here are some of the issues and lessons that came up.

  • The project is driven by a unique partnership between Daniels and TCH. The model is much more akin to a partnership between private parties than what we think of as a traditional 3P. (I can tell you that it is totally different than a P3.) This choice – to have the public partner remain engaged through the development process was a bold choice. Its working, so lets learn from that.   
  •  Tim Jones  of Artscpape , pointed out that the partners have learned to create ``shared value``. That is, an understanding that if they create community value (through a great park, a job centre, a restaurant, for example), they reap returns as good or better than just driving the bottom line from the get go. Lesson for many developments there I think.   
  • The financial model remains quite challenging. OK, we knew that from the beginning. What’s interesting is that in spite of all the success and additional resources Regent has attracted, it’s still a challenge. TCH and Daniels are shifting the balance of market to rental from the original 60/40 split to 75/25. I am sure it makes planning sense, this is downtown Toronto after all, but the additional market units will help balance revenues and costs. I was delighted with how frank TCH’s Greg Spearn was about this. It’s a real challenge, but there is no need to run from it.
  •  All this is happening while TCH has a repair backlog of something like $750M. You tell a guy you can’t fix his faucet while you are installing new ones somewhere else. I’ve been there for that conversation. Wasn’t easy then, not easy now.   
  • We like to say we’ve learned a lot about integration – building a mixed income community. But Toronto is full of mixed income communities. So its not whether they work (they do) – its whether you can actually make one. We`ve learned that some things really help – things that bring people together like the Daniels Spectrum and Adonis` Regent Park TV. But we are still working on mixing incomes within buildings beyond the existing ownership programs.  (Get this – if you live at Regent, you get to Regent Park TV through your cable. Is that cool or what?)
  •  Which brings me to my favorite lesson learned – John Gladki reminded us that you can plan all you want, but you have to leave room for magic to happen. That`s not wishful thinking – its actually building in the unexpected – that means a willingness to seize opportunities and change course when you need to. Many of the partnerships that make Regent tick were not planned from the beginning – the Daniels Spectrum (with Artscape), the Sports fields (with MLSE)  and there are more examples.   

Presentations from Friday are now up on the CUI website.  But my best advice is that if you want to know how its really going, take Toronto Life's advice and go hang out at Regent. I am back presenting this week at the Land and Development Conference.  I'll be speaking about some of these lessons.  My presentation is  available on our webpage. Its mostly pictures, but illustrates the points in this blog.  

In sum, The challenges remain many, but the effort is worthwhile  and the results, so far are impressive.  

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