Ep. 5 Really Seeing Richmond
May 13, 2015
Exploring then-and-now in the neighbourhood of Richmond and Spadina, with fourth-year students in Shauna Brail’s Urban Studies course. Plus, a sneak peek into Doors Open Toronto on May 23–24, including 14 free walking tours sponsored by the University of Toronto.
To learn more about Doors Open Toronto: http://news.utoronto.ca/doors-open-toronto-12-things-you-must-see-u‑t
For more on The Cities Podcast: news.utoronto.ca/podcasts/
Ep. 5 Really Seeing Richmond
This is The Cities Podcast, I’m Brianna Goldberg.
I’m standing in front of 401 Richmond, near Spadina, in downtown Toronto.
It’s an area of town where the Financial District starts melting into the Fashion District… one of those transitional spaces where money meets design. Lots of architecture offices around here. Lots of shiny condos going up. And then there’s 401 Richmond.
I first came to this building about a decade ago I was reporting for a story on the Inside Out film festival, its office is upstairs. I remember being excited by the feel of the space. It’s historic and industrial and artistic and modern at the same time and so full of light.
401 Richmond started out in the early 1900s as a factory but declined over the years. It was set for the wrecking ball in the mid-1990s … until Margie Zeidler saved the day with a plan to transform it into a mixed-use building with a focus on the arts.
Zeidler is one of the alumni from U of T’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design… celebrating its 125th anniversary this year… whose work is re-shaping Toronto. The force driving the Gladstone Hotel revitalization, the Centre for Social Innovation, Jane’s Walks… she’s always opening new doors.
Later in the podcast you’ll get a sneak peek into Doors Open Toronto, happening May 23rd and 24th. It’s a festival of exploration where more than 150 spaces … ahem, open their doors… to anyone curious to learn more. As part of this, the University of Toronto is sponsoring 14 free walking tours throughout various areas of the city. Stick around to find out how you might be able to score an extra special take-away at Doors Open Toronto…
First, though, the doors opened by Zeidler’s vision for 401 Richmond: an innovative, affordable space fostering galleries and startups and NGOs and headquarters of indie film festivals… inspiring.
But I nearly lost my life getting there! Traffic rushes through the Richmond corridor at terrifying speeds. It never had proper sidewalks or bike-lanes. I remember shimmying along the side of the building to avoid getting flattened by cars speeding through.
Since then I’ve avoided it. When walking across the city, I’d take a different route or at the very least hurry by without bothering to look around. I’m not the only one.
401 Richmond remained this island of cool stuff surrounded by pedestrian-danger on every side.
Then Shauna Brail asked me to join her class there for an afternoon.
Thank you for being here and on time. We’re very fortunate to go on a tour around the area. Think back to a couple hundred years ago, this was the manufacturing centre of Canada. We’re close to the railway lines, we’re close to the waterfront, and this area has undergone an enormous transformation in the last even in the last almost 20 years from what it was when we were hewers of wood and drawers of water to a very advanced knowledge economy, so let’s go inside…
Brail calls on her background in planning and geography as she teaches the Urban Studies Program at U of T’s Innis College. She works with students on issues of community leadership and built environments and city-planning and transit.
But on top of their research and discussions about forces changing the city… they also get out into it. The program opens doors to positions with community groups, urban organizations, city councillor’s offices. It’s all part of their coursework.
Heads up, there were a lot of them in the group and I couldn’t get my mic right into all of their faces in time… you’ll have to listen closely in a few parts.
Clip of students:
Ahmer, I’m doing my placement at the office of Councillor Bailao.
Kevin, at City Hall, with councillor Joe Mihevc.
Noor, I’m with the Centre for Social Innovation.
Ann, with Friends of the Pan-Am Path.
Flora, with Park People…
The class also visits important hubs in the city. Every year Brail brings her students to 401 Richmond to hear its story of transformation and to watch it change.
And then afterwards they do a little walk around the neighbourhood. If you can call it a neighbourhood. Because as I said, I knew it as a sort of a traffic-heavy, transitional space…
Closest to the downtown core it’s got the location, it’s got good building spaces, there’s anticipated to be something like 50,000 employees and 35,000 new residents based on the development proposals, applications, submissions, things that are approved, so let’s go east and see what’s happening there. That’s also the neighbourhood where all the nightclubs have been, there’s something like nightclub capacity of 43,000 people. That was in 2005, I think that’s declined since then, but I haven’t seen a lot about nightclub issues in the area recently…
Now there are high-rises full of people who call this area home. Things are changing and it’s time I paid attention. Time we paid attention.
Brail invited me to join her students as they explored the area – to see it through their eyes.
It was one of those rare calls to wake up to the city growing around you. Brail opened the door and all I had to do walk through… onto the slick new sidewalk.
So this sidewalk is new, there used to be just a concrete barrier here, and I remember taking a class and in some places there was a barrier and in some places there wasn’t, so you were actually practically in the road. So this is something that represents a significant improvement in this area…
Thank goodness for that. So we walked… safely… around the neighbourhood. And for the first time in years I actually looked it.
The students had a more specific focus. Some were tasked with keeping an eye for green spaces, others built form or transit.
After our stroll, we regrouped at the corner of King and Spadina, and everything I’d been blind to for the past 10 years came into view.
[Clip of students follows.]
Brail: Okay, ‘public realm.’
Student 1: We felt that the sidewalks were still pretty congested, but there were on the other street trees that had protection, so that was good.
Student 2: It’s still really dominated by cars around here, like there’s so many surface parking lots still, and the streets are really wide so there’s a lot of parked cars and moving cars, it doesn’t really feel like the pedestrian is valued.
Brail: Alright, good. Architecture?
Student 3: We noticed a building that had like four floors of the heritage on the bottom and then an apartment on the top. I’m not a big fan of it, I don’t really like it, but I think it’s just evidence the area is changing.
Brail: You’re not a fan in the way that you don’t like how it looks, it’s not visually appealing? Or it doesn’t meet the sort of intent in terms of the original guidelines for reuse?
Student 3: Yeah, I think it’s better to just conserve the entire site rather than just building a new site on top of it.
Student 4: We felt that the mix of architecture in the area is definitely good. The mix of the heritage buildings and some of the redevelopments have an interesting juxtaposition between how the architecture of the area is developing. But we felt that some of the newer architecture takes away from the focus because it’s a bit homogenous in the way it looks.
Brail: Transit – oh, let’s hear from the transit folks.
Student 5: We highlighted the existence of the bike lanes but at the same time we made an observation that they’re not really well separated and they have often just a few poles so they’re just like in transition from being a part of the road to an actual, full-fledged bike lane. And we also discussed how the King Streetcar is massively overcrowded and it’s not very efficient, but it’s there.
Brail: Okay, any other transit.
Student 6: There’s abandoned old streetcar tracks here on Adelaide, I guess. Potential maybe for re-use…?
Not sure if you heard that – he mentioned abandoned streetcar tracks on Adelaide. I had never noticed these before. When I got back to the office I started searching online and there’s a whole body of literature about Toronto’s “transit ghosts” – lines long since abandoned on Mt Pleasant and Rogers Road… and Adelaide.
And another student pointed out that in this industrial area of traffic and concrete… there is greenery around. It’s just hiding.
Student 7: There’s a lot of public parking areas but I do know that some of these buildings have green roofs, so that could count. Like, I think that building has something like a green roof…
So, okay… still mostly parking lots. But also… green roofs. Life can flourish here, both above and amongst the flow of traffic.
[Clip of students]
Brail: How was our last field trip?
Several: Amazing, fantastic, superb.
Brail: What didn’t you like about it?
Student 8: How short it was…
Brail: I’m not actually looking for like, a… [laughs]. Okay, fine, it’s fantastic.
And if you would like to see more layers of the city around you then pull out your calendar and mark off May 23 and 24. Those are the dates for Doors Open Toronto.
The annual event is set take over 155 buildings in Toronto.
As part of this, the University of Toronto is sponsoring 14 free walking tours throughout various areas of the city.
One is all about where art meets nature in Guild Park.
Another is about the Islington neighbourhood’s murals.
There’s one on intersecting highways of Toronto’s Indigenous History.
Neighbouhood movie theatres…
Tours of the downtown towers, the waterfront, Fort York …
And there two that show off some of the hidden histories at U of T…
At the Scarborough campus it’s a tour of ravine lands that double as a wildlife corridor.
And at St. George campus you can learn about the past century in sports, leisure and recreation at U of T. Besides the Gothic architecture at Hart House and more historic tidbits, the tour wraps up at the very new and the state-of-the-art Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.
And here’s your insider tip:
Register for that walking tour early to better your chances of scoring a free pedometer to help you count your steps during Doors Open and every day after that. Registering will also lock you in for a few sneak peeks of the Pan-Am games… at St. George campus, see where the field hockey, football, archery and other events will go down in July, check out sports demos and meet Pan Am swim competitor Zack Chetrat, Olympic gold medalist Vicki Sunohara and others.
To register, head to utoronto.ca and click on the Doors Open Toronto banner on the homepage. We’ll also link to it wherever you find this podcast online.
You can pass this tip along to your friends by sharing the podcast… copy the link and post it to your Facebook , or email it, or just plain tell someone.
Please do. Because the more people we invite into The Cities Podcast, the more we can tell the stories of your city. Tweet with the hashtag #uoftcities or send me an email at email@example.com .
Tell me who and what you’d like to hear more about in the show, tell me and about the walking routes and secret corners of the city that you love. More than likely I’ll end up using them in an episode, like this one …
Hi, my name is Heba and one of my favourite places in Toronto is the Rosedale Ravine near Yonge and St. Clair. I love going down there because it’s so peaceful and secluded and really nice place to get away from the busy city.
Thanks, Hebah. Hebah just wrapped up her first year at U of T where she took a course on Citizenship in the Canadian city taught by urban columnist Shawn Micallef. It’s one of the courses where they get out in the city, too, part of the UC One program. You can hear more about that and from Micallef in one of the back episodes of the podcast.
Music you heard in this episode comes from Jazzafari, found on the Free Music Archive, and from Jay Ferguson —who composed and performed this music especially for us, so thanks to Jay.
Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or follow us on Soundcloud to get new episodes as soon as they’re ready…
For example, you’ll get the one I’m so excited to share with you, where I sit down with poet laureate George Elliott Clarke…
That’s coming up on The Cities Podcast.
This series is produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor, Jennifer Lanthier.
Thanks for listening.