Developers are hoping that a genuine artistic community will help their bottom line

Local developers have embarked on an ambitious experiment, building a downtown neighbourhood from scratch. In December, 2001, Cityscape bought the 44 vacant buildings (and the cobblestone private roads that run among them) that once made up the Gooderham & Worts distillery and have since set about creating a pedestrian village out of the 13-acre complex bounded by Mill, Parliament, Cherry and Lake Shore.

They started with a concept Cityscape partners John Berman and Mathew Rosenblatt say stems from their impressions of what makes great neighbourhoods work: bring the artists and everything else will fall into place. They’re filling the array of limestone and brick buildings — the largest preserved collection of Victorian architecture in North America — with galleries, artist workspaces and restaurants.

Some in the city think the develoment may turn out to be, if not exactly Disney’s Celebration, a bit more commercially driven than advertised.

“I would think the problem down there at Gooderham & Worts is that it’s going to turn out to be a little bit of a tourist trap,” says Stewart Pollock of SPIN gallery. “You know, they’re looking a little more high-end. If you’re trying to draw artists in there, and arts people, they can’t afford high-end, so it may defeat itself.”

Berman and Rosenblatt, both in their mid-
thirties, insist that their development will be for Toronto’s residents, not just for tourists. If you meet with them, you get a sense of their giddiness over the project they’ve undertaken. They do a comic one-upmanship routine for the media, finishing each other’s sentences as they outline how they and their partners David Jackson and Jamie Goad discovered the site. It’s as if they’re schoolboys building a backyard fort.

“The second rule of real estate is never fall in love with a property,” says Rosenblatt. “We broke that one.”

The first rule — act quickly — they stuck to. Two years ago the abandoned distillery was essentially a movie-studio lot, the most popular filming location in Canada. (Chicago was the highest profile of 101 productions shot there last year; Cityscape intends the site to remain a shooting location, if not to the same extent; stipulations in every lease allow for filming in the outdoor common areas of the complex). The four Cityscape partners, whose previous projects include the Movie House residential loft development at College and Euclid and the Massey Homes development on Jarvis, were invited for a tour by site manager Jim White (who had worked at the distillery as a millwright when it was still producing booze) in May, 2001, before it was officially for sale. They thought the tour might last an hour. They spent four hours going through buildings. “Every single building completely awed us,” Rosenblatt says. “And John kept asking, ‘We’re buying the streets too, right?'” They put in an offer that afternoon.

Since then they’ve signed up high-profile tenants such as the Sandra Ainsley and John Birch galleries, a new microbrewery, and Balzac’s Coffee Shop. Fourteen months after their purchase, 80 per cent of the development has been leased. Cityscape partner Jackson says it was also important to ensure that working artists could afford studio space in the complex, to avoid the trap that worries Pollock. To that end they signed a 20-year lease at below-market rates with the similarly named but unrelated Artscape, a Toronto non-profit group that administers affordable space for artists while, as their website says, “building communities and revitalizing neighbourhoods.”

“We were thrilled when we first hooked up with the Cityscape guys because they’re actually putting into practice what we’ve been talking about for years,” says Tim Jones, executive director of Artscape. The first of Artscape’s 60 tenants moved in this month. Their two buildings will be fully occupied by the end of May. Jones says that Cityscape’s focus on art and artists is key to making the development work.

It’s a cliché that artists move into a neighbourhood and perk it up, but it’s hard to find an exact model for how a development like the Distillery District can work. Examples that Berman and Rosenblatt point to such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Vancouver’s Granville Island, and more recently gentrified urban centres such as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in Brooklyn, are interesting arts and market neighbourhoods, but those took years to develop and involved groups of developers and city hall planners slowly revamping the neighbourhoods over a period of years.

Disney built an entire city — Celebration, Florida — modelled after Smalltown, USA, circa 1940, complete with schools and a Main Street. But Cityscape is avoiding the theme-park approach to community building.

Mirvish Village is one example of a businessman elevating his neighbourhood with artists. Ed Mirvish started buying houses on one block of Markham Street in 1959 because his store was annoying the residents. Initially intending to pave Markham Street and put up a parking lot, he later decided to turn it into a bit of an artists’ community.

Jones thinks the element of central control is important to why Cityscape has moved so far so quickly. “What’s unique about the Cityscape situation is that it’s all under their control, so that they can create one vision and bring together the partners to make it happen.”

Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) curator David Liss is considering the Distillery District as a new home for his North York museum (Cityscape says MOCCA is moving into the Tank House 48 Building next month, but Liss says “It’s not in the can for us by any means”). Liss figures a smaller but similar project has worked at 401 Richmond St. W.

“I remember when that was a derelict god-knows-what. My buddy … was one of the first people to move in. I’ve done lot of business in that building and you know, the people who work there, the people who live there, they’ve got a day-care centre, a nice café. It’s sort of been a spring-up community. I’d call it a community.”

The building at 401 Richmond is an apt comparison. Purchased in 1994 by the Zeidler family for $150,000 when it was scheduled for demolition, the building today houses galleries, artists in both live and work spaces and high-tech businesses. Margie Zeidler is impressed with the Cityscape project and she’s giving Artscape a $600,000 loan for its new project. Zeidler says that while the Distillery District is in many ways quite different from 401 Richmond, the approach is similar.

“I really think the strategy they have is the best strategy. I think if they tried to make it high-end corporate it just wouldn’t have flown and if you tried to make it like everything else that wouldn’t have flown either … but they’ve made it a unique site,” Zeidler says. Her experience has shown that involving artists can also be good for the bottom line, she says.

Cityscape does plan to profit, especially when they build condominiums surrounding the site in the coming years after the district becomes established.

“We’re not a non-profit by any means,” Berman says, while pointing out that he’s excited about the project for more than just financial reasons. “We could have made a lot of money quickly and easily if we’d just razed the buildings and sold it as a parking lot,” he says. “But we’re in this for the long term.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on March 20, 2003.