02 . 28 . 2013

As Regent Park rebuilds, a pause to consider what came before

AUTHOR John Bentley Mays

The British-born architect Peter Dickinson came to Toronto in 1949, and worked here until 1961, when death took him, at age 36. In the dozen years of an extraordinarily prolific career, he dotted the local landscape with buildings that were hailed at the time as gems of festive, svelte design – the Benvenuto Place apartments, the Inn on the Park (demolished), Beth Tzedec Synagogue, and numerous others.

But Mr. Dickinson did more than put up memorable structures. He also created a circle of admirers who kept alive public interest in his work when mid-century Modernism went out of fashion, and who have persisted down to the present day. Indeed, to know and like the art of Peter Dickinson is part of what it means to be a savvy citizen of Hogtown these days. In a way unmatched by another architect active here in the 1950s, he matters deeply.

So it’s hardly surprising to find a considerable number of townsfolk dismayed by the prospect of seeing Dickinson buildings swept away. The structures I’m thinking of are the three remaining towers (of an original five) in Regent Park, the large former public housing complex now undergoing massive transformation into a mixed-income, public-private neighbourhood.

Each of these award-winning blocks is a 14-storey stack of spacious two-level apartments that spread across the entire width of the building. When I visited one of the three-bedroom suites a few years ago, I found it to be a fine, honest expression of what mattered to the humane modern architects of mass housing in Mr. Dickinson’s day: excellent cross-ventilation, copious natural lighting, density without a sacrifice of privacy, and a strong sense of the social and communal. If the elevators were not kept in working order as time went by, if mindful maintenance was allowed to slide, if poverty wrecked the lives of the inhabitants – none of that is the fault of the architecture, which embodies a style of serious social conscience that should never be forgotten.

Yet, by the end of 2013, Toronto could lose important traces of Peter Dickinson’s moral and artistic legacy. In an e-mail sent to me last week, Thomas Burr, Regent Park’s development director, described the current state of play: “Two of the five towers were demolished in 2011, and three remain. Toronto Community Housing [TCH, the landlord of Regent Park] intends to seek City approval to demolish the remaining three buildings later this year as part of phase three of revitalization.”

But, as Mr. Burr went on to explain, the razing of all three towers could be frustrated by a combination of forces. One will probably come from the heritage lobby, or there might even be a public outcry. The city has placed Mr. Dickinson’s block at 14 Blevins Place on its list of “heritage properties,” a fact that will serve as leverage by a person or group inclined to save the slab. Also, an independent design review panel, charged with vetting every move in the Regent Park overhaul, is expected to return an expert opinion on the matter “in the coming months.” It could vote to preserve the building.

TCH, it should be noted, is not simply hell-bent on bulldozing everything standing in the way of its bright, shiny redevelopment scheme. Years ago, when the “revitalization” was in its earliest stages, the public agency promised to consider sparing 14 Blevins Place (if not the other four Dickinson projects). TCH has made good on its promise: Mr. Burr said in his e-mail that the organization has initiated “three studies to determine whether there is any viable re-purposing of the building.”

One thing is certain: If 14 Blevins is left standing, it will indeed be “repurposed,” and its current career, as social housing, will end. “We have received very clear direction from the community who live in 14 Blevins that they do not like the building,” Mr. Burr said. “There are real issues about retaining the building as social housing, and the ward councillor has indicated that the building should not remain in its current use.”

So what could it become? “We know from market analyses and architectural studies,” Mr. Burr said, “that the building is not viable for a conversion to a market condominium building, and any efforts to modify the building to meet current energy efficiency standards will significantly alter the functionality of the suites, and the exterior of the building, thus eliminating the original design intent.”

TCH’s official prediction for the fate of 14 Blevins Place is obviously bleak. But what do you think? Please e-mail me your schemes, sketches, dreams for renewing Dickinson’s tower – the more imaginative the better. In a future column, I’ll showcase the best of your notions. Until you’ve weighed in, I think TCH should put on hold its plan to bulldoze what’s left of Mr. Dickinson’s Regent Park legacy. We might all be surprised by the good ideas you come up with.

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