Regent Park revitalization reveals complexities with decades-long projects

by Neil Sharma16 Sep 2019

The Regent Park revitalization project in downtown Toronto is a lesson in meticulous community planning and, specifically, in leaving nary a stakeholder behind.

Speaking at a panel last week organized by Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, Vincent Tong, chief development officer of Toronto Community Housing Corporation, noted the key to the project’s success is putting residents in the driver’s seat.

“For TCHC, tenant engagement is the most important aspect of how we approach revitalization projects,” said Tong. “We’re asking people to move out of their homes, relocate for many years and then come back. It’s extremely disruptive, so we want to make sure tenants are engaged in the process and with us every step of the way to plan what the future of community will look like. That extends to our procurement process—we’re searching for a development partner for the remaining phases. Stages one to three were Daniels Corp.”

Regent Park’s revitalization is expected to last 20 to 25 years, the conclusion of which will see over 17,000 people living in a mixed-use and mixed-income community. On October 5, developers will deliver presentations in a bid to complete remaining phases.

During Daniels’ involvement, the company built units before they even went on sale to show the market transformative change was afoot in the neighbourhood, and that all parties were firmly committed.

“We involve tenants in the selection of the developer partner through a three-member procurement committee that ensures the community’s vision is part of the revitalization project,” continued Tong. “What will [the developers] bring to the table for jobs, scholarships, community enhancements? The community will score the proposals and that will comprise 28% of the overall score for the procurement process.”

The panel specifically explored how public lands could be leveraged to establish social housing partnerships between the public and private sectors. Tong says it’s important to establish a partnership at the outset rather than to re-zone lands first, because the project’s scope would invariably change.

“Pre-zoning is not necessarily faster because the private sector knows what they want and what the market wants to deliver, so what we’re finding is when we pre-zone sites and then bring private developers on board, the plan needs to be redone to make sure it works for them, adding time and money,” he said. “There’s not as much buy-in on the partnership. If TCHC partners with a developer from the beginning, it makes the latter more accountable.”

Projects of this nature are endlessly convoluted because the financial building blocks are rife with uncertainty. While TCHC makes money off the land profit and receives government funding, there are steep costs associated with rental replacement units—which cost $430,000 per unit—relocating residents, planning and administration.

“For TCHC communities, we generally end up in a shortfall, meaning TCHC has to invest additional capital to fill in the gap and try to cover as much as we can on the rental replacement aspect,” said Tong.

“If we just rebuild social housing there won’t be wholesale change and improvement in these tenants’ lives. If you partner with TCHC, you have to provide us with information on how many jobs you’ll provide for tenants and how many scholarships you’ll provide.”

Regent Park is Canada’s oldest public housing community and currently houses 7,500 residents across 69 acres of land.

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