church isabella residents co-op
historical preservation plus affordable housing create community asset
Church Isabella’s three apartment buildings, located at two different sites, were developed in an era when municipal politicians valued both preserving historic buildings and retaining affordable housing for residents in the downtown core.
72 Isabella Street and 589 to 595 Church Street (Phases I and II)
Our three-storey walk-up at 72 Isabella and the red brick row houses beside it, on Church Street, were re-developed as one package.
The Paul Kane House, at 56 Wellesley Street East, was developed a few years later.
The apartment building at 72 Isabella was built in 1926 by the Timothy Eaton Company to house its employees. It was constructed with a dumb waiter that lifted goods from the basement to the floors above. This feature was removed during renovations. In its place is located the basement laundry room.
The row houses date back to approximately 1867. The exact date is uncertain. At some point, these homes had been re-zoned for commercial uses. One of them housed The Blue Easel Gallery.
In 1975, then City Councillor Allan Sparrow convened a meeting at the new community centre, the 519, of the tenants living in the buildings. At that time, they enjoyed low rents in the run-down apartment building, where residents often had to chase away a variety of street people, as well as prostitutes, from the foyer. These colourful figures could also be found lingering outside “Dirty Louie’s,” the 24-hour greasy spoon then located on the southeast corner of Church and Isabella Streets.
Tenants organize, form association to fight developer’s takeover
Councillor Sparrow informed those attending that Omnia Realty Holdings had been working for several years to acquire all of the properties on the east side of Church Street, from Isabella Street to Charles Street, to construct a luxury hotel and condominium development. However, Omnia intended to significantly exceed the height and density limits allowed in the municipal zoning by-law for this area.
The tenants chuckled with disbelief when he proposed that they buy the apartment building and row houses and renovate them.
After offering the City’s help, he informed them of a new federal program to develop non-profit co-op housing. They formed a steering committee and found overwhelming support when they surveyed all of the tenants. The committee spent many evening at the Blue Easel with staff of the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto, who drew together the necessary professionals, such as lawyers, architects, and urban planners, and advised the tenants on such matters as: incorporating as a non-profit co-op corporation and understanding its structure; tapping into the federal mortgage and renovation funding provided to non-profit co-ops by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation; and negotiating with the developer.
Forming the Church Isabella Tenants’ Association, the group hired architects Klein and Sears to draw up renovation plans, to include the construction of “infill” apartments behind the row houses. At that time, the row houses stretched from 589 to 599 Church Street. The association and its lawyers prepared to negotiate with Omnia. If Omnia agreed to sell the group the apartment building and row houses for an affordable price, then the group would support the developer’s application to the City for increased height and density. In return for preserving historically listed buildings and helping to provide affordable housing downtown, the City would transfer the height and density that the co-op would not be using on its site to the developer.
Tenants incorporate as a non-profit housing corporation
At this time, Toronto City Council was particularly sympathetic to projects such as Church Isabella’s – historic preservation and affordable housing – and the councillors’ support helped to put pressure on Omnia to sell the tenants their homes.
In 1977, the tenants’ association became incorporated as a non-profit housing co-op. The members of the newly formed co-op realized that in order to bring the final cost down, they would have to sell two of the row houses, 597 and 599, to the developer.
They also felt that the original designs of architects Klein and Sears provided unsatisfactory living space and were too costly.
The group chose Peter Turner Architects to re-work the renovations and re-design the spaces. Finally, after a series of meetings,
the co-op and Omnia agreed on a reasonable price, and in 1978, the purchase was finalized.
While the co-op renovated the three-storey walk-up, creating 18 apartments, the tenants sought temporary accommodation elsewhere. In 1980, they chose their newly renovated apartments and moved back into the building, along with others who had put their names on a waiting list. Renovations to the row houses followed, creating a ground floor and a second floor apartment in each small house. In 1980, a fire at 595 caused some interior damage, but the structure remained intact, and in 1981, former tenants and new residents moved into the renovated row houses.
The co-op turns its attention to the Paul Kane House (Phase III)
In 1983, architect Paul Reuber approached the co-op about developing the abandoned Paul Kane House, a city-owned property,
as co-op housing. The co-op members, all volunteers, discussed the proposal at several members’ meetings that they held in the
co-op’s only common space, the basement hallway of the three-storey walk-up. At that time, they had to sit on the basement steps or bring their own chairs – and coffee cups – to their meetings.
Located at 56 Wellesley Street East, the House had been purchased in 1853 by Canadian artist Paul Kane. His family owned the property until 1903, when it served a variety of purposes, until it was bought by the city, in 1978. It was subsequently designated a heritage building under the Ontario Heritage Act. City officials reacted favourably when approached with the proposal and agreed to lease the land to the co-op for a modest sum. This allowed the co-op to develop affordable housing on the site. After thinking long and hard about the proposal, the current residents finally voted to go ahead with taking on another project.
For several years, the house, suffering from weather damage and neglect, had been boarded up. Once again, the co-op experienced a fire, this time damaging the rear of the empty house. The co-op was able to salvage most of the front of the house, and using
Paul Reuber’s designs, it renovated the house and divided it into two apartments. At the same time, it added 16 apartments directly behind the house. A municipal parkette in front of the building completes the site. The new occupants took up residency in 1985.
Today, the co-op is a small, thriving, stable community right downtown, with residents – the vast majority of whom are long-term – contributing many hours of volunteer time each month to ensure that the co-op maintains its modest housing charges, successful operations, and attractive buildings and gardens.
© 2018 Church Isabella Residents Cooperative