condo BOOM! event shakes up discussion about Toronto city planning

Professor Ute Lehrer of York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, along with graduate student Andrea Winkler and alumna Katie Rabinowicz (MES ’05), helped develop critical thinking about condominium development throughout Toronto recently with their popular multidisciplinary event condo BOOM! The event combined a series of workshops, panel discussions, walking tours, theatre, films and participation in Toronto’s Nuit Blanche event in order to engage Torontonians in a dialogue about city planning and how the growing condominium industry in Toronto has changed neighbourhoods, for better or for worse.

For the past five years, Lehrer’s SSHRC-funded research into the advertising centres, construction sites and communities surrounding new condominiums has led to a collection of over 10,000 images — and to heightened concern around the future direction of the condo industry. Inspired by working with Lehrer, Winkler and Rabinowicz established a non-profit organization called Multistory Complex, with the aim to use research, education and other means to promote interdisciplinary exploration of the urban environment — and, through that exploration, make urban planning a more democratic undertaking.

Participating in a panel on condo marketing are journalist Christopher Hume(left),
Alex Spiegel of Context Development, York Professor Ute Lehrer, Bill Hurst of
Streetcar Developments Inc., Robin Pope, of Brad J. Lamb Realtors and Mrdjan
Uzelac, a condo dweller

Appropriately, the focus point for Multistory Complex’s first project, condo BOOM!, involved transforming Queen St. West’s The Theatre Centre into a creative interpretation of a condo advertising centre. The group noted that those centres use particular representations of neighbourhoods, generally focusing on available services and amenities, in order to attract condo buyers. In response, condo BOOM! designed its own “presentation centre” — one that examined the language used to sell various Toronto neighbourhoods. Other highlights of the interdisciplinary show included walking tours of several Queen St. West neighbourhoods, art exhibits, and roundtable and panel discussions. With participation from artists, architects, planners, community agencies, researchers, residents and activists — from not only Toronto but Vancouver, New York , Chicago, Tokyo and Beijing — the event generated community discussion and critical debate.

Organizers stress that, rather than being against condo development, their goal was to encourage wider community participation in discussions about how cities should be evolving. They point out that, while condominiums create more units for housing, they also raise other social issues. “There are very few positive things about the condo boom as practiced right now,” said Lehrer. “Condos create dynamics that increase real estate values in the city, in such a way that people who live in affordable housing are pushed out. So there’s increased privatization of the inner city, as well as other socio-economic and environmental impacts.”

Pointing to the popularity of the event, as well as the media attention it garnered, Lehrer added, “It’s clear that there is great interest in urban issues in Toronto — that people want to be part of the public discussion about the city we want to have, which goes beyond the condo issue.” Multistory Complex’s projects, which spread research such as Lehrer’s to a broader audience, help ensure that such discussion is broad and benefits from the insights gained through the interdisciplinary perspective of York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Multistory Complex’s next project, which will examine issues affecting the healthiness and affordability of street food, is scheduled for spring 2007. For more information or to get involved, visit the Multistory Complex Web site. condo BOOM! took place Sept. 21 to Oct. 1.

This article was submitted to YFile by Arlene Williams, media & communications coordinator, Faculty of Environmental Studies, and MES student Diego Garcia.