Ten years ago, the residents of St. Jamestown, the towering apartment complex built in the ’60s on the northeast fringe of Toronto’s downtown core, fought to prevent the construction of three additional high-rises. As the formerly chic image of the complex faded concerned voices joined in an outcry against developers who proposed to add to the problems of an area already strained by a population density twice as great as that of midtown Manhattan. Although 19 towers now stand defiantly in St. Jamestown, the tenants’ protest may not have been in vain.
One decade later and directly south of its looming shadows, lies Winchester Square, a residential complex being developed by the Meridian Group, the original creators of St. Jamestown. Ironically, the design of Winchester Square owes much to the ill-fated complex to the north. Though it was initially slated for the same type of development, the planners of Winchester Square took heed and sought to avoid the design pitfalls that St. Jamestown embodies. Winchester Square is not
only being built at one-third the density, but when the project is completed, it will boast a diversity of housing types not reflected in the geometric monotony of St. Jamestown. As Gordon Cressy, senior alderman for the area, notes, “St. Jamestown has become a case study for what housing shouldn’t be.”
Essentially, St. Jamestown is a design concept gone awry. Instead of a minivillage complete with recreational facilities and meeting places surrounded by a vast expanse of green, as originally envisioned, it has become what Stephen McLaughlin, Metro commissioner of
planning and development, terms, “Housing of isolation surrounded by huge, grey, useless spaces.” Says McLaughlin: “They are not the kinds of buildings that people should be forced to live in.” Vandalism and the presence of vagrants are chronic problems plaguing residents. Children, hemmed in by concrete, manifest their frustration by ripping wallpaper, scribbling graffiti and by breaking windows. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that tenants like William Dowkes, a 42-year-old University of Toronto chemical engineering tutor, considers his one-bed-
room apartment simply “a place to sleep.” Cecelia Hamlin, a 45-year-old clerical worker who resides in one of the project’s geared-to-income buildings, worries about raising her 11-year-old daughter in a sea of concrete. “There’s not much here for children. I just try to get her out of the area as much as possible.”
The plight facing people like the Hamlins was never far from mind during the development of Winchester Square. Says Ann Ophel, a planner for the district: “We deliberately tried to avoid the mistakes of St. Jamestown.” Instead of a maze of anonymous edifices, the plan calls for a blend of row houses, small apartment blocks, three comparatively small towers, co-ops and senior citizens’ housing—for which rents will range from moderate and geared-to-income to expensive. Unlike St. Jamestown, Winchester Square encompasses a portion of the existing neighborhood. For Margaret Gittens, who works at the provincially funded Tenant Hotline, the move from St. Jamestown to Winchester Square has made things easier. “You feel like they thought of people when they designed this place.”
For St. Jamestown the future is not quite as rosy. In a city faced with a vacancy rate of 0.4 per cent, most of its tenants are new arrivals to Toronto who flock to the conveniently located and moderately priced apartments, but the average occupancy lasts only from nine months to a year. “Only those who have no other choice would live there,” says Gittens. Adds Aid. Cressy: “The day is done for St. Jamestown.”
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