The Wychwood Streetcar Barns
|Interior of Barns after conversion. Image courtesy of Artscape.|
There is often an esthetic conundrum in seeing the building in midst of talks for its restoration. While essential to community growth and diversity, not to mention a city’s heritage, the interiors of derelict buildings can be the most inspiring portions of our city.
Such was the case with the Wychwood Ave, now the under the title of Artscape in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Their development, conversion and subsequent unveiling this past fall was exciting enough. Witnessing a compelling portion of Toronto history restored instead of yielding to the wrecking ball was a huge triumph for its supporters and the surrounding community.
Come the mid-90s, the Toronto Transit Commission, who held the property under a long-standing loan from the city, were developing alternate plans for these 20th century relics. Allegedly prompted by legal issues surrounding a streetcar crash in 1995, the TTC was looking to sell the property that they deemed to be in surplus of their operations.
Moving swiftly, a request for a demolition permit was submitted in the summer of 1996.
In March of 1998, however, the City Council voted to deem the site as part of the Toronto Inventory of Heritage Properties. Come summer, the decades-old loan was recalled and the title of the property was transferred back to the City of Toronto.
Artscape became more officially involved in community meetings in early 2000. Director and CEO Tim Jones recalls one blizzard-like evening in which Ward 21 Councillor Joe Mihevc chaired a meeting held in a church basement.
|Batman Graffiti - Interior of Barn Space pre-construction - Carolyn Tripp 2003|
It was apparent at that point that whatever the fate of the barns, the community cared deeply about their history and development. The Artscape organization, who have a history of restoration and development in Toronto, was eventually nominated to conduct a feasibility study in favor of an arts-based multi-use development for the site. In June of 2001, a city council motion was passed to officially partner them with the City of Toronto to begin planning a vision that included community input as well as structural assessments to see where the barns stood in terms of actual repair – another point of dispute over those who preferred to see them torn down.
According to Jones, the Wychwood Barns initiative was curiously the first project in which they had encountered NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) in regards to the development of the site. “The opposition was definitely in the minority. A lot of curious rumours were spread, but opposing viewpoints should always be taken into account. As an organization, Artscape had no vision for the site, only the mandate to develop it based on community input.”
In response, various community members galvanized the need for public awareness into the group A New Park. The year 2002 saw the Artscape/City of Toronto feasibility study completed. The barns were deemed salvageable, and there was an open call for anyone interested in developing the site to make proposals to the city. A New Park’s prerogative at that point was public outreach. “One of the first things we felt we needed to do was to make sure that the larger community around the Barns knew what was going on and what a treasure this building was,” emphasizes Vid Ingelevics, a founding member of A New Park, as well as an artist, professor, and city resident, “…(we felt) the barns being a centerpiece of the new development within a new park had enormous social value.”
Fundraising and events began in earnest, including public tours and an photography exhibition, Industrial Strength, which saw Sheridan, York University, OCAD, and Ryerson students called upon to photograph the space. A then student at Sheridan College, I was intrigued by the proposal and made the trip downtown that summer to receive what was to be my introduction to Torontonian history and urban renewal.
|View from under the floor - Carolyn Tripp 2003|
Ingelevics and the New Park Committee members were entirely satisfied with the community’s response “(The exhibition) galvanized a lot of support for the project… As people became increasingly aware of how much had already been lost and what an opportunity the barns offered us tide began to turn towards saving them.”
After design charettes and countless proposals were made to the city, the task of developing the Wychwood Barns went to Artscape in late 2003. This has resulted in a vibrant space that supports local initiatives. Ingelevics remembers the opening day being incredibly poignant for all of those involved, “The first day of the Saturday morning farmers market in the barns in November 22, 2008, was really something special. The Barns were packed with people from all of the surrounding neighbourhoods… Shopping, talking with one another. It was just as we imagined it years ago.”
Article originally written in 2009.