A lifeline for Toronto artists in the Annex

Dupont gentrification forcing studios to relocate, while others are finding ways to hold on


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Michael Vickers and Oliver Pauk from the Akin Collective

The landscape is changing on a formerly industrial stretch of Dupont Street, between Christie and Keele Streets. It’s an area that is in the process of undergoing large-scale revitalization and is the site of several future condos, with at least seven development proposals in the works. But as Dupont increasingly becomes gentrified, a community of artists who called the street home are now facing the prospect of having to relocate.

“As of two years ago or three years ago, on Dupont between, say, Dufferin and Keele, there were a number of [studio] spaces,” said Oliver Pauk, co-director of an arts collective called Akin.

 Through Akin, Pauk and his partner Michael Vickers negotiate short-term lease agreements, known as “meanwhile leases,” with developers to rent studio spaces as buildings await demolition. Currently, the team has eight studios across the city, including two on Dupont.

One of these properties is 888 Dupont St. It is a green and weathered four-storey industrial building at Dupont and Ossington Avenue that was purchased by real estate development company TAS around six months ago. At the time, it was inhabited by a number of illegal residents, including artists who were using the space as studios, and one art gallery.

As part of the transition period, TAS was able to obtain a special designation as a “creative co-location facility” from the City of Toronto to receive a significant tax break for the studio spaces. This allowed them to rent out studio space to individuals working in the creative industry, for a minimum of 30 per cent less than market value.

Before selling the building to TAS, the previous building owner had been facing pressure from the city to evict the illegal residents.

“It wasn’t zoned for residential, and there were a bunch of artists living there. That’s kind of dangerous.”

“[The building at 888 Dupont St.] was being used by artists, and, frankly, breaking all sorts of bylaws,” said Sally Han, the acting director of arts and culture services with the City of Toronto. “It was never zoned for residential, and there were a bunch of artists living there. That’s actually kind of dangerous.”

After TAS bought the property, the number of artists working in the building increased from 10 to 30, primarily photographers, fashion designers and jewellers. Akin was also able to renew their existing lease at 888 Dupont, for less rent than they previously paid. Recently, TAS also took in 10 artists from Walnut Studios after a fire damaged their downtown studio space in May.

“Building long-term relationships and creating a positive impact with the community, beyond the footprint of our buildings, is a priority for TAS,” said Celia Smith, chief operating officer of TAS.

“We own the responsibility for ensuring our properties incorporate affordable workspaces that support creativity and culture.”

Artists and developers haven’t always enjoyed such a friendly relationship. According to Han, preserving space for cultural industries remains one of the key challenges for the city and has been for the past 20 years, due to rapid development and an overheated real estate market.

“I think that a lot of property development companies can be insensitive to communities and to the people living around the properties that they own,” said Pauk. “I know that artists can be very sensitive to that because there is this history of displacement over generations.”

However, the ongoing push to save studio space has given developers and artists the opportunity to work together and forge new relationships, as infrastructure for the creative sector increasingly becomes integrated into new pockets of the city.

“I would love to see the translation of something like meanwhile leasing into actual relationship building, with the cultural community that uses their spaces, and for those developers to realize that, in a city as expensive as Toronto, continuing to create affordable space for artists is a good thing overall,” Han said.

According to Smith, a formal application for 888 Dupont St. will be submitted to the city in 2019.   

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