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To our clients and colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 and ERA Architects: Our Work Plan

Dear Clients and Colleagues,

Arising from the continued spread of COVID-19, the World Health Organization’s ‘global pandemic’ declaration, the State of Emergency called for the Province of Ontario and health emergency declaration by the Province of Québec, ERA Architects Inc has been working to adapt our work practices in order to help ‘flatten the curve’ of the potential spread of the virus. These practices will ensure the quality of our work remains high and we are able to continue serving the needs of you, our clients and colleagues.

To achieve this, ERA will be moving primarily into a virtual office mode, with meetings conducted by conference call or video software. As always, our team of architects, planners and specialists are on call and fully mobilized. Required in person meetings, such as architectural site visits, will be conducted following best practices in health, and in partnership with clients and constructors to ensure the health and safety of all parties.

Be assured that ERA’s commitment to you is to keep the caliber of work high; to understand and respond to changes beyond our control as quickly as possible; and work with our clients and colleagues to address these issues on a project-by-project basis. Our shared deadlines and goals are important to us, and we are making the changes needed to both adhere to the advice of Health Canada, the Ontario Health Agency and Toronto Public Health, and keep our workflow moving.

If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Best regards,

ERA Architects Inc.

Senate of Canada Building receives international recognition with 2020 Civic Trust Award

Photo: Doublespace Photography

The Senate of Canada Building has been awarded a 2020 Civic Trust Award, the longest-running international awards program recognizing outstanding architecture, planning and design in the built environment.

The award was given to Public Services and Procurement Canada, Diamond Schmitt Architects and KWC Architects on Friday, March 6 in Manchester. The Senate of Canada Building was just one of two North American projects to win the award. As heritage architects on the project, ERA is thrilled to congratulate our project partners on such a notable achievement.

Constructed in 1912 as Ottawa’s Union Station, the Senate of Canada Building is one of the most important cultural and historic landmarks in Ottawa. The building is an excellent example of the Beaux-Arts railway station tradition, popular in the early 20th century. In 1966, with the decline of passenger railway travel, the building narrowly escaped demolition and was converted into the Government Conference Centre. The former station has since been refurbished to accommodate the Senate of Canada during the rehabilitation of the Centre Block.

The interior of the Senate of Canada

ERA worked as heritage architects from 2014 until 2018 together with Diamond Schmitt Architects and KWC Architects in joint venture. Our work included a full rehabilitation of the building’s exterior and interior, ensuring it could appropriately accommodate the Senate of Canada.

The building was recognized by the Civic Trust Awards Panel for its adaptive re-use: “A bold re-use of an old building which recognises the gravitas of the original can be repurposed for social and environmental benefit, with a strong identity and a real architectural clarity,” read the comments.

We’re thrilled to add the Civic Trust Award to the building’s accolades. Read about the award from Diamond Schmitt and learn more about ERA’s work on the Senate of Canada Building project.

Affordability and resiliency: Renewing Toronto’s towers

Photo courtesy Jesse Colin Jackson

Over time, Canada’s aging mid-century towers have become the backbone of the country’s affordable rental supply, home to hundreds of thousands of low and middle-income households across the country.  

There are 2,000 postwar apartment towers located throughout Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe Region alone, representing nearly half of the region’s affordable rental stock. In 2006, more than 40 per cent of tower households in the city are considered low-income, up from 25 per cent in 1981. As the housing crisis continues to mount, it’s only imaginable that this number continues to rise. Maintaining these largely privately-owned buildings to ensure their continued affordability is a vital and necessary part of improving Toronto’s housing ecosystem.

A tower

ERA’s Tower Renewal projects focus on rehabilitating these aging and neglected towers, creating comfortable, affordable and healthy homes for residents. These tower renewal projects also include energy-efficient and low-carbon retrofits that help maintain affordability while limiting the impact on the environment.

Through the Tower Renewal Partnership, ERA collaborated with the City of Toronto and ULI Toronto to host a week of events focused on exploring how we can better retrofit our apartment towers in order to create a more resilient city. 

A group of people in a meeting

ERA hosted an opening session on affordability and resilience in our tower blocks at the office.

The week culminated with an Advisory Panel on Friday, February 28, where experts focused on solutions, providing a series of recommendations to the City to encourage broad investment in the improvement of private apartment towers while maintaining rents at affordable levels.

The recommendations emphasized the importance of acting swiftly when it comes to retrofitting these towers. They include: incentivizing higher levels of affordability and accessibility, accelerating tower renewal with a retrofit program and more. Watch the presentation below, and for the full list of recommendations, visit the Tower Renewal Partnership website.

These conversations could not have been held at a more critical time. This week, residents began to return home to their building at 650 Parliament Street following an August 2018 electrical fire.

Graeme Stewart on CBC Radio.

The displacement of the building’s more than 1,500 residents paints a clear picture of the potential future of some of our towers if they are not upgraded to ensure they remain safe and affordable for Torontonians. ERA principal Graeme Stewart was interviewed on CBC Radio’s The World at Six about Tower Renewal and 650 Parliament. 

A group touring a tower neighbourhood in Toronto

Learn more about the Tower Renewal Partnership, and the Advisory Panel event, and explore more ERA tower renewal projects.

Celebrating Laskay through Memory’s Gate

Residents and Small artists gather at the opening of Laskay's Gate

Public art has the ability to represent and celebrate the identity of a place. As an architecture firm specializing in built heritage and cultural values, we are increasingly interested in how art and other placemaking interventions can not only represent unique histories but do so in a way that transforms underused spaces into thriving places for community.

We’re seeing this idea come to fruition through Small, which works with communities to express cultural heritage in a tangible way.

In November, local residents, the Township of King and Small celebrated the opening of Memory’s Gate, a new public art installation in Laskay, a rural village located northwest of Toronto. 

Together with the Township of King’s Parks, Recreation and Culture department and the public art committee, Small created an architectural installation that recognizes the heritage of the village – both intangible and tangible.

Memory’s Gate is a weathered steel archway etched with lines from the poem that served as its inspiration – “Musings at Memory’s Gate” by King City’s Reverend Martin Jenkinson. The poem, written in 1953 and included in the Laskay Women’s Institute 60th Anniversary Portfolio in 1968, speaks to community connectivity across generations.

The Memory's Gate structure in Laskay.

The Gate connects tangible and intangible heritage of the village with the ever-changing landscape of the Humber River Valley. The artists hope to inspire contemplation and reflection for those who take rest upon the bench, which is fastened to a boulder that once sat outside the historic Laskay hall.

We’re thrilled the piece is already sparking conversation and remembrance for the Laskay community. At the unveiling, community members gathered to hear about the piece and to share their own memories of the village from decades past.

ERA and Small would like to thank those who helped shape the project along the way, as well as the Township of King for the wonderful placemaking opportunity. A special thank you to the Laskay Women’s Institute, who granted the reproduction rights of the poem on the gate and bench, and to FILOTIMO for providing excellent collaborative approach to Memory Gate’s fabrication and installation.

Finally, congratulations to the artists who brought this work to life: Stuart Chan, Jasmine Frolick, Max Yuristy, Carl Shura and Heather Campbell.

Learn more about Small, a initiative developed by ERA that works with rural and remote communities across Canada to express their unique cultural values, whether that be through artistic installations like Memory’s Gate, or with the revitalization of local main streets and creation of visionary masterplans. 

The Ward Cabaret: The sound of Toronto’s first cross-cultural community

Ward Cabaret

Cultural heritage is influenced and shaped by communities and their histories. In Toronto, this means much of the city’s cultural heritage is impacted by the multitudes of different communities that call it home.

One theatrical production is giving this cultural heritage a sound. The Ward Cabaret is back in Toronto after a sold-out run at last year’s Luminato Festival.

Presented by Juno-winning, Grammy-nominated musician and producer David Buchbinder, the first full production of this experience brings together musical influences and sounds from around the globe with a distinctly Toronto twist as it reimagines the vibrant music and stories of a community that was the first home for many Canadians.

Ward Cabaret performers

St John’s Ward, bordered by Yonge to the east, University to the west, Queen to south, and College to the north, was Toronto’s earliest significant immigrant enclave, from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. With Jewish, Irish, Italian, Chinese, African, and a number of other cultures living side by side in great density, the Ward has incredibly rich cultural stories for Toronto.

Many of these overlooked stories are captured in the books The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood and The Ward Uncovered: The Archaeology of Everyday Life – both edited by ERA’s Michael McClelland — which served as inspiration for The Ward Cabaret.

The Ward Cabaret is a creative reimagining of how it would have sounded to walk the streets of this historic neighbourhood, with songs and melodies from communities around the world intermingling and influencing one another.

ERA is thrilled to be involved with such an amazing production that depicts life in one of Toronto’s first cross-cultural communities. The Ward Cabaret is running December 12-23 at the Harbourfront Centre. Get your tickets on the Harbourfront Centre’s website or find out more at wardcabaret.com. Bonus offer: Buy one ticket, get another free when you use the code WeAreTheWard241. Active until December 6.

Ontario Place and the value of cultural heritage sites

Opened in 1971, Ontario Place was created to be a hub for Torontonians to experience the waterfront and take part in entertainment activities, from the open-air amphitheatre and the Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre, to the Children’s Village play area and exhibit space.

Ontario Place was the embodiment of the province’s economic and cultural prosperity of the time — a response to Montreal’s Expo67 four years earlier, and an example of the Modernist design principles of the day.

In the following decades, Ontario Place saw a decline in visitors and investment. In 2011, the province closed large portions of the site, and the disbanding of its governing board followed in 2018. The province has now made it known they’re seeking a long-term lease for the space, moving Ontario Place away from public governance to private ownership and development.  

World Monuments Fund is now calling for it to be saved, and importance as a site with heritage and cultural value to be recognized. 

Every two years, the Fund releases a list of cultural heritage sites around the world deemed as at-risk of being lost. This year after a successful campaign by a Ontario group, Ontario Place has joined 24 other sites on their 2020 World Monuments Watch list.

A view of Ontario Place over the water.

Heritage isn’t just exclusive to the oldest buildings in a city or a country, it can also pertain to places with an important cultural value to the experiences and histories of its community.

Many times, this kind of social importance is combined with a more traditional heritage value, and a site has design, historic and cultural significance. Ontario Place is one of these spaces.

In 2014, Ontario Place was added to the List of Provincial Heritage Properties. At the time, the province approved its statement of cultural value that detailed its significance.

“The site in its entirety — integrating innovative approaches to planning, landscape, architecture, engineering and educational programming — represents a bold visionary statement of its time realized at a scale and quality that earned international recognition and admiration,” reads part of the statement. “As an entertainment, educational and recreational centre serving the entire province, Ontario Place has attracted millions of visitors since its opening in 1971 and has remained a familiar and iconic landmark for many Ontarians and visitors.”

Ontario Place

How can Ontario Place continue to a valuable public space? The World Monuments Fund recognizes this in their write up on the site, outlining the vision of what Ontario Place can once again become.

“Through free and public access to the waterfront, Ontario Place can continue to foster interaction and exchange across population groups and fulfil the potential envisioned by its creators,” the site reads.

As an architecture firm rooted in work that connects heritage to urban design, city building and larger conversations of cultural values, we truly believe Ontario Place has the ability to once again, through investment, public engagement and design centred on community, become a thriving public space for Toronto – its residents and its visitors.

Read more on WMF’s statement on Ontario Place

Building for the community, with the community

Ridgeway workshop

As an architecture firm with values rooted in how we collectively shape and build better cities and their spaces, it’s important to us to engage deeply with the community on our projects.

While much of our work starts with assessments of existing buildings, observing their condition and advising site owners on how best to proceed with their conservation, many other projects begin with robust and integrated community engagement.

As city builders, we and our partners have the opportunity to transform underused spaces into places that better serve the community. Making the most impact requires filling a need, one that is identified by the community itself.  By taking cues from human-centred design principles, we can put the user, whether it be a resident of a tower retrofit or a visitor to a museum, at the centre of our planning and project development.

While human-centred design includes making sure the needs and behaviours of people are understood in order to make the most impact, it also ensures the community is part of the project’s development from the outset.

Opening day at the Ridgeway Community Courts in Mississauga

The transformation of an under-utilized parking lot and sidewalk boulevard into a vibrant multi-sport court and community space in Mississauga was first sparked by the user itself – a local group of youth wanting a space to play.

ERA was thrilled to come on board to help bring this project to reality, leading a collaborative design process with the community to create the Ridgeway Community Courts with support from the MLSE Foundation. This included leading a series of workshops with local youth to develop the identity and vision for the court, guiding the design development process along the way.

Having residents at the centre of this project has impacted more than just the physical space. With operations led by youth, the court has also brought about leadership and skill-building development for the community.

Two youth leaders at Ridgeway Community Courts.

Residents are also at the centre of our work in Ottawa with Stantec and client Canada Lands Company and the development of the Booth Street District Master Plan.

The Booth Street Complex includes seven buildings and 17 individual structures built between 1911 and 1952. Originally the site of the Canadian government’s mining research, the buildings include office spaces, research sites and laboratories. Its redevelopment will transform this area into a space that better serves the neighbourhood and Ottawa as a whole.

Arial view of Booth Street

Community engagement on the project was key and included the creation of a public advisory committee.  Before the start of the first committee meeting, ERA led a walking tour of the redevelopment site, providing participants an opportunity to review and discuss the site’s history, design features and heritage elements.

The feedback we received during successive meetings helped identify what was of value to the community. Among other things, residents identified the smokestack – a structure representing the area’s industrial past – as a visual landmark within the neighbourhood and an important attribute to the complex.

Stantec’s Molly Smith and ERA’s Victoria Angel lead a walking tour of the Booth Street area for Jane’s Walk.

Stantec’s Molly Smith and ERA’s Victoria Angel lead a walking tour of the Booth Street area for Jane’s Walk. Photo courtesy Stantec.

These projects put a spotlight on how putting people at the centre of the development process leads to a greater end result. Creating for the community, with the community sparks a collective impact to make our cities thrive.

Read more about the Booth Street redevelopment project.

Read more about Ridgeway Community Courts.

Announcing Founding Principal Edwin Rowse’s retirement from ERA Architects Inc.

Edwin's headshot.

One of ERA’s two founding principals, Edwin Rowse, is retiring as of October 1.

Edwin and Michael McClelland founded ERA in 1990 with a shared pragmatic, but principled, approach to heritage architecture, planning and conservation. Their ability to provide consistent advice from conception to full implementation of a project became a notable strength of the company and of its growing group of principals. Edwin’s remarkable capacity to combine finely detailed architectural, historical and technical considerations — whether for conservation or adaptive reuse projects — became a driving inspiration behind many of ERA’s projects, from the Distillery District in Toronto to national historic sites such as Parkwood Estate and Ruthven Park, to Trinity St. Paul’s Church for Tafelmusik, and to Ottawa’s Booth Street redevelopment and the recently completed Government Conference Centre.

Under Edwin’s and Michael’s leadership, ERA has grown from a local Toronto enterprise to one of the country’s largest heritage architecture firms. ERA is now a firm with a national reach that includes satellite offices in Montreal and Ottawa.

“ERA will remain forever a seminal experience in my life,” said Edwin at his retirement party earlier this month. “This is a new dawn for me. Retiring is not walking away. I will always work for ERA’s wellbeing and success.”

As Edwin transitions to a Principal Emeritus role with the firm, ERA’s executive team looks forward to continuing to build the firm’s partnership, strongly rooted in connecting heritage conservation to wider considerations of urban design and city building.Edwin will become a consultant to ERA on a part-time basis, after which he will continue to consult on various projects as a sole practitioner.

Uncovering the potential of Toronto’s laneways

A diagram of a coach house typology

Elements of a coach house: A) Simple / utilitarian, B) 1.5 storeys, C) Laneway, D) Inspired by, but in contrast with the components of the main house, E) Defensive, given the exposed setting to lane

Toronto’s laneways are having a moment. For decades, these alleyways were an underused, often neglected, space in a city in need of room to expand and grow. With Toronto City Council approving the adoption of laneway suites across the Toronto and East York district in July after a year-long pilot program, more attention is rightfully being given to these overlooked spaces.

While this is an important step in the right direction to add gentle density and increase the diversity of housing stock in Toronto’s established neighbourhoods, we’re equally excited for the opportunity to conserve and adapt these important pieces of historical infrastructure for reuse.

A historic laneway coach house

Coach Houses, like this one at 10 Madison, were the primary built form along Toronto’s historic laneways.

Toronto’s history is embedded in its laneways – even in many of their names. Some pay homage to local businesses, such as Ice Cream Lane in Danforth Village, named after Maple Leaf Dairy located nearby. Others bear names as an acknowledgement of the original Indigenous peoples of the land, such as Iroquois Lane and Meegwetch Lane. Peperonata Lane in Little Italy even has a more modern, community namesake, inspired by a local resident’s pepper fest, a tradition celebrated with neighbours each year.

The built forms along laneways can also tell us about the history of these spaces and their uses.

Coach houses were the primary built form of laneways. They usually had a large service opening, like a garage door, on the laneway side. Historically, coach houses were utilitarian ancillary structures, subordinate but related to a grander principal residence. Simple and defensive, they had modest elevations, and the side facing the back alley had only small additional openings, to shield their inhabitants. Their ground floors housed carriages and stables; the grooms slept above, in quarters discreetly tucked into mansard or gable roofs.

A map of Toronto's laneways overlapped by the Heritage Conservation Districts.

This map shows Toronto’s laneways in black, overlapped by the city’s Heritage Conservation District’s in yellow. These spaces are where historic laneway structures are most prevalent.

Approximately 10 per cent – or nearly 30 km – of Toronto’s laneways are entirely within or along the boundaries of areas designated under the Ontario Heritage Act as Heritage Conservation Districts. These are the places where historic coach houses are most prevalent.

An example of a laneway home in Toronto.

This Beaconsfield laneway suite by Creative Union Network is an adaptive reuse project of a former carriage house in historic Toronto. It’s a prime example of the kinds of opportunities available to reimagine and restore heritage elements in HCDs. Photo: Andrew Snow Photography.

Distilling the essential built form of coach houses may be a good starting point for designing laneway housing in Toronto’s historic neighbourhoods. “Laneway Suites” says City of Toronto planner Graig Uens, “allow for gradual change and a range of housing while acknowledging the typical low-rise and, in some cases, heritage character of the City’s existing residential neighbourhoods.” Laneway suites are intended to fit within an established context; it stands to reason that an appreciation of their historic predecessors should inform their design.

It can also reach past design and into use and function.

Toronto’s laneways historically were mixed-used.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they housed services, from stables and dairies, to blacksmiths, and were avenues for coal delivery. With that in mind, what role should a 21st century mixed-use laneway play in our city?

A laneway house recently readapted from a carriage house.

Toronto’s new bylaws on laneway suites even require two available parking spaces for bikes, as shown in this photo of Creative Union Network‘s laneway project. Photo: Andrew Snow Photography.

Communities and organizations are looking to revitalize laneways for uses beyond housing. The Laneway Project is helping community groups revitalize their alleys through greening and art projects. The non-profit is also leading a study to test the feasibility of a laneway market in Toronto, and their partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute on the Laneways as Bikeways project is reframing laneways as a potential solution to gaps in the city’s cycling network.

With that in mind, mixed-use structures in laneways have endless possibilities, from bike shops to service cyclists on their commutes, to cafés and restaurants for community gathering. While housing opened up the conversation about activating the city’s laneways, the potential of these spaces to build more mixed-use, complete and walkable neighbourhoods hasn’t yet been fully realized.

Though many historic laneway structures have been lost to time, those that remain can give us valuable information about the creative early history of how we’ve occupied laneways. They may even unlock creative solutions for the future.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of Spacing Magazine.

WexPOPS: Pop-up Plaza

WexPOPS is a pilot of the plazaPOPS project, an initiative spearheaded by Daniel Rotsztain, aka The Urban Geographer, and Brendan Stewart (OALA, CAHP), professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, and former Associate at ERA Architects.

In an interview supporting his recent book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can help fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg points to an idea that many urbanists take for granted but that the general public may not: that “the social life we experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a context for it. It can be supported or undermined by the places where we spend time”. In other words, there is a relationship between the design of our physical environment, and the social life that it enables or does not.

Klinenberg urges his readers to think about the types of places that foster connections and relationships between people and that build strong communities not as nice to have’s, but as an essential infrastructure that buttresses the foundations of democracy, inoculating society from many of the challenges that define our current moment. He argues that ‘social infrastructure’ will only become more critical as communities are forced to adapt to the challenges associated with climate change.

Closer to home, the Evergreen Foundation’s Towards a Civic Commons Strategy proposes a similar vision for “a network of public places and facilities that enable communities to learn, celebrate, express collective actions, collaborate and flourish, together”.

Inspired in part by these ideas, for the past year and a bit we’ve been working on an experiment to test the potential of creating a type of civic commons / social infrastructure within the ubiquitous strip mall parking lots that define the main streets of post-war neighbourhoods across the country and that are home to millions of Canadians.

Open from July 5th to August 17th at the iconic Wexford Plaza at Lawrence Avenue East and Warden Avenue in Scarborough (the setting of the recent eponymous indie film), WexPOPS is the result of over a year of community consultation, planning, and design work, and a collaboration that involved 19 Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) students from the University of Guelph, graduate business and planning students from U of T’s Rotman CityLAB fellowship program, a 15 member strong local working group, and partnerships with the Wexford Heights BIA, The City of Toronto’s Public Realm Unit, Scarborough Arts, the TRCA, the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, Mural Routes, the Working Women Community Centre and a number of local businesses who supported the initiative in various ways including the Kirakou family — the owners of the Wexford Restaurant, and the entire plaza — who are generously hosting the project.

Funded by Parks People’s Public Space Incubator Grant, generously supported by Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation, as well as the City of Toronto’s BIA Kickstarter Fund, the big idea of the project is to test the viability of exchanging parking spots for community gathering space, all on private commercial property. It’s a new take on POPS — privately owned public space — experimenting with the city building potential that commercial business owners can exercise by enhancing community life in the neighbourhoods they serve, while hopefully also seeing an uptick in business.

Similar strip malls are found throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs and in post war neighbourhoods all over Ontario and Canada. In many cases, especially in Toronto, the retail remains vibrant and local, serving as important settings for community life, and features numerous restaurants and shops serving food and offering goods from all over the world. The Wexford Heights BIA, a 2 km strip running between Victoria Park and Birchmount along Lawrence Avenue East, features over 60 restaurants, and has been celebrated by food columnists as a major dining destination.

The project grows out of Daniel’s fascination with the strip malls he frequented in his youth, culminating in his 2018 MLA thesis at U of G which was overseen by Dr. Karen Landman and Brendan Stewart. It builds on Daniel’s work as an artist, examining the setting of Toronto’s public life including All the Libraries Toronto, his documentation of all 100 public library branches in the city, and a recent residency at Yorkdale Mall that asserted the centrality of private shopping centres in Toronto’s social geography. It also builds on Brendan’s citizen engagement Tower Renewal work with ERA, including parking lot to community space conversion projects at the East Scarborough Storefront (2010 – 2015) and Ridgeway Community Courts (2015-2017) in Mississauga.

The final design of WexPOPS features a series of modular planters, benches, tables and umbrellas, all clad in marine plywood and trimmed in cedar. Occupying 10 parking spaces, the installation creates a comfortable and sheltered ‘room’ in the middle of the parking lot, and frames dynamic views of the strip mall behind. The carpentry was done by Guelph based Ben O’Hara Design, and all of the components were designed as modules that could be re-configured into different arrangements to suit different future site conditions, and to flat pack for easy assembly and storage.

Six design concepts for the project were developed through a series of community workshops by student teams in a graduate community design studio at the U of G this past winter, and the ideas most favoured by the working group and a wider online engagement were incorporated into the final design. For example, one student team developed the colour scheme for the project, which includes vibrant red, orange and yellow and was inspired by the spice markets of the Middle East. Another student team proposed a space of lush and immersive greenery, an idea that resonated in the community and which dominates the final design.

In all, WexPOPS features over 500 plants, which are planted in colour coded pots: red denoting native perennial wildflowers and grasses, orange for annuals, and yellow for edibles. The pots were created from salvaged recycling pails from the University, and were painted and drilled for drainage. The annuals and edibles were grown in campus greenhouses and donated to the project, and all of the native plants, grown by Native Plants in Claremont, will be donated to the TRCA to be planted in a local stretch of the Meadoway this fall.

12 local youth from an after school program run out of the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, located across the street, have been hired as site supervisors, stewarding the site through daily watering, managing waste and setting up and taking down umbrellas.

At night, LED lighting within the benches creates a welcoming atmosphere, and the illuminated strip mall signage creates a dynamic backdrop. During several evenings this summer, including an upcoming event on August 17th, the WexPOPS stage (with a mural designed by Echo Railton and painted by community volunteers) offers music and dance performances by local artists, co-curated by Scarborough Arts as well as urban ecology workshops lead by the TRCA.

WexPOPS is designed to be a hub of social activity for the local community, but also to attract visitors from beyond — a desire articulated by our working group who wanted to “put Wexford on the map”. The space features a neighbourhood business directory which encourages people to patronize the local restaurants and businesses (and eat takeout in the space), and a ‘dot map’ which prompts visitors to place a sticker on a map showing where they live, the idea being that this data will help the team evaluate the impact and reach of the project. The signs were donated in kind by CAS Signs Co, a printer located in Wexford Plaza a few stores down from WexPOPS. The ‘Wexford Wish Tree’, inspired by the shape of the sumac and CNC milled by local AC Waterjet, poses a different question every two weeks and invites visitors to write their answer on a horticultural tag and tie it to the tree for others to read.

WexPOPS may be popping down after August 18, but the proof of concept has already inspired many to reconsider the potential of privately-owned strip mall parking lots as community gathering places, including, perhaps most importantly, the Kirakou family — the property owners and our project hosts. To more concretely determine the impact of the project, the plazaPOPS team is conducting a public life study, modelled on methodologies pioneered by Gehl Architects, and is also studying the impact on parking and local business activity. The Rotman students, guided by Prof. Rafael Gomez, prepared a background study that informed the research design.

Project findings will be published later this year in an exit report, but already, many working in the urban design, community arts, and economic development sectors have noted the potential for applying the plazaPOPS concept beyond Wexford Heights, understanding the value of creating space to support the social life of communities in strip malls across Toronto, Ontario, and Canada.

You can find more information about the project and it’s design and planning process at www.plazaPOPS.ca and follow the project on twitter and Instagram @plaza_pops. You can reach the team at plazapops@gmail.com

This guest article appears courtesy of Brendan Stewart. Photos: Kat Rizza.