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Trefann Court
Bounded by Parliament, Shuter, River and Queen streets
Rehabilitated 1971, 1973, 1978

In the first years of the Depression, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Herbert Bruce, gave a stirring speech about poverty and grim housing conditions in Toronto. He urged that most central Toronto neighbourhoods be demolished to make way for new housing. After the Second World War there was a strong push to fulfill Bruce’s dream.

Neighbourhood demolition and reconstruction was called “urban renewal” and it had an active life in downtown Toronto from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. At that point residents in the Trefann Court area raised such political heat that the urban renewal strategy was halted in Toronto and in other Canadian cities and new solutions for regeneration were found.

The Trefann Court area is bounded by Queen, Parliament, Shuter and River streets. The City proposed to demolish almost all of the residential and commercial structures in the area; to build public housing in the westerly portion of the site, complimenting the Regent Park urban renewal area immediately to the north; and to permit industrial buildings on the east of the site.

† Sewel, The Shape of the City

With the help of community workers, the residents urged the City that their homes not be expropriated, that they be allowed to have significant involvement in replanning their community, and that an alternative to public housing be found. By 1971 the residents had made significant changes in the way the City looked at the Trefann neighbourhood and other downtown communities.

The following changes were significant:

  • A planner was hired by the City to work from a neighbourhood office directly with residents. This was the first example in Toronto of citizen participation in planning, a policy quickly adopted by City Council for all neighbourhoods.

  • The residents and the planner agreed that most of the existing community should be protected, rather than demolished, and that new construction should strengthen, rather than weaken, the existing community. This was the first example of the policy to preserve neighbourhoods.

  • An alternative was found to public housing (where every household had a low income and paid 25 per cent of income in rent). In Trefann Court, a small housing project, of about 30 units, provided a mix of home ownership, market rental, and subsidized rental. This approach of mixing tenures and incomes was quickly repeated throughout Toronto, most notably in the St Lawrence community.

  • Trefann residents convinced the provincial government to enact a new Expropriation Law that included the principle “home for a home.” The new law required an expropriating authority to pay full replacement value, rather than simple market value that reflected depressed prices because of urban renewal designation. The difference in cost to the expropriating body has been so significant that since this legislation was passed in the early 1970s there have been very few expropriations in Ontario.

EJRThe Trefann community barely stands out from other downtown neighbourhoods – which is one of its successes. However, one can find the innovative mixed-tenure, non-profit, housing project on the west side of Trefann Street (the first street east of Parliament); new City of Toronto Non-Profit Housing Corporation units on Sackville Street; and through the rest of the area, a mix of new and old housing, private and non-profit, some buildings more attractive than others. On Sumach Street, between Queen and Shuter, there are the remnants of the only large, new industrial building in the area that the City subsidized as a prelude to urban renewal, but it has now been converted to condominiums.

(For further information, see John Sewell, The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning. University of Toronto Press, 1993.)

John Sewell

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