Grit & Grace: Change Comes to Dundas and Jarvis

Dundas Square Gardens Condominium

“On balance this is a great place to live, but it does have challenges.”

Nick Culverwell speaks frankly about a topic he knows well, one that’s literally close to home — the downtown east neighbourhood of Dundas and Jarvis streets.

“If you love living downtown, if you love the idea of being able to walk to work, our proximity to downtown is extraordinary,” says the local resident and president of the area’s Garden District Residents Association.

It’s a neighbourhood that’s got a lot going for it. Ryerson University and the Eaton Centre to the west, Dundas subway station five minutes away, Moss Park and Allan Gardens just as close. But the surrounding neighbourhood — at one point, in the 1880s, one of the city’s most fashionable areas to live, and still defined by some of its grand historical homes — is also a little rough around the edges, with extensive social housing and, as for commercial features, it’s what Mr. Culverwell calls “dramatically underserved.”

But it is a community that’s changing. “It’s a bit of a cliché to say it’s a neighbourhood in transition, but it’s a neighbourhood in transition,” Mr. Culverwell says.

A New Dundas and Jarvis is Expected to Emerge

In fact, over the next 10 years, a new Dundas and Jarvis is expected to emerge. Residents hope the new neighbourhood will still encompass many of the attributes that make it unique today, alongside obvious transformations, to create a truly distinctive urban community.

That evolution is already under way. One of the first signs is the recent revitalization of the Brutalist-style inverted pyramid building that was once the Sears Canada head office. Built in 1971, at one point it dominated the Dundas and Jarvis landscape. Purchased by the provincial government in 2007, the building has been retrofitted and is now home to offices for the Ministry of Government Services; 2,300 staff currently work there.

John White, principal with WZMH Architects, worked on the building’s new design. “This area was actually revitalizing itself [when the project started]. We were just taking what was a dead corner and bringing it back to life,” says Mr. White, who purposely didn’t add a cafeteria to the building, to encourage staff to visit local businesses instead. “Our design intent was to engage the building into the neighbourhood again and reconnect it.”

Even before the building was fully staffed, there were signs that those plans were already working. The project has brought more people to the area during the day, adding new vitality to the underutilized intersection.

It’s hoped new condo projects planned for the community will help achieve the same thing, Mr. Culverwell says, and are for the most part welcomed by the neighbourhood, who expect the increased density to also help fuel local commercial endeavours.

Dundas Square Gardens

Dundas Square Gardens is one of those proposed condo sites, with the sales office scheduled to open later this year. Steve Gupta, CEO of developer Easton’s Group, is already a presence in the community, having owned and operated the local Hilton Garden Inn since 2000. Along with 978 residential units in the new project, he’s planning a community space, as well as between 10,000 and 40,000 square feet of retail. “That will make a huge difference to the corner,” says Mr. Gupta, who will replace the current hotel with the project. “It will be a totally different landscape than it is today.”

Dundas Square Gardens: Bird's Eye View

Along with 978 residential units in the new project, Steve Gupta is planning a community space, as well as between 10,000 and 40,000 square feet of retail.

But the community hopes things don’t change too much. They want the changes at Dundas and Jarvis to build on the existing community, not gentrify or “over-sanitize” it, Mr. Culverwell says. Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam agrees. Social housing is prevalent through the area — including Seaton House, the city’s largest men’s shelter, on nearby George Street — and will continue to be a feature of the neighbourhood as it evolves. But Seaton House — which has been known to attract some undesirable elements to the area, including drug activity — is in the early stages of a redevelopment of its own, a project that will take over some of the adjacent homes surrounding it, adding new services and space. “That will be a big catalytic change, because one of the reasons there’s a perception that the downtown east is undesirable is largely because of some of the intense activity that happens around Seaton House. So we’re hoping to update the model of care,” Ms. Wong-Tam says.

Ryerson is also under way with plans of its own, to build a 30-storey student residence at 186-188 Jarvis St., just south of Dundas, where construction is scheduled to begin later this year. The neighbourhood, with its large Victorian and Edwardian homes, is also the focus of a study to potentially create a Heritage Conservation District under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The hope by locals is that these different elements — social, cultural, commercial, residential, historical and institutional — can coexist in the newly revitalized neighbourhood. “The residents in this neighbourhood are very, very open to that outcome,” Mr. Culverwell says.

Christopher Wein, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Great Gulf, hopes for the same thing. Great Gulf first came to the intersection three years ago, having seen potential; today, construction is underway on its Pace Condominiums project. Mr. Wein expects Dundas and Jarvis to follow the example of places like Queen Street West, becoming a truly eclectic and urban community.

“Neighbourhoods that were traditionally considered a little rougher or not as upmarket as others, over time often end up being the great neighbourhoods in the city, because they end up having a fabric that’s more interesting and a little more diverse,” Mr. Wein says. “And I think the Dundas and Jarvis neighbourhood can become just that.”