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Community has high hopes for former streetcar yard

Urban eyesore poised for transformation into a cultural hub with historic appeal

The difference between an eyesore and an asset can be minimal. In a city, it can even be non-existent.

Take the example of the old Toronto Transit Commission streetcar yard south of St. Clair Ave. W. between Wychwood Ave. and Christie St. Since the last Red Rocket showed up in 1978, the approximately 2-hectare site has been empty and unused. Not surprisingly, it is littered with broken bricks, twisted tracks and, as a result, resembles a war zone.

Recently, however, the property has started to look a lot better. Nothing has happened yet, but the change in attitude has led to a total reappraisal of the situation and the Wychwood yard may be on the verge of a whole new existence because of it.

Basically, the plan now is to develop the site into an arts and community centre. Most of the interest is focused on a series of five “barns” that date from 1913, 1916 and 1921.

These are large red brick sheds where streetcars were repaired. Though they’re not fancy, they possess enormous character and historical significance.

“This is the most exciting project to hit the west end in some time,” enthuses Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s). “The community is so much a part of the planning process, there’s a strong sense of ownership.”

Mihevc’s involvement goes back to the late 1990s when the Wychwood Barns were threatened with demolition. In 1998, the buildings came close to being torn down but were saved at the last minute and, in 1999, the site was handed over to the city.

Now, Artscape, the non-profit city agency dedicated to developing properties where artists can live and work, has also entered the picture. It hopes the barns can be transformed into a cultural hub that includes studios, apartments, offices, galleries, and performance space.

“People’s first impression was that the place was a disaster and that everything should be torn down,” says Mihevc. “Then we did an architectural review and they began to realize that these buildings are unique. Inside, these buildings are incredible. The barns have skylights and the lighting is amazing.”

Another proposal calls for one of the barns to be turned into a greenhouse. Public walkways might be extended through some of the buildings to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and open up the vistas between Christie and Bathurst Sts.

One of the main obstacles has been the city’s lack of money. But by renting the site to Artscape (for $1 a year), it can hand over responsibility for fundraising to the arm’s-length organization. Artscape can also make deals with private companies.

Though plans are far from settled, Mihevc envisions a three-phase program that would start with a small park on the east side of the site, then continue with building renovations and, finally, housing on the west side.

“It would contribute to the revitalization of the neighbourhood,” Mihevc insists, “and the revitalization of St. Clair.”

Ironically, when Wychwood Park was laid out and built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was intended as an artists’ colony. One of the main proponents was the artist George Reid.

Last night, more than 150 people showed up for a community meeting to talk about the scheme. Architect Joe Lobko has been hired to take its suggestions and assemble a report. It will be presented publicly Jan. 22.

If all goes according to plan, the remaking of Wychwood Barns would be complete by 2005. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Mihevc adds. “The transformation has already started.”