A former police station that people once avoided is now a sustainable building where people of all ages can find community resources.
In the back of the building, what used to be jail cells are now offices that were designed by local teens. On the east side of the building, a new grade-A kitchen is being used by entrepreneurs. And in August 2014, an entirely new green technology called a “Sky-o-Swale” was completed and launched. It is a tall structure meant to collect rainwater as well as provide shade, made of the police station’s chain-link fences, which are propped up by reused wood.
And the changes don’t stop there. One weekend late in November 2014, carpenters, free of charge, erected a pergola. As funding becomes available, the East Scarborough Storefront is undergoing continuous renovations, all with the help of youth from the Kingston-Galloway- Orton Park neighbourhood.
This is all part of the Community. Design. Initiative. (CDI) project which started in 2009 and involves youth collaborating with three different architecture and design firms to design sustainable features that will be included in the renovations. Steve Socha, an architect with SUSTAINABLE. TO, the firm involved in the building process of the renovations, says that the involvement of young people helps make the renovations more tailored to the community.
“People who use the storefront on a day-to-day basis know about it and the community more than we (the architects) do, coming in as outsiders. We are consulting with them, using their designs, then making them real,” Socha said.
He adds that the project has helped the youth, as well.
“One of the youth, right from the beginning, he was going down the wrong path, hanging out with the wrong friends, getting into trouble, and now he is one of the biggest ambassadors for the storefront,” he said.
That youth is Ajeev Bhatia, who was 15 years old when he was convinced by a friend to attend and he started volunteering at the storefront in 2010. Initially he saw volunteering as an obligation, but was intrigued by the CDI.
“They wanted youth to redesign the resource centre,” Bhatia recalls of one of the earlier renovations. “That’s a lot of ownership and a lot of authority. And I never really experienced that. Where else would I get to design a building at the age of 16?”
The volunteer position turned to a Youth Ambassador position, which eventually led to him working with ERA architects to oversee eight to 10 youth to build parts of the pergola and square sections of what is now the deck below the Sky-o- Swale.
According to Socha, the CDI is an eight-phase project, jumping between different phases as funds become available. Because the storefront is not-for-profit, fundraising through grants and donations from the City of Toronto and United Way must be done for the renovations, which can be challenging.
“We had an engineer go through the existing mechanical system. We discovered the back of the building used to be a garage so there is no mechanical system. So that adds an extra $100,000,” he said.
Architects and designers must also teach the youth about sustainable features such as energy-efficiency and using rainwater to water the community garden.
“The youth know some, but usually it’s pretty new,” Socha said. “We try to teach them in as simple as a way we can.”
For Bhatia, the experience has changed his way of thinking about architecture and design.
“I always thought it was beyond me,” he said. “I thought there was no place for youth.”
Teaching the youth about sustainable architecture and design opens doors for them, says Anne Gloger, director of the East Scarborough Storefront.
“We looked at it as a way to break down barriers to professions that tend to be somewhat elitist and restrictive to people who live in neighbourhoods like KGO,” she said.
It also gave all parties involved a new way of thinking about sustainability.
“One of the things I learned is that anything can be repurposed. Even some of the wood used in the Sky-O-Swale was salvaged from an art event,” Bhatia said. “Some of the tables at the storefront are repurposed. I wondered, how come we weren’t doing this before? It’s changed the way I think about things.”
Socha says the economic, social and cultural changes help make the community more sustainable, with the storefront as a hub.
“When you look at the residents in this area and other similar areas, a lot of them don’t own cars. It’s a great challenge for them to walk to a grocery store or anywhere else,” he said. “These buildings are spaced so far apart where residents don’t have any amenities.”
Some of the other physical sustainable features added include a green roof for the storefront, solar panels and green walls, which are walls of vegetation that reduce carbon emissions and attract biodiversity such as birds, bees and other insects.
Hopefully, the changes will be felt beyond the storefront and into the community, with bike lanes created to make Morningside Park, which is adjacent to the storefront, more accessible.
“The storefront is a pretty vibrant community centre,” Socha says. “”It’s a small piece of the neighbourhood. It doesn’t exist in isolation. It exists in the towers around it, and that’s where most of the residents live.”
Kimberly Aglipay| sprout magazine