Toronto Artscape live, work spaces a great escape for artists

Toronto performer Tahirih Vejdani owns a condo with her husband in the Artscape Lofts at PACE, a space at below-market value where she can teach and practice. (Photo by David Leyes)

Tahirih Vejdani hadn’t planned on buying a condo. But after she heard about the Artscape Lofts at PACE building, she impulsively submitted an application to buy one.

“I wasn’t looking to be a homeowner, but when I heard about the lofts and the affordability aspect, I thought it was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up,” says Vejdani, a singer, dancer, actor, conductor and music educator.

She applied to buy one of 19 new suites offered at below-market value within two large condo developments at PACE (by Great Gulf Homes) and 210 Simcoe (Sorbara Group and Diamond Corp.) condos. “When I heard about them, there were only four units left and it was only a week before the deadline. I actually had in my mind that I wasn’t going to be chosen or that I wasn’t eligible.”

First-time homebuyer

To be eligible, Vejdani had to be a first-time homebuyer, be able to qualify for a mortgage and one member of her household had to be a practising artist (which she is). Her husband, Alberto Lopez, works in the IT industry.

Artscape, a not-for-profit urban development organization geared to the creative sector, provided an interest-free second mortgage to bring Vejdani’s unit’s purchase price below market-value. The objective is to give artists and artist-led families the opportunity to afford homes, build equity, live in rapidly changing areas of the city and foster creative and professional development in the downtown core.

Dutch-born contemporary artist Elsha Leventis works in her studio at the Artscape Distillery Studios, using watercolour techniques to create an image of an iris.  (Photo by Georgia Cowan)

The lofts at PACE and 210 Simcoe is just one of many Artscape initiatives in Toronto. It provides accommodation for 149 non-profit community organizations and for 2,600 people who work and/or live in its buildings, and it has 42 public venues where performances and exhibits are held.

To name just a few, its roster of projects includes: Artscape West Queen West, the first legal artist live/work building in the city; the Parkdale Arts & Cultural Centre, home to offices for community non-profit organizations, an artist-run gallery and artist live-work studios; and Artscape Wychwood Barns, where arts, culture, urban agricultural and environmental activities have combined to form a bustling community hub.

Artscape started as a project of the Toronto Arts Council in 1986 and evolved into a non-profit organization. Its first building project was 900 Queen St. W., where a derelict warehouse was transformed into the first legal artist live/work building in Toronto with 22 units, helping to kick-start the revitalization of the neighbourhood.

There are currently about half a dozen projects in development, including more affordable artists’ lofts, a new cultural and community hub in the Weston neighbourhood in partnership with Rockport Group, City of Toronto and Woodbourne Capital Management, and Artscape Daniels Launchpad, a one-stop art and design entrepreneurship hub opening in 2018 on Queen’s Quay.

Safe space for creative workers

Artscape spokesperson Claire Pfeiffer says Artscape’s mandate is to provide safe spaces for creative workers to live and work in the city, to root arts and culture in neighbourhoods, and to prevent artists from being forced out of their neighbourhoods because they can no longer afford to stay there. “The arts are vital to community vibrancy,” says Pfeiffer.

With each project, Artscape strives to combine community, social, environmental and policy benefits. The organization has started working in partnership with new condo developers, such as with PACE and 210 Simcoe, and will provide more affordable units for artists in four projects coming to market in 2018. Artscape Bayside Lofts, part of the Hines/Tridel Bayside development between Lower Sherbourne and Parliament Streets, will provide 80 affordable lofts, “which is a huge number compared to what we usually do,” says Pfeiffer.

Vejdani as Bianca in The Taming of The Shrew, a production with Driftwood Theatre’s Bard’s Bus Tour. (Photo by Dahlia Katz)

The Artscape Lofts at PACE, where Vejdani lives, provided a rare opportunity for its creative residents to stay downtown as prices have risen a lot in the city core and most artists have had to relocate to less expensive areas, says Pfeiffer.

Vejdani and her husband became owners of a 680-square-foot, one bedroom-plus-den suite. They gave up the lease on their rental apartment near The Annex and planned to move in June 2016.

A tiler’s strike, however, affected their unit and many others, so the possession date was delayed. In the interim, the pair moved in with a family member in Ajax and Vejdani spent the summer in transit shuttling back and forth from the suburbs to Toronto, where she attended plays on weekends as part of her duty as Dora Mavor Moore awards juror. At the time she was also touring through Ontario with Driftwood Theatre. By Aug. 1, they were able to move in.

“There is just enough space for the two of us and it’s great that I have enough space where I can teach music students,” Vejdani says. “My husband works from home too, and we have two cats.”

Artist neighbours

Now she’s back to commuting for a few months. She is in rehearsals at the Stratford Festival currently for two productions — Treasure Island and HMS Pinafore — that she’ll perform in this summer.

When she is at home in Toronto, she works for the Regent Park School of Music directing the choirs, and also volunteers there through the Artscape Volunteer Exchange Program, giving her time to the local arts community.

She and her husband enjoy being surrounded by their artist neighbours and the close-knit community that has formed.

“There are a bunch of theatre artists, a contemporary dancer, visual artists, two classical pianists, a photographer, an improv comedian and a film guy. It’s such a lovely community and so supportive. I forgot my keyboard in Stratford and all kinds of neighbours offered theirs up. We go and support each other’s shows.”

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