Arts Without a Home
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Arts Without a Home

The Toronto Media Arts Cluster thought it was getting a brand new building this year. Instead, the organization is suing the City for not holding up its end of the bargain.

Photo illustration from the Toronto Media Arts Centre website

Photo illustration from the Toronto Media Arts Centre website.

“We had a deal and we’re not walking away.” That’s what frustrates Henry Faber of the Toronto Media Arts Cluster (TMAC).

Faber is the cofounder and director of community development at Bento Miso—a space for creative Torontonians to work on and develop their art and trades in a community environment, and a member of the board of directors for TMAC.

TMAC is a non-profit group of media-arts organizations with the goal of sharing resources and space in completing their work. In 2011 they had a deal with the city to build about 40,000 square feet of media-arts space at 36 Lisgar Street, according to section 37 of the provincial planning act—and they were more or less ready to move in, until the City took the space away.

Section 37 exists to allow developers to build beyond zoning regulations, provided they include some sort of benefit to the surrounding community in their final product. In the case of TMAC’s space, the developer Urbancorp specifically constructed a facility for their needs within a condo. Section 37 agreements are negotiated between the involved parties and the local councillor—in this case, Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport)—and the important parts of the deal were finalized between 2011 and 2014. Things only went sideways this spring, when Urbancorp missed its May 3 completion deadline and TMAC offered to extend it. Instead, the City cancelled the deal.

In an open letter on their website, TMAC alleges that the city “directed Urbancorp to allow the date to pass, apparently because it intended to hand the facility over to real estate developer Artscape in the final hour.” They also note that Bailão sits on the Artscape board of directors, and the president of Urbancorp, Alan Saskin, is chair of the Artscape foundation board of directors.

As Ed Keenan at the Star points out, deals under section 37 have their flaws, and Faber agrees they should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, admitting that not all deals under it are perfect. But, he added, “The one thing that is abundantly clear in ours is the language and the process is pretty airtight.” He also swears that “this particular agreement was done correctly.”

At an open meeting at Bento Miso on June 22, Faber told the crowded room of concerned citizens that “Councillor Bailão simply said, ‘It’s my decision whether or not this goes through, regardless of any legal contract,’ and she said, ‘I’m not going to move that date.'” All subsequent communication requests with Bailão have been forwarded to the City’s legal counsel or her June 16 statement after TMAC’s lawsuit was filed.

According Bailão’s statement, it was only after careful review that City staff opted not to extend the completion deadline for the purchase agreement between Urbancorp, the City, and TMAC. The City’s official statement of defence against TMAC reasserts the councillor’s claim.

“What you’ve heard from Ana Bailão and her statement is all we’ve heard. We haven’t heard anything else from the City,” Faber said. “Not a City lawyer, not an Urbancorp lawyer. Nothing.”

Bailão was the decision-maker in this process, and a public meeting was held June 25 to gain input from the community on what to do with the facility built for TMAC at the Parkdale Library. The thing is that the City and the public have already approved TMAC using the space. They signed an agreement of purchase and sale in 2014 and the community group Active 18 has been vocal in their support of TMAC moving into the facility.

“The one thing about why TMAC was even brought on—it’s what the community asked for,” said Bailão. “They were consulted. There was a similar process (to the upcoming consultation in Parkdale); this is what was asked for.”

“Councillor Bailão shepherded it through city hall as one of her projects,” said Lauren Howes of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, another TMAC member. “But when it came to the floor of council, it was a unanimous vote in favour.” The space TMAC was to take did receive strong support form council from zoning amendment votes in 2011 and 2012, as well as votes to extend the negotiating time between Urbancorp and TMAC.

TMAC was so close to moving into their new space that metal nameplates on the elevators in the building even exist. According to Faber, “It’s essentially done.”

One member of the group, Charles Street Video (CSV), had to leave its old location already because of an expired rental agreement. They thought they’d already be in the space that was built for them:

“We had expected we would be moving into TMAC,” said Ross Turnbull, General Manager of CSV.

By March, CSV had outstayed their rental agreement by seven months and opted to vacate.

TMAC has said Urbancorp reached the substantial completion date in early April—a benchmark they were to warn the group about 90 days in advance—but TMAC claims Urbancorp never told them. This, of course, happened when they were still under contract.

In the meantime, TMAC remains without a home.

CORRECTION: July 20, 1:45 p.m. An earlier version of this article contained a quote from Ross Turnbull about his former landlord, which claimed that the landlord asked CSV for a 50 per cent rent increase in order to stay in its longtime home. According to the landlord, this ultimatum was never given. Turnbull has clarified that he was speaking figuratively, and in no way meant to cast aspersions on CSV’s former landlord, who he characterized as being “abundantly fair.” Torontoist regrets the error, and apologizes to the landlord.