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Enter stage right: a condo boom
Rampant development is pushing small theatre companies out of their homes and into uncertain futures

By KATE TAYLOR , The Globe and Mail, Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Artword Theatre on Portland Street is an unusual place: a small independent arts centre with a gallery and two theatres run without a penny of public subsidy. Partners Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford established the centre, housed in an old clothing factory, in 1999 when the Conservative Party had cut Ontario arts grants so deeply, the couple didn't even bother applying for money. They found they could make a go of it -- if not a fortune -- covering the rent for the building and the payments on their bank loan by charging modest fees to the many small theatre groups that wanted to perform there.

Today, however, Artword has encountered a different kind of free market: The centre is closing on March 1 because a real-estate developer has bought the building and will soon tear it down to begin condominium construction. Mr. Weihs and Ms. Sandiford are optimistically talking about finding a new space -- if not necessarily in the same trendy King Street West neighbourhood where the Freed Development Corp. is already selling three other condo projects.

Meanwhile, about 2½ kilometres farther west on Queen Street, the Theatre Centre, a small institution that has provided a home for experimental theatre in various ramshackle premises for 27 years, is eyeing its future nervously. Since 2001, it has been housed in rented space in the basement of the Great Hall building at Queen and Dovercourt Streets, but that building is now for sale. The vendors are asking $3.2-million -- almost three times the price they paid in 2003 for a mixed-use building.

If the Theatre Centre winds up having to relocate, it will need help to find any workable solution in the rapidly gentrifying Queen West corridor, where new condo developments are pressing up against the bars, cafés and galleries that have made the area popular with the arts community.

The Toronto theatre community views these developments with some alarm: It seems there is never enough cheap, safe space for small theatre troupes to develop new work, and the condo boom is making the situation only worse.

"The urban condo market has taken a lot of these great warehouse spaces and turned them into great money-making machines," says Kelly Thornton, artistic director of Nightwood Theatre, a company that describes itself as "Canada's national women's theatre" but which always performs in spaces it rents from other theatres.

In the Annex, performers have also lost the Poor Alex, which closed for renovations last year after local café owner Graziano Marchese bought the building to forestall potential condo development. He hopes to reopen it as a venue for theatre, music and comedy, but negotiations to move the Fringe Festival into the building have fallen through. Downtown, the Tim Sims Playhouse, a secondary venue attached to the Second City comedy club, also closed last year when that outfit moved to smaller premises on Mercer Street -- and sold the previous building to a developer.

Toronto's small theatre scene has acted as an incubator for English-Canadian theatre, but directors wonder how the next generation will rise if it simply can't find the little black boxes in which its predecessors always created their work.

"We are looking at the closings of really vital theatres," says Jacoba Knappen, executive director of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, which represents 162 theatre, dance and opera troupes in the city. "The health of the independent theatre community in at risk."

The problem is one of gentrification, the process whereby artists are priced out of the neighbourhoods they have helped to fix up, but it's more than that, one observer says.

"The traditional habitat of the artistic community has been gobbled up and the warehouse buildings are very attractive [to developers]," says Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, a non-profit group that works to secure studios and housing for artists in heritage buildings. "You add to that zoning liberalization and a booming real-estate market, [and] it's a quadruple whammy."

The 1996 city zoning change that permitted housing to be built in the formerly industrial fringes of downtown has created zippy new neighbourhoods both west of Spadina Avenue and east of Jarvis Street and has turned vast empty warehouses so perfect for performing and exhibiting into lofts, restaurants and boutiques. Furthermore, Mr. Jones says, the financial structure of commercial real estate has changed: "The old warehouses were mom-and-pop operations; commercial real estate is now owned by pension funds."

Where once smaller owners with no immediate use for abandoned buildings were willing to let artists use the spaces at friendly rates, commercial developers in a booming market are now looking to tear down or convert buildings as fast as possible. At Artword, for example, the site was bought in the early 1990s by clothing manufacturer Abrar Galani to house his family-owned factory; when he moved that to an industrial suburb a few years later, he helped Artword renovate the place while he held on to it. But, to no one's surprise, once he sold to Freed, a leading local developer, Artword was out.

"We assumed it wasn't permanent. . . . We had an opportunity because the landlord was in a holding pattern," Mr. Weihs says. "It would be disingenuous to say this was a big shock."

Things are happening more slowly at 1087 Queen St. W., where the asking price has been dropped by $700,000 since the building first went on the market last September. Because of the heritage designation of the building and the historic assembly room at its core, the Great Hall is not an obvious candidate for condos. Although it currently houses some apartments and studios as well as ground-floor retail space, any buyer would have to be willing to manage a venue as well as a building.

Indeed, that is why the current vendors are selling: Despite early plans to turn the building into a music venue, they decided they weren't impresarios after all, real estate agent Dean Macaskill says. He is optimistic he will close a deal by spring, saying potential buyers understand the building's current uses, and he thinks the Theatre Centre might be able to stay.

Franco Boni, artistic director at the Theatre Centre, a place where small troupes are given residencies to develop new work, isn't counting on it, and says uncertainty makes it very difficult for him to schedule shows.

"It has to be somebody who is super-arts-friendly, and the Theatre Centre would need a 25-year lease so we would know we are going to be there for a long time," he says. He needs to know his rent isn't going to skyrocket and that the upstairs neighbours aren't going to make noise that will disrupt his shows. He figures he's more likely to find a new home in the neighbourhood than stay put, which would mean the centre's 10th or 11th move in 27 years.

There are lovely new venues just opening on the east side of downtown, in the Distillery District: The Soulpepper Theatre Company starts performances in the new Young Centre for the Performing Arts next week. Other groups are welcome to rent any of the three theatres in that building as well as a cabaret and an outdoor venue, but the small troupes, used to paying about $2,000 a week for a 100-seat theatre and $4,000 for 200 seats, say the prices are just too high.

The Young Centre's rents are competitive, but it is also adding surcharges of up to $5.50 a ticket to cover the costs of ticketing and to contribute to its capital budget. General manager Iris Nemani defends the rates, pointing out the building is state-of-the-art, and she says she hopes the arts community will embrace it, making it known as something other than just Soulpepper's home.

However, even Nightwood, which is mounting both spring and fall shows there, isn't sure it can afford to actually call the Young Centre its new home.

"I don't know if this is a long-term relationship. There are so many extra costs," Ms. Thornton says. "A new venue is needed in the city. There's a desperate need for space."

If the Young Centre is not the perfect solution, Mr. Jones at Artscape thinks further development of the waterfront, both in the West Donlands near the Distillery District and the East Bayfront area, just east of Harbourfront, may help to create more performance spaces.

Soulpepper, a company that is only seven years old, was very unusual in being able to quickly attract capital investment, he says, noting that much less federal and provincial money has been spent on smaller capital projects in Toronto than in Montreal, where both Ottawa and Quebec City have helped pay for mid-sized cultural infrastructure. The Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts has identified the same problem. It wants to establish a fund that would funnel capital to its many small- and mid-sized members who do want to own their own theatres, finding ways they can attract private investors.

"The cultural renaissance we keep reading about seems not to be cognizant that the heart and soul of our industry is being threatened," the alliance's Ms. Knappen says. "The media spotlight is on the big six [arts building projects, which include the new opera house and the Royal Ontario Museum]. Of course we want them to succeed, but the underbelly is being ignored."