Over the past 30 years, Artscape has earned an international reputation as a leader in “creative placemaking,” a term they coined and a practice that views the arts and culture as powerful catalysts for change, growth and community development.
The not-for-profit urban development organization accomplishes its mission through a range of social enterprises focusing on real estate development and management, entrepreneurship development, community animation and programming. Their growing portfolio of cultural facilities—including 14 in Toronto—are home to arts-based coworking and makerspaces, affordable housing for artist led families, community cultural hubs, performance, exhibition and event venues, and youth empowerment programming.
Central to Artscape’s work, however, is the need to keep communities affordable for artists.
“The urban affordability crisis currently poses the biggest threat to culture in cities,” said Artscape CEO Tim Jones. “The dominant narrative is that artists move into a neighborhood, make it a desirable place to live and work, and then get pushed out due to increased rents. We’re flipping that narrative on its head by showing that if we can keep the arts and culture strong in communities, we can create stronger communities that serve everyone.”
Keeping arts and culture in our communities
While different in conception and design, the organization’s three latest projects – Artscape Weston Common, Artscape Bayside Lofts, and Artscape Daniels Launchpad – each work to change the way Toronto’s creative community can work, live, and thrive in the city.
Artscape Daniels Launchpad is a first-of-its-kind center for entrepreneurship providing facilities, programs and services for artists and designers through a unique membership model. Around the corner on the eastern waterfront is Artscape Bayside Lofts, a new affordable housing development now home to 80 artists and their families. As a community cultural hub, Artscape Weston Common brings programming, performance space and 26 affordable rental units to Weston-Mount Dennis, a west-end neighborhood undergoing revitalization.
While the physical developments themselves are impressive, it’s the intangibles they inspire that really matter.
As Tim explains, each Artscape project happens at the intersection of arts and culture, urban development, community activism, philanthropy, and public policy. These are inclusive places for cultural exchange, for difficult conversations, places where people with different interests come together and define the community they want.
“Our job is to bring the disparate needs of communities together in a place that serves everyone’s interests,” he said. “Our projects allow for us to really engage with the community, hearing what’s important to the diverse groups that belong there.”
What community involvement means in practice differs for each development. Artscape Weston Common, for instance, was developed with a steering committee made up of local people who contributed to the vision and design of the project. At both Artscape Weston Common and Artscape Bayside Lofts, one of the criteria for selecting tenants is their proposed contribution to a value-exchange program.
“Everyone gives back to the community, largely through their art and creative expression,” said Tim.
Finding a financing partner willing to get creative
The things that make Artscape and its developments unique can also present challenges when it comes to finding financing, and that’s where VCIB has been able to make a difference, providing $15,500,000 in mortgage financing for the organization’s three latest projects.
“Our biggest challenge is growth,” said Tim. “Our projects aren’t conventional projects and despite a successful track record of development, we still find it difficult to find lenders who spend the time to understand what we do and work through challenges with us.”
An unusual ownership structure could be one of those challenges. Artscape Bayside Lofts, for example, is built on land owned by the City of Toronto and leased to Artscape at a nominal rent. Similarly, Artscape Weston Common is owned by a private company and leased to Artscape at just $50,000/year over 49 years—an arrangement that allows Artscape to put its own funds to better use, but which also makes it more difficult to find financing. Conventional lenders typically prefer to lend to building owners rather than operators.
In the case of Artscape Daniels Launchpad, a financing structure that involves investment from community members through community bonds plus a new business model based on memberships are two things that make the development unique, but also more complex for prospective lenders.
“We’ve had to do some creative work to make these projects happen. Where other mortgage lenders weren’t prepared to look beyond their standard formulas, VCIB was willing to spend the time to understand our model and work through challenges,” said Tim. “When we’ve had problems, you’ve problem solved with us.”
“Artscape is one of those cornerstone organizations that makes this city great,” said Caroline Rauhala, Director of Lending at VCIB. “We’re proud to be able to support their work and this truly made-in-Toronto solution to affordability and community development.”
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