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The Riverdale Hub expands on Toronto's ever-evolving Gerrard Street

Gerrard East has always been one of Toronto's more interesting streets. Typical in its Toronto heterogeneity, it's old and new, multi-ethnic and old-school Toronto all mixed up together. And it's one of the streets undergoing considerable change. Not too fast to cause anybody to panic, like on Ossington, but rather like how The Junction is evolving. Slow and steady. In particular, there's the interesting middle bit of Gerrard in between East Chinatown and the Gerrard India Bazaar. There's a circus school there now, complete with cafe, the Lahore Tikka house continues to be the do-it-yourself architectural landmark of this part of town and, now, a new expansion to the Riverdale Hub.

The Riverdale Hub is a little like the social innovation co-working spaces we're becoming more and more familiar with, but with a difference: the Hub has a commitment to empowering minority communities. It's also the story of a grassroots organization that grew over the past 3 decades and is now moving into a permanent, physical space of their own. Founded in 1982, the Riverdale Immigrant Women's Centre (RIWC), is a non-profit that provides a range of services including settlement programs, employment and skills development as well as anti violence against women and anti youth violence programs. In 2000 the RIWC founded the Riverdale Immigrant Women's Enterprise (RIWE), a separate organization that facilitates the entrepreneurial and social enterprise skills designed to give immigrant men, women and youth financial self-sufficiency.  

Out of this work grew the Hub, a 3 story 100 year old building that just added a nearly $2 million modern addition, a very typical Toronto mix blending new and old, something this city does well. It's a unique space that hopes to attract a variety of tenants and organizations, along with letting both the RIWC and RIWE carry out their work.

"The whole idea of the building is to support diversity: diversity of experience, diversity of ideas and diversity of cultural and artistic expression," explains Nuzhath Leedham, Executive Director of the RIWC, of the kind of people they hope to attract to the co-working space. "Tenants can work in any sector as long as they support the essential values of what the Hub stands for: equality, social justice and environmental sustainability. We want to see a mixed tenant base, with artists, entrepreneurs, designers, and activists all working together for positive social change and action."

The space is bright and airy. On the 100-year old side, exposed brick and wooden beams give the space a traditional "loft" feel, while the recently completed addition adds modern elements like an elevator, making each floor accessible. There is retail and office space available, some fronting Gerrard, as well as event and gallery spaces throughout, including a community kitchen on an upper floor. Inside there's also the Global Pantry, a catering company, and Copy/Chai, a printing enterprise for youth.

What all this space represents is a big opportunity for this non-profit to itself become financially self-sustaining, free from the vagaries of the traditional funding cycle -- the tenants and event rentals are potentially a source of consistent revenue. It might also be a model for other non-profits to follow.

"Social purpose enterprises have great potential in building and supporting social causes as well as generating a revenue stream so that services and organisations can become sustainable in the long run," says Leedham. "However, it is a very new field and is not a true and tried method. There is still a big learning curve and it will take some time before social enterprises can become a reliable funding stream."

As for the building itself, the renovation and expansion have followed sustainable, green principals. Behind the busy front office is a patio, complete with frog-filled pond that doubles as a rainwater garden. Some of the current green initiatives include a geothermal system with pipes that go deep under the building, a green roof, a hybrid thermal hot water system that uses the PV panels as awnings, and efficient appliances, toilets and operable windows.

In renovating the building the RIWE's board of directors chair, Emre Yurga, was able to work with other architects on the project as an intern and incorporate aspects of the Masters of Architecture thesis he completed at the University of Waterloo in 2009. The blending of new and old presented some challenges.

"The biggest obstacle was addressing the existing building and finding ways to bring it up to code while still maintaining the original character and spaces of this structure," says Yurga. "Another challenge was to integrate the renovated side which was over 100 years old with a very modern addition and make it appear seamless. The design integrates new circulation requirements to make the building accessible and converts the existing structure into a green building."

"I see the Hub as a catalyst for change and transformation in the neighbourhood," Leedham says. "Currently, there is great divide between the commercial South Asian district and the residential population which is not South Asian and we feel that the Hub is a place where the integration begins. By bringing the residential groups, the BIA and neigbourhood artists, environmentalists, and individual community members together, we hope to overcome this divide. The different groups are starting to respond and everyone agrees that we need to build on the South Asian identity already present in the area, and broaden it to include all of the communities in the neighbourhood.

They just recently received a permit to open a (fair trade) cafe in the front of the building, and now they're looking for a tenant to move in and run it. Leedham, who has been Executive Director of the RIWC since 1991, is excited about the next phase, as the Hub becomes even more a part of the neighbourhood.

"Having a successful working model of revitalization that created the Hub makes a great case for building a progressive agenda from the ground-up for the neighbourhood revitalization project."

Shawn Micallef is the Managing Editor of Yonge Street and the author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto (with one chapter devoted to Gerrard Street).
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