By Brad Stewart
“The degree of civilization in a society is measured by the way it treats its prisoners.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
How can Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) resources be employed in ways that can most benefit the community and facilitate broader engagement from its members? This is a question routinely asked amongst ULI’s leadership team and one that has led to the creation of many unique and valuable initiatives at both the national and local level. In 2012 the Pro Bono+ Program was introduced to that end as a means of providing mentorship and financial support to important projects, undertaken by local organizations providing services to their respective communities. ULI, through Pro Bono+, provided the experience and expertise of its membership and partners along with a grant of $7,500. ULI Toronto selected four organizations to receive Pro Bono assistance. One of those organizations was Elizabeth Fry Toronto.
The Elizabeth Fry Society’s founding was rooted in the idea that the prison system in Canada needed reform. The organization has grown from a single room office on Jarvis Street into a much larger entity that provides housing for women who are transitioning from incarceration back in to the broader society. Elizabeth Fry also delivers a multitude of services to women who are having trouble integrating back into society. The organization is named after an English woman born in 1780 to a wealthy Quaker family who, in the early 1800s, created school and employment services for women, in response to the poor conditions she witnessed in Canadian prisons. The original Elizabeth Fry was an advocate for more female representation in prison administration. She was a formidable force for positive change in the women’s prison system.
The leadership of the Elizabeth Fry Toronto chapter knew that they were approaching the time that they would need to act to address the situation with their current facility at 215 Wellesley Street East. The facilities at this location were no longer up to the task of supporting all the activities going on that support the delivery of services to the community. Constrained by limited financial resources, an aging facility and a seemingly limited range of options, the Executive Director at the time, Michelle Coombs, realized that help was needed to begin to address this pressing need for immediate action. “We knew we needed to look at expansion, as an organization, in terms of physical space,” said Coombs. As is common practice for leaders of charitable organizations, Coombs set out to research the available resources within the community. She discovered that ULI offered a program that aligned perfectly with Elizabeth Fry’s current need, and applied for assistance.
Elizabeth Fry Toronto was selected to receive assistance, along with three other charitable organizations; John Howard Society, Youth Link, and Active 18. A number of individuals from the broader real estate industry were subsequently appointed to the project team for the Elizabeth Fry Toronto initiative. Lui Mancinelli, from the Toronto office of Stantec, had been a member of the panel that made the initial selections of deserving organizations, and understood that a significant effort would be required to ensure the project got off the ground and volunteered his services to get the project started. He and ULI Toronto assembled a team of individuals with the right mix of design, planning, legal, and real estate expertise to ensure that the needs of Elizabeth Fry would be evaluated by knowledgeable, experienced and passionate individuals. Lui reached out to people he knew in the industry that would bring the passion and understanding capable of guiding Elizabeth Fry through the process. The team members included Kevin Haverty, Jr., Jeff Good and Brianna Van Der Mark (Cresa), Linda Warth (Lanterra), Jennifer Drake (Goodmans), Gord Stratford (HOK) and John Davies (MRHE). “For what the project was, we had all the right people” said Linda, when asked about the skill sets possessed by each of the members.
The ULI Pro Bono team had a clear understanding of the task before them, which was to develop a program of requirements and get a clearer sense of the physical space needed. The other objectives were to determine the appropriate timeline and document all the available funding sources. The organization’s needs would then need to be weighed against the list of options developed by the team. The initial questions for the team included the following: What was the condition of the building? How was the space currently being utilized? What functions was the current space best suited for? Was there an appetite to lease additional space versus a purchase and what were the complicating factors in a lease situation that might be unique to this type of organization? Kevin Haverty remarked that “Charities are often real estate rich and cash challenged.”
The goal of the team was to determine the best and most appropriate means to facilitate a much needed expansion. Four options were outlined: expand to an adjacent site; re-develop the existing space; split the facilities into two locations; or attempt a sale and seek an additional site or sites.
The team saw many different opportunities and challenges within many of the options presented. Gord Stratford, a team Member from HOK, a global architecture firm, felt that a unique challenge of the project was to create a place that felt like home but was also secure. All the team members were very much attuned to the fact that the Elizabeth Fry organization was a unique organization with special needs and sensitivities with respect to its clients and role in the community. Elizabeth Fry plays an important role in the community by providing support to women in need. At the same time, their presence in the community is not always well understood. In a real estate sense this may mean that community members are supportive of the cause but hesitant to rent space if they have a negative perception of the people using that space. The team members were also very much aware of the uniqueness of the organization they were working for. “I don’t know anyone in jail; I have never had an immediate family member or anyone in jail. So it was all quite new to me as an area of focus.” said Kevin Heverty, sharing his thoughts on the distinctive characteristics of the client’s mission.
The team deliverable was to produce a report for Elizabeth Fry and its leadership to use to help evaluate their options and choose the best course of action for expansion, given their available funding and the needs of its clientele. The analysis went much beyond Elizabeth Fry’s property line. The team visited different sites in the neighbourhood, talked to neighbours and even showed Michelle Coombs, other properties that could potentially accommodate the organization’s needs.
Once the team had developed a list of different scenarios they went about testing the viability of each one. This involved market sounding, which means evaluating the zoning limitations of the existing and potential sites. This at times presented different challenges to the team. Jennifer Drake from Goodman’s LLP mentioned that zoning presented a unique hurdle in that the laws governing the zoning guidelines for group homes were being debated and amended at the municipal level during the Pro Bono+ team’s evaluation. Predicting the outcome of these discussions added an extra layer of complication to what was already a very comprehensive exercise. According to Lui, “We became a de-facto real estate or development organization for Elizabeth Fry.”
The project team worked closely with Michelle and other members of the Elizabeth Fry group and presented their findings to the Elizabeth Fry Board. The report they delivered evaluated seven distinct options and included comprehensive valuations, zoning regulation, neighbourhood studies, budgets, and conceptual designs. Virtually any kind of information one would want when faced with a strategic choice of this magnitude was presented to this organization. “This tool has everything that the organization needs as far as determining next steps.” Michelle Coombs said about the finished product.
The consensus of the team was that they were fortunate to have been able to participate in the program. “We delivered a better product because we spanned so many disparate groups,” says Jeff Good. “It was great meaningful work, and a fun group of people to work with,” says Lui about how he felt in retrospect about the experience. “I would have to say it was one of my most enjoyable experiences at Elizabeth Fry,” said Michelle, who has since stepped down as Executive Director to further her academic goals.
What helped this project succeed in part was that it brought together a group of individuals with a desire to participate in the community in a meaningful way. The opportunity allowed them to draw on their experience and core competencies. It also took a partner in Elizabeth Fry that understood the opportunity and embraced the mission and ideals of the Pro Bono+ Program. Michelle Coombs reiterates that “It was also a reminder to use the professionals when there is a need to do so.”