In Memoriam of Sasha (Sasa) Jurak
On January 14, 2020, ULI Toronto and Akin Collective hosted a “fishbowl discussion” to explore the concept of social purpose real estate (SPRE), with an underlying focus on its importance and potential in Toronto – an emerging global city whose celebrated diversity and cultural identity are evolving in the face of unprecedented growth and a fiercely competitive market.
A carefully curated group of city-builders representing both public- and private-sector interests sat in two concentric circles assembled at the ground-level foyer of MOCA. These two circles constituted the fishbowl. Those in the inner circle led the discussion (pointedly facilitated with a balance of humour and interrogation by Jane Farrow), while those in the outer circle listened. Throughout the discussion, participants moved between the two circles fluidly, alternating turns to speak and reflect.
To encourage candid and unfiltered dialogue, the audience agreed not to quote anything said. As such, I’ve written this piece to instead distill three provocative themes that emerged among the ideas shared.
Early in the conversation, as participants sought to collectively define SPRE, a fruitful tension grew around the idea of “profit.” In response to the suggestion that SPRE is about taking a pure profit motive out of the equation so that assets can be used to serve all the needs of a community, a modest defense was offered: just because an organization operates within a for-profit business model doesn’t mean they should be overlooked as a partner for SPRE initiatives.
Oxford, for example, as the real estate investment arm of one of Canada’s largest pension plans, approaches development as a long-term investment and sees SPRE as a means of building sustainable communities. As the desire for community continues to influence how assets are designed and programmed, many developers are growing increasingly focused on incorporating placemaking into their projects. This shift in thinking is disrupting pro forma by elevating the importance of learning about and finding ways to support a place’s existing residents, businesses and organizations.
2: Art is vital to humanity… and a catalyst of gentrification
Arts and cultural hubs were popular to cite as case studies exemplifying the community benefits of SPRE, and several Artscape projects were mentioned over the course of the evening. Participants talked about how art and culture are what make places desirable to be in, and that if the people and organizations that create Toronto’s art and culture can’t afford to do so because of real estate barriers, our city will no longer be an appealing home or destination.
To this point, a brave counter-argument was made: arts and cultural hubs can also serve as catalysts of gentrification. Of all the “social purposes,” art and culture are most likely to enhance the market value of real estate (in contrast to other functions like a food bank, safe injection site or social housing, for example). This quality makes them more palatable as causes to invest in and live around, which goes hand in hand with attracting new residents, driving up the cost of living and displacing original populations.
3: From ad hoc to systemic intervention
“Ad hoc” was a term used many times to describe the current state of SPRE. From the Latin phrase meaning “to this,” its contemporary English use has two applicable definitions: “for the particular case at hand without consideration of wider application” and “fashioned from what is immediately available.” The first definition speaks to one-off initiatives that, although responsive to their given context, aren’t necessarily capable of successful replication. The second implies an improvised approach lacking in foresight, but also conveys a sense of resourcefulness in the face of limited support. With both descriptions, we can sense a desire for growth – first in terms of breadth and second in terms of longevity.
A resounding suggestion for how to facilitate this growth was systemic intervention. On several occasions, participants spoke about how structural tools could be used to enhance the scalability and sustainability of SPRE: