Ten years ago, if you mentioned “Gooderam and Worts,” you likely got a blank stare. Today, mention the area under its new name, the Distillery District, and Torontonians will list many things they love about it: brick pedestrian-only streets, historic buildings, arts and theatre, boutique shops (no chains allowed), restaurants, the Mill Street Brewery, and even the Segway tours! It’s a place like none other in Toronto and is bustling year-round – even on cold, snowy winter days during the Christmas Market.
The Distillery District is a prime example of excellent large-scale urban renewal in Toronto. Consisting of forty historic buildings, this is the largest and best preserved set of Victorian industrial architecture in North America, yet for many years it was unknown to most in the city.
Built in 1859, the five-story Stone Distillery building was the first of many in the Gooderam and Worts Distillery. By 1877, the Gooderam and Worts Distillery grew to be the “largest distillery in the world.” But with the First World War and prohibition, business slowed, and the company was sold in 1923.
In the 1990s the Victorian Village became “Hollywood North,” the second largest film and TV series production site after Hollywood itself. The Stone Distillery, for example, is the Cook County Prison in the 2002 film Chicago. However, the appeal in the site did not extend beyond the filmmakers, and the surrounding area remained much of a wasteland.
That changed in 2001 when Cityscape Development Corporation took a leap of faith and bought the isolated site. This architectural firm had previously repurposed an old industrial building as residential units and was excited to work on a larger scale project that would use arts, culture, and entertainment to revitalize a neglected area of the city. They worked with Artscape, a “not-for-profit urban development organization that makes space for creativity and transforms communities,” to accomplish this.
Although the Distillery District has become a great destination for Torontonians and tourists alike, Cityscape had initial difficulty attracting real estate investors and businesses. To show that businesses could succeed, Cityscape took an unconventional route and opened its own restaurant. Other restaurants and retail businesses soon followed suit and Artscape helped find tenants.
The Distillery District has spurred new development – both commercial and residential – on the site and in the surrounding neighborhood. Not only has this made the area more vibrant, but the urban renewal has also made the district feel more connected to the city, even though the streetcar routes were already there.
Toronto is fortunate that Cityscape had the imagination and vision to repurpose this “Victorian Village.” Valued at $2.5 million in 2001, the Distillery District was assessed at $38 million in 2010, excluding the residential units. Cityscape and the partner Dundee Realty Corporation won Heritage Canada Foundation’s 2006 Corporate Prize for the rehabilitation of the Stone Distillery. In only a decade, this area is thriving and has become a top attraction in Toronto.
What urban renewal examples have you seen? What features have made them a success?
Credits: Images by Lindsay Vanstone. Data and historic image linked to sources.