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Project lauded as remarkable renewal

<span>For years, the row of dilapidated public transit barns just off St. Clair Avenue West were regarded as a neighbourhood eyesore.</span>

For years, the row of dilapidated public transit barns just off St. Clair Avenue West were regarded as a neighbourhood eyesore.


But thanks to the efforts of local residents, the once-abandoned
buildings have undergone a striking reincarnation to become a thriving
hub that boasts artist studios, a bustling farmers market and a
greenhouse.


"This is now, frankly, the heart and soul of this community," says Joe
Mihevc, the local city councillor who helped spearhead the
$20-million-plus initiative.


"It is of the community, by the community, for the community."
Since opening a few months back, the Artscape Wychwood Barns, located
just northwest of the city's core, have been lauded as a remarkable
example of urban renewal. They're well worth a visit, particularly for
those with small children.

Dedicated community members are credited with the enormous
restoration project that spanned over a decade and overhauled five
historic brick buildings on about two hectares of land.

Residents like Kevin Frank hope visitors will take the model back to their own cities.

"This seemed like an impossible dream when we talked about it 12
years ago and (yet) here we are, standing in one of the most exciting
places in Canada," Frank said on a recent Saturday morning as he
visited the farmers market and munched on a poached egg on toast.


"I would love (others) to look at old historical buildings in their own
communities and band together and stand up for the history of their
community and refurbish those buildings and create their own markets,
so we all can live a local, sustainable lifestyle."
The now-majestic barns could have easily gone the way of the wrecking
ball.

Built in three separate phases between 1913 and 1921, they housed many of Toronto's streetcars until the late 1970s.

They then fell out of use, boarded up by the Toronto Transit Commission for some 30 years.


In 1996, the TTC declared them surplus. Some 18 days before they were
to be knocked down, locals realized the land had actually been lent to
the city by their community, and thus it wasn't the city's to plunder.


Mihevc, who had toured the site and seen the "elegance" of its guts,
put a stop to the demolition with a motion to city council. He said
that while some folks viewed restoration as a "crazy idea," others saw
very real possibilities of "breathing life into old bones."
Years of debate, red-tape and financial obstacles followed, but
construction finally began in early 2007.

Just months after the barns opened to the public in November 2008, the centre has clearly become a neighbourhood favourite.


Local artists live and work on-site. There's also an area for community
events, a theatre space and a playground. In winter, locals play shinny
on a natural ice rink that is flooded by volunteers.


The Stop's Green Barn Market, held in one of the barns every Saturday
morning, is a main draw, with its cornucopia of homemade, wholesome and
hard-to-find delights.


Some of the treats on offer one recent Saturday morning included
preservative-free peaches from the Niagara Region, satchels of fresh
pasta made of Red Fife wheat milled in Guelph, Ont., and artisanal
bread.

"You can experience things you may not get to experience unless you drive to some country market," said visitor Colin Burgess.


The market, currently running Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon and set to
run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. when it debuts for its first summer, sees
between 800 and 1,500 visitors each week.


After stopping by, out-of-towners would do well to stroll west along
St. Clair, a stretch known for its Italian culture and home to some of
the best espresso and gelato in the city.

Roscoe Handford, who manages the market, was an early supporter of the Wychwood rejuvenation.


She remembers a time when some people were incredulous about saving the
derelict barns. But in 2002, local historian Terry McAuliffe _ who died
three months later and never saw the project realized _ spoke at a
meeting championing the effort.


"In part, his statement read: These buildings, unlike so many other
sites we've saved, are not merely another rich man's house," Handford
said, her voice trembling with pride.


"They are so much more than that because they are public buildings,
they were built at our behest and as such, they stand for what we are
capable of when we pull together."
Mihevc's excitement over the restored barns is infectious.

Says the councillor: "It's becoming the sexy place in Toronto to go."


If you go
Take the subway to St. Clair West station and walk west to Wychwood Avenue, then turn left and go two blocks.

 
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