Living in urban harmony

It all began with that inevitable ice-breaker: “What do you do?” Victor J. Heinrichs’ answer at a New Years brunch three and a half years ago sparked an ongoing conversation – and a community that will occupy a sliver of land at One Shaftesbury Avenue in Toronto. The non-profit development features a five storey apartment block, with street and mews townhomes. Although 60 units were projected, some buyers have requested larger spaces and the final tally may be 52 to 59 units.

Heinrichs is a Toronto-based architect who has made a career of helping people create nurturing environments that allow them to live full and vibrant lives. The more than 50 communities he’s been associated with over the past 31 years have all been unique, each one stamped by the needs and desires of the people who ultimately inhabited them.

The people at that serendipitous brunch shared a deep interest in music and other aspects of cultural life, and, by last April, a sense of connection had already begun to develop when future residents gathered to create a groundbreaking celebration on the site. The Shaftesbury Singers, newly drawn from their midst, performed a choral piece created for the occasion composer Victor Davies; a colouratura soprano sang a solo.

^”We had an electric piano out in the middle of the field,” says Davies, “and we got around and devised a Ceremony of the Stones that had to do with the building. We had a tent donated by local undertakers to cover our buffet lunch. It was quite mad, but really a lot of fun.”

Heinrichs took on a double role as architect and future resident when he and his wife decided it was time to move from the three-storey townhouse they’d occupied for 25 years. That home was part of a seven unit complex built by his company; the families had all known one another before moving in and over the years had operated as an extended family.

That connection doesn’t happen as often in an urban environment any more, notes Heinrichs. Not everyone has the skills and knowledge to create a community feeling, but it is possible, he believes, to put in place a structure that can help it unfold.

Carolyn McIntire-Smyth, the real estate agent who located the property and negotiated its sale, found the concept of an entire community of shared values irresistible and subsequently she too purchased a unit in the apartment complex. It’s a building where aging in place could happen gradually and gracefully, she notes, especially when people have developed friendships through participation in social and cultural events.

Music will be a significant focus of activity in the community. McIntire-Smyth’s grand piano will join at least 13 of the magnificent instruments slated to take up occupancy at One Shaftesbury. And while American poet Robert Frost cautioned good fences made good neighbours, better-than-average sound-proofing will serve the same function in this building, and puck-like rubber pads under each piano leg will block sound from travelling through the floors. This careful planning appealed to McIntire-Smyth: “An important feature for us was the attention paid to the acoustics between apartments, so that you could actually pound away at your piano without fear of bothering your neighbours,” she says.

David Foot, Canada’s most quoted demographer and author of Boom, Bust & Echo, has predicted the trend of young seniors moving away from large cities, but confirmed urban dwellers may disagree. They enjoy city life and feel no desire to move to rural or small-town communities where they’d have to build new friendships and become familiar with a different way of life. For many, proximity to the cultural events they cherish becomes important as they age and are less inclined to drive.

Victor Davies and his wife, Lori, are among those who would miss the sheer intensity of urban living. With their children grown, the couple had been considering a move from a large home in the Beaches area of Toronto to a downtown loft. “We wanted to be in an environment where, when you walk out of your house, there’s a tremendous energy that emanates from the city,” says Davies. They also liked the idea that the residents at One Shaftesbury would be committed to building a community. “This is a brave attempt to have the best of both worlds – the urban and the village world,” he notes.

Health concerns also played a role in attracting future residents. “Even though they were a small group, they were determined to have an indoor swimming pool, whirlpool and steam room,” says McIntire-Smyth. “There was a very holistic attitude toward life. It wasn’t limited to the aesthetic, but also included wellness.”

As interest in the Shaftesbury development became serious, word spread among friends of the initial dozen involved. When the “friends-of-friends” connections were exhausted, Heinrichs, as he always does, held a neighbourhood information meeting as a first step in integrating the new community into the old. He got an immediate response from one man who asked if he could buy in. Subsequently, all but one of the future residents who didn’t come in through a friend has come from the surrounding neighbourhood.

“I guess it reinforces what has been our philosophy all along,” says Heinrichs. “People like to stay in a familiar community.”

“We tried to weave right into the social fabric that was already there,” says Victor Davies, explaining the efforts made to keep the local community organization informed of their plans. “They’re very enthusiastic about the idea,” he says, “and actually went to City Hall to support our building permit.”

The complex will be owned by a non-profit corporation which will sell residents the “right to occupy” their specific unit. Although the units will be able to be sold on the open market, potential new owners must first have discussions with the membership committee so they’re made fully aware of the nature of the enterprise.

Once they understand the right to occupy concept, people tend to view it as a positive attribute. “It gives us a feeling of being a community,” says McIntire-Smyth, “as opposed to just being an anonymous owner of an apartment, not having any idea who your neighbours might be or where their interests lie.”

Davies, currently chairman of the membership committee, says the big question for new members is “Do you really understand and want to be part of this intentional community?”

From an early stage, buyers were encouraged to become involved with the planning. Design, building and membership committees were set up, followed later by a library and a support services committee.

“Someone is looking into getting a wine license so we can import our own wine,” smiles Heinrichs, “because a few people are connoisseurs. Basically, when anyone wants something useful done, we form some kind of committee to try and make it happen.”

Co-chair of the design committee, McIntire-Smyth, has also served on the executive committee. The expertise of the future residents has been a valuable resource. “One of the features of this community is whatever people’s strengths are, that’s the sort of committee they’re put on,” she says.

They’re a diverse lot: choral conductors, lawyers, theologians, journalists, architects, people from the fashion industry, a gerontologist, educators, and a retired expert in African languages. Davies envisions a year-long lecture series drawn from among the residents. “It would be an absolutely amazing series,” he says. “On an ordinary social basis, you wouldn’t have discussions about those experiences.”

Of his role on the design committee, Davies says “It’s been a very spirited experience that’s taken an enormous amount of time.”

The design stage had to occur fairly early in the process. “Most people have to have some idea of what it’s going to be like before they buy in,” says Heinrichs. “But one thing we did which created an unbelievable amount of headaches for us as an architectural practice was allowing people to decide the number of square feet they wanted and exact location.”

With surprising frequency, people have ignored the market’s preference for three bedrooms and opted for a large master bedroom suite and a small den that could be used as a second bedroom. Visitors can be comfortably housed in a guest suite located on the gallery level.

Heinrichs felt the most important design element would be the four storey atrium. “It’s a year-round friendly spot and our winters are long,” he says.

For a building full of music lovers, a performance hall was a must. Studio One can also double as a party room and can open onto the atrium for large receptions. Cafe Weinstube, run by volunteers, will be open on a part-time basis. “I suspect we’ll have cappuccino,” grins Heinrichs, saluting the high standards set by the area’s cafes and bakeries already familiar to many of the future residents.

The architect is especially pleased the project will not be exclusively a retirement building. “We like it to be intergenerational with a lot of young people around, but we also would like it to be an environment you want to be part of for the rest of your life,” he says.

McIntire-Smyth agrees. “This is a place where you could actually live indefinitely until you were extremely disabled, right up until the very last stage of your life, but it’s not a retirement home. It’s an intergenerational “village,” where there are young people and children and so I think that has had a great appeal to many of the people buying in who are in their 40’s or 50’s.” The majority of buyers are still working or have retired once from the corporate world and are now consulting. Quite a few are moving in before they would otherwise, feeling they would miss out on a good thing if they didn’t act. Their apprehension is justifiable. “We’re 85 per cent pre-sold,” says McIntire-Smyth, the project’s listing agent. “That’s abnormal to have that much pre-sold before the building is even under construction.”

Involvement with the project through committees has allowed people to get to know their soon-to-be neighbours and to develop a sense of community consciousness.

This sense of belonging usually contributes to a concern for one another, a neighbourliness. As people age, Heinrichs thinks neighbours will want to lend one another a hand, although he cautions it’s not something anyone should count on. The support services committee will act as a liaison when someone needs help and their first call will probably be to a Community Care Access Centre, Heinrichs says. The committee will also help arrange for services such as plant watering or pet care when people are away. And yes, pets are welcome – if they’re small and well controlled.

Space has been reserved for offices or studios residents will be able to rent, allowing them to continue working as they age in place. And if a day at the office proves too stressful it can be worked off through exercise or yoga. Massage therapy and shiatszu will be available through building-based practitioners.

“It’s meant to function as a community,” says Heinrichs and I think it will. Everybody is moving in because that’s their expectation. And community is not something we simply live in,” he says, “it’s what we feel.”

When the membership committee meets with a prospective resident, Victor Davies assures them they will have privacy. “But we also want you to understand,” he says, “that we’re trying to make a conscious community in the middle of this vast urban area. We don’t know what that means yet. We all have talents and expertise – different things to offer one another. It’s being part of this community organism. It’s kind of a fascinating experiment.”