It's Saturday afternoon and the Lawrence Heights Community Centre is buzzing with excitement.
There are little kids running through the hallways, families sharing a meal, seniors sharing a laugh, friends taking pictures and reminiscing. It feels like a family reunion and in many ways, it is.
It's a bittersweet day for many of the residents who lived in Toronto Community Housing's building at 1 Leila Lane. They've gathered to bid farewell to their home, which is being demolished as part of the Lawrence Heights revitalization project.
For many, today is a chance to not only remember the past but also welcome a new future for Lawrence Heights—a future that has been years in the making.
Residents from 1 Leila Lane gather at the Lawrence Heights Community Centre to celebrate the next step of the revitalization.
A brighter future for Lawrence Heights
In 2013, Toronto Community Housing and development partner Heights Development (Context and
Metropia) launched one of the largest and most ambitious revitalization projects in Canada. The project looks to transform the
Lawrence Heights community into a vibrant, mixed-income community, replacing 233 Toronto Community Housing units and building over 800 new private market units in the first phase of the project.
The plan will build new parks, retail space and roads connecting Lawrence Heights to the surrounding community and create employment and economic opportunities for residents. Phase 1 of the project is expected to be completed by 2021.
Images of the Lawrence Heights revitalization plan.
Phase 1 is expected to be completed by 2021.
But beyond the bricks and mortar, the heart of the project lies in the people of Lawrence Heights. People like Norma Gomez.Norma has lived in Lawrence Heights for the past 28 years. She moved into 1 Leila Lane in 1989 after her family immigrated to Canada from El Salvador.
Norma Gomez, a resident who has lived at 1 Leila Lane for the past 28 years, says she's excited for all the changes the revitalization will bring to the community.
Over the years, she has watched Lawrence Heights evolve and change in countless different ways.
"This is our home. There are young kids and youth, families, seniors and we're all very close, we know what's going on in each other's lives. We celebrate events together, we share food and stories, we're here for each other," she says.
Norma says she's excited about the revitalization and the changes it will bring to Lawrence Heights.
"It's out with old and in with the new! We're excited for the brand new building and all the amenities, I know a lot of people are excited about the new elevators! It will be a drastic change because we did not have elevators before. It's going to be a real makeover, for not just the community, but the city as well."
Images from the 1 Leila Lane demolition site.
Adjusting to change
While many residents are excited about the changes ahead, Norma says that some were initially worried that the project would disrupt the close-knit community of Lawrence Heights.
"We were hesitant and unsure about what would happen at first. People didn't know what the process would be like, what they would need to do and what the benefits would be."
Norma Gomez chats with Toronto Community Housing President and CEO (Interim) Greg Spearn at the Lawrence Heights demolition event.
It was around this time that Norma became a Community Animator, helping to inform residents about the revitalization process.
"Once I became more involved, I began to understand the project and realize its benefits. I shared that information with tenants, working to build a relationship with residents and help ease them into the entire process. I think the tenants feel much more comfortable with the process now and are looking forward to what's ahead."
Watch residents from Lawrence Heights share how the revitalization is helping build their community. Video by
Building communities together
The revitalization is a truly collaborative project, reflecting years of input from residents, developers, community organizations and the City of Toronto.
Since the start of the project in 2008, Toronto Community Housing's revitalization team has been on the ground, organizing hundreds of meetings and community events to help inform and prepare residents for the revitalization process.
The revitalization office at 37 Varna and operations office at 10 Old Meadow Lane are important community spaces where residents can meet with Toronto Community Housing staff to ask questions and learn about updates and opportunities within the community.
Staff from Toronto Community Housing's revitalization team celebrate the next step in the Lawrence Heights demolition with residents and community partners.
Revitalization has also involved collaboration with community partners and elected officials, including City Councillor Josh Colle, MPP Mike Colle and MP Marco Mendicino. All have attended meetings with local residents, updating them about the revitalization plans and getting their feedback on various aspects of the project.
Residents and staff meet with Toronto Mayor John Tory and City Councillor Josh Colle about the revitalization in 2015.
Creating new opportunities
Along with the brand new buildings and amenities, revitalization has also brought employment and educational opportunities to the Lawrence Heights community.
In 2013, Heights Development launched the
Building our Future: Limitless Heights Scholarship, recognizing students within the community who are making a lasting impact in their neighbourhood.
Since 2013, the Limitless Heights scholarship has awarded 66 students from across the Lawrence Heights community with postsecondary scholarships.
To date, the program has awarded 80 scholarships valued at $295,000 to students within the Lawrence Heights and Neptune communities and has created 35 new jobs for Lawrence Heights residents.
Revitalization has also created more than 150 employment and training opportunities within the community since 2008, including the
"I'm Lawrence" pre-apprenticeship program. Launched by
Heights Development in 2016, the program offers youth hands-on training and skills in the trades and construction industry.
Moving forward together
As demolition on 1 Leila Lane begins, Norma says she feels a mix of sadness and joy.
"I feel very emotional today, to be honest. We haven't seen each other in several months since the relocation but you can still feel the connection here among the residents."
Cranes begin work at Lawrence Heights in 2016.
Looking ahead, Norma says she's excited to see what the future will bring for the Lawrence Heights community.
"It's so great to see all the progress we've made so far and it's exciting for us to see Lawrence Heights grow and become bigger and better. I can't wait for it to all come together!"