Artscape West Queen West

900 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON



Artscape West Queen West was Artscape’s first affordable housing project and the first officially-zoned artist live/work project in Toronto. Located at 900 Queen Street West in the heart of what is now Toronto’s booming contemporary art district, it is hard to imagine that in the mid-1990’s, this area was dotted with derelict buildings and vacant storefronts. The re-development of the former warehouse at 900 Queen Street West, along with the makeovers of the Gladstone and Drake Hotels and the relocation of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), helped to attract dozens of galleries and thousands of artists to the area. Café’s, bars, specialty retail outlets and residential development followed, and West Queen West is now among the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Toronto. Through the creation of Artscape West Queen West, Artscape learned how to creatively adapt housing programs to artists’ needs while also honing its organizational capacity as a property developer and manager.

Artscape West Queen West is home to 22 artist-led families, five work studios, a gallery and a tenant garden with a community bake oven.  The building is owned and operated by Artscape Non-Profit Homes Inc. (ANPHI) under the terms of a social housing agreement with the City of Toronto. Apart from its specialized mandate to house artists and their families, the project operates similarly to other non-profit housing projects, providing a mix of market and rent-geared-to-income tenancies.

The Place

Queen Street West holds an important place in the minds of many Torontonians. Its east-west axis became the baseline from which the grid of Toronto’s streets was drawn. Once lined with hotels and grand stone-faced storefronts, the area fell on hard times in the 1960s when industrial manufacturing left the area for the suburbs.

During the 1960s, Toronto’s art scene was located in Yorkville, near Bloor Street and University Avenue. By the 1970s, artists had started to relocate to Queen Street West because of its affordable rents and proximity to the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art and Design University or OCADU). At this time, street life on Queen Street West between University and Spadina Avenues was comparable to New York City’s Soho district – a bohemian neighbourhood where artists could create, hang out and frequent local venues. This buzz and activity changed the economic life of stores along the street and renewed interest from developers, who quickly began to buy up properties.

As affordable space became harder to find, artists began their migration westward along Queen Street towards more affordable areas of West Queen West, including Liberty Village and Parkdale. By the early nineties, there were interesting pockets of artistic activity along the length of Queen Street West with significant gaps in between. The area between Trinity Bellwoods Park and the beginning of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health compound at Ossington Avenue where Artscape West Queen West sits was a particularly challenged location. It was home to empty warehouse buildings and marginal retail uses, and had a reputation for drug dealing and prostitution.

Artscape’s redevelopment of the former Executive Stereo warehouse at 900 Queen Street West in 1995 proved to be a major catalyst in the neighbourhood’s development. Soon after Artscape became involved, Jamie Angel opened a gallery nearby, and others quickly followed suit. In 1998, Context Development began the renovation of the Candy Factory Lofts across the street from 900 Queen Street West, and suddenly the neighbourhood had become a fashionable address. The redevelopment of the Gladstone and Drake Hotels brought more creative energy to the street, followed by The Theatre Centre and Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. In fifteen years, all of the spaces in between these anchors have been filled in with a rich mix of galleries, cafes and specialty retail, and West Queen West has become the undisputed epicentre of contemporary art in Toronto.

The Space

Artscape West Queen West is located in a three-storey building at 900 Queen Street West, between Trinity-Bellwoods Park and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Its location placed it outside the western edge of the arts and culture scene in the mid-1990s. The property was a small part of the extensive industrial land holdings of Sam Sable prior to its purchase by Artscape in the early nineties.

Before its conversion to an artist live/work project, the site had served as a warehouse for Executive Stereo. In its previous incarnations, this approximately 35,000 square foot building had been used for multiple industrial purposes, including an auto parts warehouse and a cannery. The building has a small open space on its eastern side which was a used as a car sales lot prior to redevelopment. Today, 900 Queen Street West lies at the heart of the West Queen West “Art + Design District”.

The Situation

In neighbourhoods such as West Queen West, vacant and underused industrial spaces were preserved because building codes and zoning regulations restricted residential development. With a shrinking market for commercial and industrial uses, many warehouse buildings were subdivided and leased as artist studios at very low rates. In many cases, artists would move in their beds, refrigerators and install plumbing to make these spaces habitable. In the mid-1980’s, the City of Toronto began cracking down on illegal artist live/work units citing health and safety concerns. The resulting displacement and concern about artists being priced out of Toronto’s downtown led to the creation of Artscape in 1986.

Artscape saw the need to create a new zoning category that would allow artists to live and produce art in the neighbourhoods that they clustered in. Furthermore, legal housing, rather than illegally occupied industrial buildings, would ensure that artists could not be forced out of their residences. With a number of public housing complexes and affordable housing providers in existence, some wondered at the time why artists should get special treatment. Initiating discussions with both the Ministry of Housing’s Building Code Committee, and then-mayor Barbara Hall’s Artist Live/Work Working Group, Artscape worked to convince provincial and municipal officials that the spatial requirements for artist live/work studios were different than those of regular apartments. The problem presented was twofold: many artists were living in poverty and in need of affordable housing, and live/work space must be appropriately designed to suit the production of art. Whereas the spatial requirements for a normal bachelor apartment was roughly 450 square feet, an artist live/work unit required open space and therefore extra square footage. Other special requirements included appropriate ventilation, access to abundant natural light, and higher than normal floor-to-ceiling height. The final outcome of these meetings resulted in the creation of a new provision for both “live/work” and “artist live/work’” zoning.

The Vision

The building at Artscape West Queen West was the testing ground for Toronto’s new artist live/work zoning designation. The vision was to provide safe, legal, affordable and permanent live/work studio space for artists. Billie Bridgman, the executive director of Artscape at the time, believed that a successful example of legal artist live/work studios in one building might start a movement that would result in better living and working conditions for artists across the city. For the first time, rather than having to make do and adapt spaces, artists would have places to live and create that were tailor-made for their unique requirements. The units in Artscape West Queen West would be considered social housing and receive provincial funding accordingly, but be populated entirely with artists.

The Plan

The property was developed in a former auto parts warehouse in what was still a fairly derelict part of the city. With many artists already living and working nearby, little persuasion was needed to generate community support for the project. Artscape received mentorship for the development of Artscape West Queen West from Artspace, an American artist housing developer based out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. While the properties developed by Artspace were funded using an entirely different model than what is possible in Canada, Artscape benefited immensely from the relationship.


“This had never been done before, and we were in Canada. We had lots of colleagues in the U.S. and England who were doing this, but they were using different funding mechanisms. While the space would look very similar, the way we got [funded] was very different. There really weren’t any funding models we could translate to Canada.”
–Billie Bridgman, former Artscape Executive Director


Artscape Non Profit Homes Inc. was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation in July 1994. ANPHI was created by Artscape specifically to develop and manage current and future Artscape projects intended to meet the affordable housing and live/work studio needs of low and middle- income artists of all disciplines.

ANPHI purchased the property at 900 Queen Street West in August 1995 through a mortgage supported by the City of Toronto, along with one-time capital grants provided by the City of Toronto, the Ministry of Housing (MOH) and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

Though no walls were built in the loft-style units, plans for the space showed how many square feet were needed for “live” space, funded through the MOH, and how many square feet were needed for “work” space, funded through the MOTC. As a result, it became possible to build units larger than the standard social housing dimensions which dictate size based on how many tenants reside in each unit.


“We were not asking [Ministry of] Housing to fund the workspace. We were just saying ‘this is a special needs low-income housing group, we think they should have an allocation’…. then we went and raised the arts portion of the money separately so nobody could say we were using social housing money to build art space. We weren’t, we were using it to build housing. Everybody was interested in why we did this, and that was our explanation. There are all kinds of special social housing projects, this is just one of them.”
– Billie Bridgman, former Artscape Executive Director

The Design / Build

Before Artscape could begin to redevelop the site, a Phase 1 and 2 Environmental Assessment remediated 40 cubic yards of soil to prepare the land for residential use. Whereas most properties in downtown Toronto are built to the property line, Artscape West Queen West’s lot included an adjacent used-car lot. This space, which was very modestly landscaped as part of the renovation, would later become a canvass on which the artist residents would fashion a spectacular garden from rubble scavenged from the resurfacing of the streetcar track beds.

“We didn’t do any feasibility studies or anything like that. We were the only people who knew anything about this kind of development. There wasn’t anyone who was going to tell us the building was feasible except us.”
– Billie Bridgman, former Artscape Executive Director

The building had been neglected for years and was badly in need of care. Unlike most social housing projects which tend to be new-build, Artscape West Queen West made use of the existing industrial features of the building to create live/work studios that maximized the open space – units had high ceilings and the proper ventilation required of artist workspaces. Architect Joe Lobko, who led the redesign of the building, explains:

“We built it for $52 to $54 per square foot. Today, we typically build for $200 to $250 per square foot. At the time, most projects cost $90 per square foot. We created very simple unit plans that were as open as possible. Artscape and the tenants that they attract are very creative. As an architect you are only setting the stage. You need to be constrained. Need to let the occupants do the rest.”
–Joe Lobko, Partner, du Toit Allsopp Hillier | du Toit Architects Limited, Toronto

The structure is comprised of a brick envelope supported by douglas fir wooden beams which were largely in good shape. The outside cornice had rotted, and was replaced with a contemporary design. New windows were installed to provide better studio ventilation, and various other small changes were made to ensure that the building met residential fire codes. A foyer was created on Crawford Street so tenants could enter through the garden.

“We had to establish that we could get the fire ratings required for residential [development]. We did fire testing, fire rating, gathered some data, and at one point they wanted to clad the beams in drywall. There was some knowledge making that needed to happen. The lofts that came up behind us are the beneficiaries of this work.”
– Billie Bridgman, former Artscape Executive Director

The wooden floors were kept, however due to age and disrepair, had to be converted into the ceilings of the units below by laying servicing and concrete on top. The concrete floors created a better surface to clean up art supplies, maintaining an architectural feature without the risk of items falling between planks to the units below. Heat exchange units were installed to encourage proper ventilation and reduce energy costs, and small strip kitchens met social housing requirements. Other features of the property include a freight elevator, common gathering room and outdoor bake oven.


When Artscape West Queen opened in 1995, Artscape finally achieved its vision of creating legal artist live/work space. The redevelopment played an important role in triggering the revitalization of West Queen West, and has played an equally important role more recently in helping to anchor the creative community in what has become one of Canada’s most high-profile creative neighbourhoods.

Artscape West Queen West has 22 live/work units, 5 work studios and an artist-run gallery. Artscape Non Profit Homes Inc. (ANPHI) owns the property and operates it under the terms of a Social Housing Agreement an agreement with the City of Toronto. ANPHI’s arrangement with the City is based on the standard agreement with all social housing providers in all ways but one: it has a specialized mandate to house artists. The agreement also commits ANPHI to providing at least 14 rent-geared-to-income units within the property. The remaining live/work units are offered at market rents at or below the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation average market rents for Toronto.

To qualify to become a tenant at Artscape West Queen West, applicants must go through a two-step process. First, they must be deemed to be a professional artist through a peer evaluation process led by Artscape. They then need to qualify for social housing through an income means testing process managed by Toronto Housing Connections, the City’s centralized waiting list. Housing Connections administers the waiting list and ensures strict protocols around access to affordable housing are observed. The City provides an annual grant to ANPHI that represents the amount of combined subsidy the RGI tenants need based on their incomes.

Tenants of the building have organized a garden committee which receives a budget from Artscape to maintain and improve the garden adjacent to Artscape West Queen West. The garden committee also books events that are held in the garden space.


The creation of Artscape West Queen West was made possible as a result of Artscape pursuing innovative approaches to both planning tools and project financing. To achieve your own project vision, you will often have to invent new approaches and new models and advocate these to funders, partners and stakeholders. Sometimes your organization’s structure or governance model simply will not serve your project vision and you may need to change the model or create a new structure. Artscape created ANPHI in order to realize its objective of developing and managing affordable live/work studios for artists.

Although there were many international examples of artists live/work which Artscape could draw inspiration from, Artscape West Queen West had to be based on a solution appropriate to the Canadian, Ontario, and Toronto contexts. This solution had to take into account specific political, cultural and planning frameworks. When Artscape is in the pre-project development phase of a new project, research will often include a review of international precedents – however, the final approach and model needs to respond to the planning frameworks and funding and financing opportunities available in your community. For any complex development project, a feasibility study is typically required by prospective capital funders. In certain circumstances however, as in the case at Artscape West Queen West, a feasibility study may not be necessary.



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