Rent hikes price creatives out of Sterling Rd. studios
Several artists are departing as the fledgling neighbourhood prepares for Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.
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There’s a showroom for a townhouse development off the lobby at 213 Sterling Rd., a two-storey former transformer factory that houses a spirited mix of independent businesses. Inside, alongside architectural renderings and floor plans for the development on nearby Perth St., are works by artists whose studios are within a stone’s throw.
It’s typical lifestyle branding, the kind seen in countless other pockets of the city where local culture gets packaged as a marketing pitch to draw buyers to a character neighbourhood. But for Abby McGuane, a sculptor whose work is on display there, the irony is thick.
McGuane’s studio is right upstairs, but only for the moment. Just before the showroom opened, McGuane and her studio mates, Vanessa Maltese and Lili Huston-Herterich, received a notice from their landlord of their lease renewal. It included a rent hike of more than 55 per cent, from $1,905.50 a month to $2,964.50. They’re moving out by March 1.
As Sterling Rd. gets ready to welcome the expanded Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, several of the artists and businesses who fill the area with the creative vibe seen in that showroom are departing as rents spike.
As much as a decade ago, Sterling — a post-industrial zone east of the GO train tracks between Dundas and Bloor Sts. — was exactly the kind of marginal, disused pocket of the city favoured for independent cultural activity of all kinds.
With huge spaces, cheap rents and an under-the-radar location that allowed for a range of eclectic activities, it became an unofficial hub of enterprising creatives. Artists, craftspeople, musicians and others filled the many gaps between the Nestle Chocolate factory and a cardboard-box manufacturer, the only viable businesses at the time, happy to live in the cracks.
But even before MOCCA announced in June that it would move into the former Automotive Tower at 158 Sterling Rd. next winter, the cost of leasing space in the area had surged.
In less than five years, former uses — a paintball arena, unofficial live-work studios for artists — have given way to sleek office space for film and branding companies.
At 213 Sterling, more than a dozen tenants — artists, photographers, woodworkers and designers among them — reported rent increases as high as 80 per cent.
Ryan Briggs, a painter who shares a 2,500-square-foot studio here with seven others, will be one of those leaving. The group received its lease renewal recently; rent was to rise from $2,800 to $4,000 a month.
Briggs’ share of the space, at $350 per month, crept up from $275 in 2010, when he first bought in. This year, it’s to rise to more than $500.
“We were blessed with this space,” he shrugs. “I guess it was only a matter of time.”
Thombar Inc., which purchased 213 Sterling Rd. in December 2010 for $700,000, has not responded to multiple requests for an interview.
Commercial leases are not subject to the same provincial rent-control legislation afforded to residential leases and are determined by whatever the market will bear, says Jordan Donich, a Toronto lawyer who has represented landlords and tenants in rent disputes.
The province caps residential rent increases on an annual basis; in 2015, the maximum allowed was 1.6 per cent. But those rules don’t apply to commercial leases since the province is wary of interfering with business activity.
“The idea is that both parties are sophisticated; they’re business owners, they’re free to negotiate a contract,” says Donich.
The Sterling Rd. tenants are searchingacross the city and provincefor the kinds of spaces they need and rent they can afford.
“I’m moving to the middle of nowhere — it’s the only place I know we won’t get kicked out,” says Brock Chan, whose business at 213 Sterling, 2Egress Sound & Design, builds custom consoles for the recording industry. He’s in his final weeks at 213 before shipping to Kingsville, Ont. “That’s what happens: the art museum moves in, the artists move out.”
What that mass migration means for the character of Sterling Rd., long prized for its independent cultural activity, remains to be seen.
“There’s a lot of anxiety for what this says about the immediate future around the neighbourhood,” says Philip Beesley, an architect and sculptor whose massive studio occupies a 3,000-square-foot space with double-height windows at 213 Sterling. “I find myself reflecting on just what is needed to keep really diverse ingredients working together.”
He declined to disclose his rent, but Beesley did say he had renewed his lease at a “hefty” increase. But with smaller tenants poised to flee the neighbourhood, he invokes the recent transition of Liberty Village, another post-industrial area, as a cautionary tale.
A decade ago, the eastern half of Liberty Village, near King St. W. and Strachan Ave., was an expanse of barren fields where the Massey Ferguson factory complex once stood. Now, towering condos cluster tightly, looming over a strip mall and parking lot.
On the area’s western edge, employment zoning helped preserve buildings and uses, in stark contrast with the unchecked growth to the east.
“On my bad days, I worry that the much more homogenous and sanitized east Liberty area is coming to Sterling,” Beesley says.
In McGuane’s studio, she, Maltese and Huston-Herterich work in three distinct spaces cleaved neatly by crisp white drywall. It looks new, because it is. Maltese, who took the lease for the space in 2010, saw studio mates come and go, but when it stabilized on the current threesome they made plans to stay for the long haul.
The three artists spent $2,000 and uncounted hours of labour late last summer to make the raw space into a crisp, efficient studio that accommodated their different needs.
They finished in October; five months later, they’ll be gone. “Maybe we’ll take the walls with us,” Maltese says.
They’ve found a new space near Dufferin and Dupont Sts., but they won’t be leaving without a trace. Recently, they put out a call to Sterling Rd. artists, past and present, to contribute to a book project they hope to launch at the end of February.
“We’d like the book to serve as a sort of memoir of the street,” Maltese says. “That’s all we can do, other than get the hell out of here.”
Humans of Toronto