To be blunt, the EM2 project, or the proposal to construct a new Estonian House in Toronto, has, if not polarized users of the facility, then certainly resulted in the explicit expression of views both pro and con. The board of directors of the Estonian House – elected by shareholders to a volunteer position – held a Town Hall type meeting at 958 Broadview Avenue on January 21st, to inform not only the shareholders but the community of where the project presently stands.
Shareholders had at the previous Annual General Meeting overwhelmingly (97.5% in favour) authorized the board to proceed in drawing up a letter of intent (LOI) that would delineate the specifics of the project, without going into minutiae. Armed with this approval, the board is presently suggesting a Joint Venture with developers Tribute Communities, who have extensive experience with projects such as the Estonian House (from now on EM) EM2 concept: mixed use (cultural or other centre, commercial, residential).
The board chairman emphasized his personal enthusiasm and excitement for the project. Without a doubt, the board, with no personal incentive, financial or otherwise, has fulfilled its mandate, which is to act in the interests of the future of the EM. Not, it must be added, necessarily as an agent of the Estonian community in Toronto. Which is neither a negative nor a positive statement, just a simple fact: the board exists to run a building that serves the community; the community through shareholders has a voting influence on who makes up the board, but cannot dictate its course of action, trusting them to choose the right path for the future.
A Tribute representative addressed the Town Hall meeting, intending to assuage the concerns of shareholders. More on Tribute Communities online here: www.mytribute.ca Architect John Chimienti (Graziani Corazza Architects, www.gc-architects.com) spoke of potential designs. Jon Hack of Sierra Planning and Management, independently hired in 2012 by the EM board to guide it through the various issues faced in redeveloping the property, also spoke at some length.
EM is entering any project with basically only the real estate value of the lands it owns as well as the lands of the Estonian Foundation of Canada, Sihtkapital, which abut the present EM. Sihtkapital seems to be a silent partner in the project, no representative officially addressed the Town Hall, which seemed unusual, as some Sihtkapital board members were observed as being present at the meeting. Presumably their involvement will be made clearer as the EM2 project proceeds.
The board chair asked that the shareholders and others present respect one important fact – to keep what they heard and saw on the visual presentations to themselves. This was explained by not enabling other developers from gleaning information that, presumably, would put Tribute at a disadvantage in future projects elsewhere. However, such a curtain of secrecy meant that little in the way of concrete facts was disclosed. Again, somewhat understandably, but still, defeating the hoped for goal of transparency expected by many in the audience.
The developers, 50-50 partners in the EM2 project with EM, quite obviously did not present any financials of their own – why should they? They are a business, involved in such projects for profit. One must bear this in mind, considering that they are being presented to the community as worthwhile and solid partners. There is no cause to not believe this, considering their track record as presented.
The present plan, as it was unveiled, sees the present historical part of EM, the late 19th century schoolhouse, be retained, most likely as a façade, as it is in rather dire condition. As are parts of the two later additions, the reasons for this project in the first place. The status quo is not an option. No renovations have been performed since the need for EM2 became blatantly obvious, and unfortunately, it shows. Not for nothing do some avoid what is called by them the “bunker on Broadview”, preferring to rent at other locations for confirmation parties, wakes, other rites of passage. The EM has been resorting to renting space to outside interests, which also seems to be key in the business plan of the future.
The square footage allocated to the EM2 would be, according to the speakers, similar to the present area, allowing for the same use as today, once details are finalized. The elephant in the room is the fact that a large number of condominium units will rise high above the EM. The entire square footage of the project is subject to municipal approval. The meeting was informed of the projected sizes of the units, which seemed rather matchbox-like. Then again, it is likely that Tribute’s focus buyer is young and non-esto, although some in the Estonian community have voiced interest in living above the EM2. The neighbouring condominium building already has a number of Estonian inhabitants for that very reason. They live in larger units than those proposed for EM2.
Parking is another issue. The EM2 will receive dedicated parking spaces amounting to just somewhat less than the number presently. However, they will be sharing access with condo dwellers and their guests. This is perhaps a moot point, as today’s EM parking lot is also inadequate to serve the community. When larger events take place, on-street parking is often the only option.
Shared grounds and the responsibilities involved in their maintenance are also a concern. The present board assured the meeting that it would be business as usual, but as some in the audience wondered, how many of the present board members will be in that position when EM2 is completed?
The desirable location, near the DVP, a major highway, and public transportation is reason for optimists to believe that the pre-sell of the condo units, which will finance the construction that Tribute is responsible for, may be successful in a reasonable amount of time. Yet the risks in Toronto, already saturated with condo projects, remain, and nothing can be done to prevent the unexpected – such as the present global economic concerns with regard to the dramatic collapse of oil prices.
Granted, every project has associated risks. When the original EM was acquired the local Estonian community offered free “talgu” or work bee style labour, which was plentiful at the time, in lieu of money, which was not. One suspects that while active, skilled volunteers no longer exist in viable numbers, cash should not be an issue today.
The shareholders will be voting on the project on Tuesday, January 27 – six days after the meeting designed to disseminate information to the community. In the minds of many, hardly long enough to make an educated decision.
However, the project is a fait accompli. The Estonian Credit Union, the second largest shareholder in EM, after the Eesti Maja itself, announced at the meeting that they are behind the EM2 project. Informed insiders know that these two blocks of shares in themselves are enough for voting approval, by a wide margin. All other organizations (seltsid), such as choirs, chess clubs, scouts and guides, Estonian language schools, etc, that have been consistent users of the space as intended by the EM cannot combine their blocks of shares to overcome the big two. And the individual shareholder has little say, except for expressing approval – or as was experienced in the Q&A session at the info meeting, concern over the project, mostly because of the vagueness of some answers, lack of necessary detail.
Indeed, where will the users of the present space go during construction? Present – and seemingly a little optimistic – timelines see, pending the most important approvals by the city and pre-sales of the condos, shovels in the ground at the earliest some time in 2017, completion by 2020. At a minimum the community will be homeless for well over two years, some shareholders worried that in this day and age, our youth, losing a direct connection to the community in the shape of an EM, would not be served, hence be less likely to continue in community affairs in the future. At present there is no single building in Toronto that could accommodate the present needs of our community.
Asking such important questions is vital to the continued health of our presently active Estonian community in Toronto, noted by many as the bastion of Estonians abroad. Issues with our churches and newspapers have demonstrated how polarized our community can become. The EM2 project emphasizes the continued existence of such views. It is to be hoped that solutions to valid concerns will be found, as it seems the EM2 is a done deal, this said before the shareholders actually vote.
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A house divided (25)