Mitchell Cohen
Mitchell Cohen

A Conversation with... Mitchell Cohen

Mitchell Cohen & The Regent Park Revitalization Project

Mitchell Cohen is President of The Daniels Corporation (Daniels), one of Canada’s leading and most diversified real estate development companies. Over Mr. Cohen’s 31-year tenure at Daniels, the company has built over 25,000 homes and apartments in a diverse range of master-planned communities throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Under his leadership, Daniels has developed a strong brand with residential offerings for people at all stages of life, from first-time tenants and homeowners, to rental-retirement and assisted-living communities for seniors.

Daniels has also built internationally recognized cultural institutions, including TIFF Bell Lightbox, the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival Group, and Daniels Spectrum, a new cultural centre in Regent Park. Under construction is Daniels Waterfront – City of the Arts in Toronto’s East Bayfront. Committed to building healthy, sustainable communities, Mitchell Cohen’s leadership at Daniels has inspired innovative affordable ownership programs that help tenants achieve home ownership. Daniels also supports numerous charities and non-profit organizations, which range from helping to provide the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter, to providing opportunities in the arts, education and employment.

Mr. Cohen is currently leading his company’s efforts on the Regent Park Revitalization, the re-development of 69 acres in Toronto’s Downtown East. The revitalization is being looked at around the world as the new gold standard by which a challenged urban neighborhood can be re-imagined and re-created as a vibrant mixed use, mixed income community. Mr. Cohen understands the importance of building a strong social infrastructure hand in hand with new sewers, roads, and homes. Cohen has been leading the charge in developing a myriad of social infrastructure initiatives that are helping transform Regent Park into a highly desirable place to live, work and play. 

In addition to his work at Daniels, Cohen is also an active songwriter and musician whose songs are donated to non-profit organizations as a tool to raise both funds and awareness through the Give a Gift, Get a Song online initiative.  Mr. Cohen’s current musical project is a production called The Journey – A Living History of the Regent Park Revitalization. Written by Cohen, The Journey is a spirited, full-length musical that documents Regent Park’s nearly 70-year history through the eyes of local residents using a powerful combination of spoken word, dramatic scenes, music and dance.

Mr. Cohen has a Masters in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics, and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from McGill University. Mitchell Cohen was honored with an Award of Merit from the St. George's Society, he is also a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and has received an Honorary Doctorate from Ryerson University in the Faculty of Community Services.

Bill King: You hooked up with developer John Daniels in the early 80s’...

Mitchell Cohen: 1984

B.K: Looking back over your career, you have melded both the music and developer with social conscience. Those options aren’t usually on the same page. How did you arrive at this?

M.C: I guess it’s my entire life history beginning in Saskatchewan the birthplace of Medicare. My dad was a doctor and actually a doctor who supported the notion of socialized medicine. We grew up in a family where socialized medicine and healthcare for everyone is something that is kind of a basic understanding of how the world could and should work. That was maybe built into my DNA. I then went to Montreal to go to McGill and got a degree in psychology and went to London and got a further degree in social psychology. But maybe where it became more firmly embedded is when I was working in Montreal.

I was working for the YMCA as a community development worker and I was doing youth programming with kids in a very low income community. This was a community the landlord allowed to deteriorate very, very badly because his intention was to demolish and build condos. I was the youth worker, working in this neighborhood when the tenants got eviction notices. They came running to their community youth worker asking, “Mitchell, Mitchell, what can we do? We have thirty days to get out.” So I worked with some colleagues at the YMCA to say this isn’t right, this isn’t fair and the vacancy rate in Montreal at the time was less than one per cent. There was really nowhere to go – no affordable rental units in the city.

The tenants with our support and leadership protested and marched on city hall asking they give us an opportunity to find another solution. So happenstance, I had read about a brand new government program – this was 1973, the federal government under Pierre Trudeau had just introduced an amendment to the national housing act that allowed community groups to form non-profit co-ops. So I read about this in the newspaper – a new program where people could organize their neighborhood — form a co-op and potentially buy the units they are in — self-govern and own through a non-profit corporation. Then we have this crisis in the neighborhood I’m working in so I phone the government — Central Mortgage and Housing at that moment — and asked about the program. They said they had a program exactly set-up to support the tenants in the community to potentially buy their buildings. That gave us an opening at city hall. So we marched on city hall and asked for six months to study and see if the tenants could actually put it together and reach an agreement with the landlord to buy the buildings and renovate as a co-op. City hall, facing 300 tenants with placards and kids, gave us six months. I understood at that moment if I could open doors at city hall and help tenants have a pathway to a future where their housing could be secure they could grow their families and by having that security make economic advances and be able to work and not worry about having enough money to put food on the table or pay the rent.

B.K: Do you worry about our city?

M.C: This being Toronto?

B.K: This is one of the most dynamic cities on the face of the earth. Do you worry about the people who make this city vibrant — the workers who fill neighborhoods that will soon become unaffordable?

M.C: Totally! I live here. We worry about it a lot with my colleagues at Daniels — how do we make this affordable; both ownership opportunities and affordable rental opportunities. We think about that – we develop programs and bring them to the government and we’ve been successful in getting the provincial and federal government to support affordable home ownership programs. They need to do a lot more and more emphasis on affordable housing. Unfortunately, there is no champion in government right now, today.

You mentioned the growth of Toronto and there are thousands and thousands of units being built and people coming to the city and prices keep going up and up and up. We have been major supporters of this notion that every building that gets built should have affordable housing built into it. I think there’s a tremendous lost opportunity in Toronto in that there have been so many units built and are going to be built and there is no requirement on the development community to incorporate affordable housing. That’s a loss, a mistake; it’s something that needs to change.

B.K: What about the condos which are basically used as investment — with few occupants?

M.C: We haven’t found that. Yes, there are investors that buy some of our units here where we are sitting in Regent Park or in many of our communities but they rent up very quickly. We know the units in every one of our communities and if we are selling to an investor we track very carefully and there are always tenants. We have never seen in any of our community’s vacant units just sitting.

B.K: Outside of your domain, it is a worry.

M.C: Housing is something where there is always going to be a demand and more and more people are coming to Toronto because of what you said – Toronto is a dynamic city with a lot going on. The key thing we have to do is have a turnaround from a political point of view and a sensitivity point of view and a strategy point of view and think about how we can offer affordable opportunities to those who can’t afford to buy that condominium.

I think there is a big opportunity today with John Tory in the mayor’s seat with the provincial Liberal government and particularly in this election campaign nationally. I think there is a real opportunity for one of those parties to say, “it’s time to refocus and create a national housing strategy.” Toronto for sure needs this but it’s needed across the country.

B.K: I remember Prince Charles’s campaign to improve the architecture in communities. We have gone through early periods of grand design and later periods of “dollar store” build-ups. In revitalizing Regent Park what considerations were made to make the look and feel contemporary, workable and eye-catching?

M.C: There has been a tremendous emphasis on design and building affordable rental housing which was the replacement-housing for Toronto Community Housing. The brand new rental housing looks and feels just like the brand new condo housing. As you walk the streets of Regent Park today you can’t tell which is condo-housing and which is housing owned by the city – through Toronto Community Housing. Design plays an important role and that and building quality.

From the moment this first began it had to be indistinguishable, not, that’s where the poor folks are segregated but rather, how to create a community that is integrated.

One way is in design where there is a similarity in quality, not in brick or a specific design but a level of quality in design thinking. How does the street work, the pedestrian realm work? How do you develop a community where people feel welcomed? It’s sidewalks, it's trees, it's benches; it’s the park in the centre of the community. All of those things democratize and make people feel safe everywhere. It’s the complete opposite of what Regent Park was. It was cut off from the rest of the world. We are creating connections physically. As important or more important; how do you create social opportunities and connectivity?

We kind of take it for granted – that the buildings are going to be great and beautiful and we are going to hire different architects who are great architects to design great buildings. The real challenge is how do we create opportunities for owners and tenants to have lives intersect?

Daniels Spectrum is probably one of the examples. When you are there and experiencing a piece of theatre, Native Earth putting on a show or Collective of Black Artists at Ada Slaight Hall or any of the many, many things that are happening there, it doesn’t matter you are a tenant and you are paying rent or you have just bought a $500,000 condominium. That part disappears because you are experiencing art; you are experiencing culture side by side with others. You are experiencing the cultures of the world at Daniels. Creating a greenhouse in the park – allotment gardens...

B.K: I truly get invigorated walking past urban gardens. I know of organizations this is their prime concern — feeding low income families a healthy diet and these gardens are most welcomed. They are changing the face of the inner city and making vacant lots productive. With change come facilities like the Paintbox — which will teach you how to cook or prepare food — take in people from the community and train.

M.C: Capacity building in this neighborhood is a fundamental building block to the revitalization. Yes, we are going to build new buildings and people are going to move out and make way for the new buildings then move back in but way beyond that is how do we leverage the revitalization and the dollars to be spent to create new buildings into educational opportunities, apprenticeship opportunities, and long term — not just job — but career opportunities? We do that in every aspect of the work here. It’s phenomenal, it’s exciting and we learn new opportunities every day.

We sit here and there is art on the walls that was purchased from local artists. This is one very small piece of the manifestation. Every piece of art that is being bought by our group as we are building buildings is being bought locally. We are nurturing local artists — saying we are going to spend our money in this neighborhood and find ways for those local artist’s to not only have economic viability day by day in the work we do, but break down barriers in the rest of the world.

 

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