Stroll down Draper Street, and through history
Despite construction plans, this tiny street is keeping its old-fashioned neighbourhood feel
It’s the middle of a heat wave so Craig Kirkham doesn’t mind getting splashed as his next-door neighbour sprays the sidewalk clean in front of their pristine Victorian semis on Draper Street.
On a front porch lined with winding purple clematis, Kate, 5, and 2-year-old Drew are waiting to jump on their dad, who lingers to chat with the woman wielding the hose and other passersby.
Up the street on her doorstep, Mary Kohut thanks a neighbour who’s off to mail a letter for her. At 90, Kohut doesn’t get around as easily as she used to, but folks on the block are always happy to help out.
“I’m the longest one here,” says Kohut, whose family moved to the street when she was 9. “I still have the best neighbours in the world.”
Every now and then, on this weekday afternoon, a door opens and someone emerges with a dog or a grocery bag and a greeting.
Similar scenes unfold every day in neighbourhoods throughout Toronto. But the ambience on Draper Street is like no other.
Only one block long with 28 houses, this is the last residential strip of its kind in the booming commercial and condominium district of King and Spadina west of downtown.
Draper, with its second-empire Victorian cottages built between 1881 and 1889, has withstood more than a century of industry on all sides and somehow survived with its charm and heart intact.
Residents in the shiny new condo build- ings nearby may not know their neighbours. But on Draper, they celebrate the summer solstice together, meet for drinks in the shared garden they created on a vacant lot and babysit each other’s pets. They meet for movie nights and card games, and trade tips on how to keep their front gardens blooming.
But the historic street is facing a new round of challenges. Within the next two years, a consortium, led by developer Diamond Corp., is expected to break ground on The Well, a three-hectare project adjacent to homes on the east side of Draper extending east to Spadina Ave. and running from Front St. north to Wellington St.
By the time it’s finished, there are expected to be seven mixed-use buildings with residential, retail and office space organized around an east-west pedestrian “spine” and open-air plaza.
The project, built on the longtime site of the Globe and Mail, got the nod a year ago when city council approved an official plan amendment.
Azoning amendment is expected to proceed in the fall.
The Well property includes a building at the corner of Draper and Front Sts. and the fenced-in vacant lot the neighbours turned into their shared garden years after its original building burned down.
Although residents are bracing for more noise, traffic and density, one piece of promising news came when developers proposed keeping the vacant lot as a parkette, opening it to the public and connecting it to pedestrian walkways.
So far, consultations between project managers and the Draper Street Residents’ Association have been “very positive,” says association president Dr. Kamran Khan, an infectious diseases physician who has lived on the street for 14 years.
Change is not only happening to the east, it’s also looming at the north end.
This spring, Lifetime Developments proposed a 16-storey condo with retail spaces at the corner of Draper and Wellington and a parking entrance on Draper.
“It’s a small but complete community.” DR. KAMRAN KHAN DRAPER STREET RESIDENT ON WHAT MAKES THE NEIGHBOURHOOD GREAT
The proposal “has definitely caused quite a bit of concern as it may not be respectful to the scale of the street,” says Khan. Not to mention the traffic flow.
The first public meeting on the application is expected this fall.
Development and increasing density are inevitable and people aren’t averse to change, says Khan. “The key thing is the precedents that are set are really important.”
That’s why residents must have a say in what happens in their neighbourhood. In the 1990s, they fought successfully to have the street declared a heritage site, which strictly inhibits changes that can be made to buildings and landscape.
Today they are determined to preserve its integrity.
But you don’t have to live on Draper Street to want it protected. It’s the kind of street that people who work or live in the area go out of their way to stroll down.
“This is where Toronto began,” says Joe Cressy, city councillor for ward 20, who declares Draper his favourite street in the city. It hung onto its “family quality” while industry sur- rounded it, he adds. Printing and publishing, then garment factories and lofts, railway lands to the south and more recently architects, designers and other arts and cultural businesses.
Strolling down Draper Street is like walking through history and stumbling into a quiet zone. Suddenly, the traffic jam on Front Street fades into the background as the red brick semis with yellow brick window panels come into view, with their rounded dormers, bay windows, wrought iron finishings and flowers spilling from window boxes.
But it’s the people inside who are the heart of Draper.
“It’s a small but complete community,” says Khan, who is happy to report “a bit of a baby boom” on the block.
He and wife Amy are raising their three children here and are happy to see more kids arriving. Khan, a scientist researching the Zika virus, loves that he can walk or cycle to the downtown hospitals where he works.
Draper includes renters, young adult friends who grew up together, families new to the ’hood and seniors there since before the nearby Rogers Centre or even the CN Tower.
And there are residents such as Cate Freeman, who made it her home in1980, not long after she came to Canada from Australia.
She was a key player in getting the street heritage designation, helped plant the shared garden and loves street gatherings. Her roots are Australian but, “this is my community, this is the place I love.”