Woodsworth was incorporated on November 8th, 1976 and members moved into the co-op in the autumn of 1979. The project was sponsored by the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto and the architectural firm was Sillaste & Nakashima.
The St. Lawrence Project
The St. Lawrence Housing Development Project was born during the early 1970s, somewhere in the offices of the City of Toronto’s planning and housing departments.
Housing was viewed as such an important priority that a department had been formed to foster housing development. In the preceding years, Toronto’s Housing Department had produced some noteworthy projects, but nothing large enough to really catch the public’s attention or to make a significant dent in the housing problem. This time the planners were asked to search for possible sites for a major housing project. From the several sites proposed they chose a 44-acre urban area south of St. Lawrence Hall and adjacent to the historic old St. Lawrence Market. The area was once known as the Old Town of York and was for a while the bustling core of the new city of Toronto. After the Great Fire of 1849, however, it never regained its former status. Through the subsequent decades it remained a nondescript and cluttered area of small factories, warehouses, trucks and boxcars adjacent to the railway yards.
Not far to the north of this area was a housing development known as Regent Park, a project which stood as a glaring reminder, to the politicians and the planners, on how not to plan and redevelop a housing site. In between Regent Park and St. Lawrence was Trefan Court another redevelopment project with many lessons for the politicians and planners.
The St. Lawrence site had many advantages. There was no housing which might have to be knocked down and no community to argue and/or consult with. The only inhabitants were transients who found it convenient to downtown, the railway and several agencies that specialized in the care of impoverished, homeless people.
The absence of a community was seen as a disadvantage by many, including politicians and planners. Therefore, in 1975, a St. Lawrence Working Committee was formed, comprising representatives from Regent Park, the Don Area, Cabbagetown, the Bain Avenue Coop and the local industrialists.
The concept of the new St. Lawrence Neighbourhood called for retaining many of the historic buildings and using the rest of the area for building moderate and low-cost housing, schools, stores, health care and recreation facilities for about 10,000 people.
The Co-op housing movement in Toronto
Just as St. Lawrence was seen as an opportunity to achieve some significant achievements by the housing and planning departments, the Co-op movement in Toronto saw it as an opportunity for major advancements in the role of co-ops in housing. Prior to this time, most^housing cooperatives were based on the renovation of existing developments. They were created often after considerable political and financial struggles.
The St. Lawrence co-ops were developed by several independent co-op groups, but Woodsworth was developed by the Cooperative Housing Federation of Toronto — the granddaddy of all of the development groups — after a group of men and women met and decided to build a housing co-op as an integral part of the new neighbourhood.
Their vision was to build a model downtown residential housing complex that would include cooperative-minded people from all walls of life, different lifestyles and occupations, varied racial and ethnic origins, all age groups, single and married, with and without children, with different levels of income, as well as a set number of men and women who required government assistance.
Agreement was finally reached on a housing complex that consisted of an eight-story building with 123 apartment units and 70 two-and three-story townhouses, for a total of 194 housing units. The new co-op was incorporated, construction extended over 30 months, and by the summer of 1979 was ready for occupancy.
The founding members decided to name the new co-op after the Rev. James Shaver Woodsworth, the renowned Canadian religious leader, pacifist, social worker and politician. Mr. Woodsworth spent his entire adult life fighting against poverty, injustice and every form of discrimination, and was a persevering advocate of democratic-socialism. He was the first leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor of the New Democratic Party.
In a way, the Woodsworth Co-op represented the flagship project for many of the pioneers of cooperative housing development in Toronto.
It is hard to quantify or make specific the benefits the current residents may have gained from that “favourite son” status. Compared to other co-ops in the community. Woodsworth seems to have good design, good location, a good community , a good size and good construction without extraordinarily high housing charges. In any case the physicians were willing to take their own medicine because many of these same pioneers moved into Woodsworth and are still residents.
Woodsworth also benefited from an excellent development Board. That was the group of people who volunteered their time to act as an interim Board of Directors until the first resident board was elected. Most of them spent approximately two years on the Board. They helped to interview the original membership committee which then went on to interview everyone else. They were also party to the design of the co-op and the president, Dr. Hooker, frequently reviewed the construction to ensure that it was on budget. It so happened that his profession was construction quantity surveying so he was able to make better sense of all of that than almost anyone else.
First Membership Committee
Most of the original members found out about Woodsworth and about co-ops from the information sessions put on by the CHFT and the development board. After these meetings some of the prospective members were interviewed by the Development Board and by CHFT staff. These first members formed the original membership committee which then began the long and time-consuming task of interviewing every other person who was at the subsequent information sessions. Eventually, membership was offered to enough households so that the 194 units would be filled.
Pre-move and Move-in
Many of the original pre move-in General meetings were held at Innis College and the OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) building. From those meetings Woodsworth members and residents-to-be formed several committees, including a “shadow” Board which sat in on the development board to see what was going on and how things were done from the fall of 1978.
The original move-in was highlighted by great excitement, mud, a hike to Queen Street to get milk but a short hop to Market Street to get a bottle of rare wine), nothing natural (not even insects), and lots of rain!
Source: Woodsworth’s member handbook, 1991