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A new model of community centre building: Porter



The Centre for Social Innovation has a new $16-million building on Spadina Ave. where people working on a multitude of good causes will come together to help themselves and each other.

“Jane Jacobs said ‘New ideas need old buildings,’ ” Tonya Surman says, stepping into an old print factory on Spadina Ave. The six-storey building is a renovator’s fantasy — cavernous high ceilings, exposed brick walls, fat wood beams.

Perfect for a yoga studio or design firm or a mishmash of activists-turned-entrepreneurs working to solve global hunger, save the boreal forest and build bike lanes.

Surman is the CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation, which really now is three centres in Toronto and another in New York, all bursting at the seams.

Come Wednesday, this $16-million building will become its fifth home. CSI is buying it.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Surman asks, taking me upstairs to see the view. “Don’t you just want to do cartwheels?”

So much is beautiful about the Centre for Social Innovation. Each of its locations feels like a condensed university campus — bursting with idealism, fresh ideas, good intentions and caffeinated energy. Go to one of the regular member nights and you’ll meet people working on just about every good cause: climate change, AIDS, youth voting, women’s rights.

Traditionally, these people would be locked in the dark of a friend’s basement, toiling alone on their plans. The centre’s brilliance: It brings them together into a beautiful space and pools their resources. So, in exchange for a membership fee or a rented space, they get access to corporate office trappings — fax machines, photo copiers, bubbling coffee machines and meeting rooms with Persian carpets and big windows, where they can impress their would-be funders. (“It went a long way to legitimizing who we were,” says Matthew Blackett, publisher of Spacing Magazine, which just moved out of CSI after seven years.)

Plus, through proximity, social mixers and a group listserve, the building offers its members colleagues and mentors — fellow activists for sounding ideas and giving guidance.

“I put a question out on the mailing list about opening a bank account for a non-profit, and 20 people got back to me within an hour,” says Ryan Dyment, cofounder of the Tool Library, a CSI member since 2012.

The centre opened in 2004 with 14 members. Today, there are around 800.

Put all those dreamers together, and unexpected magic emerges, too. Take Jane’s Walks, the annual weekend of community-led walking tours in honour of city visionary Jane Jacobs. Former tenant Chris Winter brewed up the idea eight years ago. He’s a conservationist, not a walker though. In other places, the idea would have withered and died. Not at CSI. Two founding members jumped on it and within two months, the first 27 Jane’s Walks were hosted around Toronto. Last year, the idea had spread to more than 100 cities, from Santiago to Shanghai.

See why I love it so? The Centre for Social Innovation proves that together, we are more than the sum of our parts. It also inspires a Ghandian agency: Don’t wait for a government solution; change things yourself.

Since it opened in one building a decade ago, the centre has received only $1.5 million in government grants, Surman says. It raises 80 per cent of its annual $5-million budget through rents and membership fees.

This new $16-million building on Spadina? The centre is buying it with community bonds — low-interest loans made by private citizens who agree with the centre’s mission and want to help it expand. They start at $1,000 and come with an annual return of 3 to 4.5 per cent.

The centre has a good track record: Four years ago, it raised $2 million in community bonds to buy and renovate a $4.5-million building on Bathurst St., now known as CSI Annex. The building quickly filled, and within two and a half years, was turning a profit, Surman says. Her organization is nearing the final bond payments with no defaults, she adds. The building was recently revalued at $10.2 million.

This building is bigger and more expensive. Surman and her team have to raise $4.5 million. But, they’re already a quarter of the way there.

“This is a new model of raising money,” she says. “It’s a tool that allows us to change the way we design cities. We don’t need to wait for the city to build new community centres, we can build them ourselves!”

What a revolutionary idea.

We climb to the sixth floor, where the large windows spill light and give us a generous view of downtown. And there, we do cartwheels.

I leave you with one more thought: There is a second, much larger innovation hub with a new building in this city. It too has a large social entrepreneurship branch. But in the case of MaRS, we are paying $450,000 a month in interest payments alone through our taxes.

Catherine Porter is a Star columnist. She can be reached at

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