Life after WE: the future of Queen and Parliament

By Andre Bermon

In the wake of the announcement by the Kielburger brothers to closedown WE Charity in Canada and liquidate its assets, many wondered if the sell-off would include WE’s sizable real estate holdings in the Queen and Parliament area.

Between 2015 and 2019, WE’s associated social enterprise had spent $26.1 million to buy 13 properties, forming a complex of office and storage buildings that one local wag named “WE-ville.” A majority of the properties are former commercial store-fronts, including the Marty Millionaire building, which was renovated in 2017 for the charity’s global headquarters. 

Other WE buildings on the south side of Queen Street East were slated to be part of an adult school development, but the plan was cancelled when the Kielburgers found themselves mired in a cronyism scandal with the Trudeau government.  

Now that the smoke has cleared and WE buildings sit idle, what will become of the Queen and Parliament corner? 

On September 23, people representing the Encampment Support Network, a volunteer housing advocacy group, staged a demonstration in front of the buildings and proposed that they be used to house homeless people. 

Toronto’s housing crisis has undoubtedly been laid bare since the Covid-19 lockdown occurred in March. Tent encampments have sprouted across the city, particularly in the downtown core, as underhoused people avoid crowded respite centres and shelters for fear of contagion. 

The WE site is on the periphery of Moss Park, a historically marginalized neighbourhood. Social services and public housing have concentrated nearby for decades, resulting in a disjointed and transient community. 

While there are merits to housing those in need close to existing services, it would be irresponsible of the city to place a vulnerable population in an area known for organized drug dealing, with Moss Park being the epicentre of Toronto’s opioid crisis. 

In all likelihood, pressure from the development industry would be strong. Condo buildings have slowly crept their way up Parliament Street, with ONE Properties planning a high-rise at the Shoppers Drug Mart at the southeast corner of Queen and Parliament. 

A zoning by-law amendment to allow further height and density at the intersection would make the three-storey WE HQ building and adjacent properties ripe for development. 

Instead of bowing down to developer demands to build vertical housing, city planners should prioritize retail and other small businesses in the area. After all, the city views Queen Street East as an important “retail main street.” Increased foot traffic from commerce is exactly what a remote corner like Queen and Parliament needs. 

Sometimes, it is necessary to look to the past to find answers for the future. Marty Millionaire was a retail hotspot whose eclectic furniture attracted life to the neighbourhood. 

WE’s short-lived takeover kicked out small businesses. Now, it’s time we brought them back.