childrens-discovery-centre-condo Photo: James Bombales

After more than a year, Toronto’s first ever children’s museum is closing its doors — for now.

A cluster of glass towers viewable from the east-facing windows of the former police station at 45 Sumach Street, near the city’s downtown core, foreshadows this site’s fate: more condos.

But condos made the temporary 20,000-square-foot Children’s Discovery Centre, a destination for young downtown-dwelling families, possible in the first place.

Developers let the centre use the eventual home of the fifth and final tower of Garrison Point, a condo project from Diamondcorp, Cityzen and Fernbrook Homes, until July 31st, when it needs to be cleared out for construction. And Jeanhy Shim, the museum’s founder, sees high-rise builders playing a possible role in her project’s future as well.

“Some of the permanent locations we’re looking at would be in mixed-use, multi-phase kind of developments in the downtown area,” Shim tells BuzzBuzzNews during a private tour of the facility, hosted by the Toronto chapter of the Urban Land Institute on Tuesday evening.

“That was part of my idea initially,” Shim, who has worked in real estate herself for about 20 years, adds. “For a developer, it becomes one of the assets of the community to sell condos and it also meets the [community’s] needs.”

childrens-discovery-centre-condo-2 Photo: James Bombales

Her idea took the form of a pop-up children’s museum, geared towards kids aged six and under and filled with 10 interactive zones from a mock vet’s office with stuffed animals and light-up X-ray machine to a “mini-city” room with a gravel pit “construction site.” Early childhood educators and primary school teachers staff these sections, based on the philosophy of “open play,” says Shim, or “letting kids play in their own way.”

More than 200 children’s museums like this have been established throughout North America, says Shim, who took inspiration from the Bay Area Discovery Museum during a trip to Sausalito, California, 13 years ago. “I remember walking around and going, ‘Holy crap, why doesn’t Toronto have a place like this,” she says.

The mother of a seven-year-old, Shim has become especially aware of the challenges facing the parents of young children when it comes to finding places to go in their early years. “I got memberships to the ROM, and the AGO, and the Science Centre, because you’ve got to fill your day doing stuff, but I realized how [they weren’t] really designed for young kids,” she recalls.

The Children’s Discovery Centre was meant to address a shortage of age-appropriate places for families in the core to take their young children, and chiefly to demonstrate that there is a demand for this kind of place, hopefully laying the groundwork for a permanent location elsewhere in the process.

Not all sponsors she approached saw the same need she did, but Shim received support from a number of organizations, including real estate developers Streetcar, Hullmark, Concord Adex and Pinnacle International. She also put money into the project herself. “It was debt to be quite honest,” she says.

childrens-discovery-centre-condo-3 Photo: James Bombales

Since its May 2015 opening, the Children’s Discovery Centre has attracted nearly 15,000 families. Forty per cent of those who dropped by lived within four kilometres of the site, says Shim. “Talk about the downtown condo baby boom — it’s real,” she says. The number of children aged four and under living south of Queen Street shot up 55 per cent from 2006 to 2011, according to the Toronto Star and a fact she cites.

Yet another 40 per cent of the centre’s visitors came from the outlying 905 region, Shim notes. “I think it speaks to the fact that… we really have nothing in the GTA that’s specifically designed for kids under six,” Shim explains in the reception area, not far from the Imagination Station, a blue room with matching building blocks.

During its time here, the Children’s Discovery Centre has been able to sell 150 memberships, which cost $75 each, with about 20 to 30 members popping in daily, says Shim. Non-members were charged $13 per visit, though the founder wants it to be free in the future and open to kids under 12.

As closing day approaches, Shim is shifting attentions towards fundraising efforts, an application for Children’s Discovery Centre to become a charitable foundation, and ultimately finding a full-time location.

The Children’s Discovery Centre is selling 20,000 bricks for $25 each in an effort to raise seed money to cover the support team, made up of everyone from architects to grant writers. Each brick will have the name of its donor on it and be installed in the museum’s next home, wherever that is.

“Building cities is more than just building condos and offices and retail,” Shim explains. “There’s a whole bunch of other things that go with building a complete neighbourhood.”

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