Toronto has a badly difficult public policy problem: what to do with the city’s public school sites.
The issue is not only about education. The Toronto District School Board controls 611 facilities on 5,000 acres – a much larger tract of the city’s public land and buildings. But they are the first school, they are largely fragmented and they now have 60,000 vacant seats.
The good news is that TDSB’s real estate agency has a plan. Bad news: Its plan would demolish some of the city’s best public spaces and it still wouldn’t solve much. A more radical strategy is needed to manage these locations.
I recently heard about the board’s plan from Toronto Lands Corporation (TLC) Chief Executive Officer Daryl Sage, who oversees all real estate for TDSB. “We have about 600 schools, which are in the center of every neighborhood,” he said. “The board is land-rich and cash-poor,” he said.
Mr. Rishi said that in the last two years, his organization has adopted a new approach. “We are trying to integrate other public services on our sites to create a common destination,” he said. “When we redevelop a school, it doesn’t have to be just a school.”
He specifically suggests that long-term care beds – Toronto would need thousands of them – could move into a shared building with a new school, in the middle of a low-rise neighborhood.
It makes sense. Such deals would keep the school sites in public ownership while bringing in capital dollars. If the provincial education ministry approved, this approach would reduce the heavy maintenance backlog on the board’s books – now $ 4.2 billion and increase.
The problem is that the board and TLC do not have the ability to pull it.
His recent track record is poor. Mr. Sage cited a “model project” in Yonge-Davisville, where the city and the TDSB are combining forces for a school and RER center. good thought. But as I wrote in 2018, this is a badly flawed effort. The board should have renovated the existing, historically significant school.
And more than $ 5 million of the board’s project cost is going towards an underground parking garage. (The board staff is not obliged to provide parking, but it does it anyway and is building more garages.)
Similarly problematic is another big idea Mr. Rishi said: Large schools located near transit can be redeveloped. He cited the example of a current project in Bloor and Dufferin, where the board is moving from three schools to one, and making $ 125 million from the sale of the land to a private developer. “We think we have six or seven blower-dufferins in the portfolio,” he said.
But schools are not just schools. They are often, as Mr. Rishi suggested, the heart of a neighborhood. In Bloor-Dufferin, an entire block of schools and farms is being reduced to an inferior school building (and a community building) under Condos’ mountain. This is a disadvantage.
As another possible redevelopment, Mr. Sage cited the City Adult Learning Center. It was constructed in the 1960s on a large piece in Don Valley on Donforth Avenue. This is an easy goal, as CALC has no parental support to fight for it. But its building is a masterpiece, designed by the Toronto Board of Education’s own staff.
Very simply, there are some Toronto school sites that are worth a large amount of money. And those that are economically valuable are important public spaces. They will be difficult to develop and will come with a lot of social costs.
Yet TDSB and TLC show no interest in the inheritance that they control. In our conversation, Mr. Sage mentioned the age of Toronto schools several times – something I’ve heard before with board officials. To them, it seems, schools are just lacking assets. Toronto school boards had a strong culture of design for most of the 20th century; He has completely disappeared.
And the city’s heritage planning department, which is hyperactive on other fronts, has done nothing in recent years to protect school buildings.
The solution is a new model of development – as Mr. Rishi has suggested. But the city should handle it. Toronto’s own development agency Creatotto is best suited to do this job. Its employees have some of the private sector experience required to manage a multibillion-dollar real estate portfolio. TLC and TDSB are not just that.
And they should think long term. Where schools need to be closed, their sites should be maintained as much as possible. In the past, TDSB has sold entire suburban schools for low density development. Instead, in the future, they should sell part of a site – start with parking – but develop it at a higher density. This would require active and constructive participation of city planners and the province.
It is good news that Mr. Sadhu and TLC have a holistic view. “We see ourselves as stewards of public property,” he said.
But to do this right requires creative bargaining and a relentless focus on the place. Test the architecture, and save buildings that have cultural values. Stop building parking garages. Push aggressively to achieve density at school sites. Keep as much ground as possible.
And deal with public bodies. Every locality should have a public place in its heart. The COVID-19 epidemic has taught us that we need more of it, not less. A Toronto of 2060 – dense, more uneven with a warmer climate, will cherish its public spaces.
Schools have, in the past, been great public spaces; They should happen again.
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