Corporate funding

 In News

How condo developers could be our school saviours  BERT ARCHER  The Globe and Mail  May 17, 2008

Toronto's public school system has two big, urgent problems. Its student population is dwindling and close to 100 of its schools are more than 80 years old and often in need of serious repairs.

Now a midtown high school is about to test a radical new model that could help solve both problems. The idea: Allow developers to erect condo towers on schoolyards in exchange for money to repair or rebuild crumbling schools.

The chair of the Toronto District School Board, for one, thinks it's a good solution to an unfortunate problem. "This could definitely be repeated elsewhere," John Campbell says. "The community needs to have a sense that not only are students benefiting from improved programs, but from an improved facility."

That's just what North Toronto Collegiate Institute at Yonge and Eglinton is getting in exchange for its old football field, where ground was broken in November on a two-tower, 24- and 27-storey condo project called The Republic.

In a deal worked out among the TDSB, the collegiate, neighbourhood associations and developer Tridel Corp., the field was sold to Tridel. The money from the deal, approximately $22-million, is going to demolish the old school and build a new one. North Toronto's even getting a field where the old parking lot used to be, thanks to an underground parking lot Tridel is building. (Tridel is also building the new school, for which they're being paid a total of $4.25-million.)

Oddly, for a public-private initiative, all parties seem pleased, and though the TDSB says it's not currently looking into any deals of this type, positive results, especially profitable ones, tend to replicate. "This has created the template for how to do it well," says school trustee Josh Matlow, who helped broker the deal. Over the past four years, TDSB enrolment has plummeted by 35,000, and it's now losing 4,000 a year. This means a lot of empty desks in buildings that sit on some of the most valuable real estate in the country. The school board has launched two probes – one called General Asset and Program Planning (GAPP), and another under the auspices of the newly formed Toronto Lands Corp. (TLC) – to look into how it might dispose of some of its unused land, as well as how it might consolidate its student body by closing the schools with low enrollment.

The GAPP, a working group of school trustees formed last August, is looking at the big picture – which schools require greater investment, which are being under-used and which should be closed. Any approved GAPP recommendations would be funded by properties leased, sold or parcelled by the TLC, whose chair, David Crombie, is only willing to say at this point that "the idea of bringing facilities together as community resources is a good idea."

The corporation's president and chief executive officer, Dino Chiesa, says that the mandate given to them by the TDSB covers only the 99 properties considered inactive, lands that are vacant or leased out, sometimes to non-board schools.

The delicacy with which both men refused to respond to questions regarding the North Toronto deal – which was sealed before TLC was formed – implies that they may be called upon to consider such issues in the future.

At least, that's what Annie Kidder thinks.

She's a citizen member of the TLC board and, as co-founder of People for Education, a long-time education activist whose daughter attended North Toronto six years ago.

"There may be choices about keeping buildings, but figuring out a different way of doing that," she says of what she assumes their mandate will be after the newfound corporation submits its initial report to the school board on Wednesday.

Ms. Kidder is not opposed to the North Toronto solution – "it was definitely crumbing," she recalls – and thinks it may solve other schools' problems.

There are some long-time residents of the North Toronto area, however, who knew the enclave near the school before it became part of the highest-density neighbourhood in the city. They question the school board's right to sell off one of the area's few remaining green spaces.

Diana Scoville has lived in an apartment building on Erskine that backs onto the North Toronto grounds since 1973. "They're here to protect the assets of the school board," she says of the TDSB, noting that the sold lands were used by residents for jogging and dog-walking. "I don't know what gives them the right to sell it to a private company when it's a public space."

Still, Ms. Scoville is in the minority. Such issues as the sale of public land and security concerns over condo residents hanging around school grounds came up early in the North Toronto process, but they were quelled by the fear of losing the school entirely.

And it's perhaps a sign of the extent to which the school board's troubles have filtered into the general consciousness that even parents at older schools are willing to consider what in different times might have been seen as a radically incendiary proposal.

Willa Marcus, a lawyer and chair of the school council at Central Technical School (built in 1912), would not be thrilled by the idea of a developer putting a condo on what is very valuable property at Bathurst and Bloor. But she says of the school, which was once the biggest in the Commonwealth and still houses 1,800 students, "It's extremely old and could do with whatever money you could put into it. And it's a fair-sized piece of land."

Though she says she'd be willing to acquiesce should the need be absolute, Ms. Marcus does perceive a basic problem with the formula. "If you're going to sell your capital assets to fund your operating costs, you don't have to be much of a financial whiz to know there's a problem with that."

Though Tridel trod very lightly into what was virgin territory during the community consultation process for the North Toronto deal, accommodating concerns of community groups that Mr. Matlow points out were "radicalized" by their opposition to the Minto towers a few blocks away, Tridel is pleased with the deal it made.

"The whole thing works very well. There was support from the community, there was support, clearly, from the school board, and there's a receptive marketplace," says Jim Ritchie, Tridel's senior vice-president. "It's going to be tough to do this again, but I know the school board is looking into possibilities."

He adds that Tridel would be interested in similar projects in the former North York and Scarborough.

And other developers, seeing how smoothly the North Toronto/The Republic deal went through, are watching. "I think it has a very good appeal to both sides …" says Bob Blazevski, vice-president of urban development and planning at Minto.

"It's the type of proposal we're definitely interested in."

Slumming it
Although the TDSB has not identified them as targets of a schoolyard condo deal, three schools the Ontario Ministry of Education has determined to be in "prohibitive to repair" condition have some of the most desirable street addresses in the city.

Cottingham Junior Public School, 85 Birch Ave.
Between Yonge and Avenue in the Summerhill area, Cottingham Street backs onto Lionel Conacher Park.

Park Lane Public School,  60 Park Lane Circle
One of the three streets that lord over Lawrence Park (along with its neighbours, High Point and the Bridle Path), Park Lane Circle is home to some of the priciest real estate in the country.

Sunny View Junior and Senior Public School, 450 Blythwood Rd.
Home to some of the most impressive teardowns in lower Lawrence Park, Blythwood Road houses are in the $5-million zone.

Recent Posts