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Crombie chosen to find cash in surplus properties   JOHN LORINC      Special to The Globe &  Mail Oct 10, 2007

The cash-strapped Toronto District School Board has named former Toronto mayor David Crombie to head a new real estate corporation with a mandate to sell surplus land and squeeze more revenue out of dozens of school sites that are leased to community groups and private academies.

The board's decision is a "very progressive move" because it could generate cash from unused property and conceivably invest the proceeds in new hubs that combine schools and other community amenities like libraries and recreation centres, Mr. Crombie said in an interview. "For years, I've talked about bringing together public properties for multiple uses and this is a vehicle by which that could be done."

Mr. Crombie announced yesterday he is resigning from his post as president of the Canadian Urban Institute. He was also appointed recently by Ottawa to oversee talks on aboriginal land claims in the Caledonia area.

Across the city, the board has identified 99 saleable properties, including administrative buildings, warehouses, 61 leased or empty schools and 18 vacant sites.

The TDSB established the so-called Toronto Lands Corporation by a unanimous vote late last month. Mr. Crombie, who will become chairman of the corporation's board, is leading a search for five directors who will oversee the TLC alongside four school trustees. The interim CEO is Dino Chiesa, a prominent civil servant and real estate executive who currently serves as the chair of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Plans to set up such a body have been under way since last winter, when board officials tried to roll out a controversial strategy to close and consolidate Willowdale schools with an eye to using the proceeds to build larger, more modern facilities.

At the time, TDSB officials said the board's 41 Willowdale properties have an estimated value of $300-million.

That initiative, known as "Program Revitalization," met stiff resistance from parent and community groups concerned about school closings. Since then, however, the provincial government has commissioned real estate appraisals of dozens of board properties.

Some parents who have heard about the Toronto Lands Corporation remain skeptical about the TDSB's motives. Chris Glover, a Toronto father of two who is active with the Campaign for Public Education, is concerned that developers have set their sites on valuable board land and the new TLC will expedite the sale of empty schools. "When it's being done by an arm's length corporation, by the time the public is finding out, it will be too late."

Not so, says Etobicoke trustee Bruce Davis, who has been the driving force behind the strategy. "This is not about a fire sale of assets. This is not about selling off buildings to pay the operating budget."

He said putting a value on the assets would be pure speculation.

While the board has been spending more on capital improvements in recent years, Bruce Davis, a Liberal, says he's still embarrassed that the TDSB doesn't have the wherewithal to properly maintain its existing school buildings, especially when it also owns so much under-used real estate.

He said the board needs the services of a professionally managed real estate company that knows how to maximize leasing revenues and then "add value" to surplus properties by moving those parcels through the development approvals process.

The TLC would have to offer surplus properties to the City of Toronto, the three other school boards and a list of public agencies before soliciting offers from the private sector.


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