Saving our community spaces

Jo-Ann_Davis_columnPublic spaces create a profound sense of community pride and belonging, as well as economic growth. There must be a better way to preserve them.

Over the past year, two student accommodation reviews involving four Toronto Catholic District School Board schools were carried out in the downtown ward I represent. The resulting recommendations were to consolidate four school communities into two. St Bruno students will join new friends at St. Raymond (Christie Pits), while students at Senhor Santo Cristo will unite with those at St. Luke (Ossington and Dundas). These communities made the tough choices — recommending the closure of two beloved schools to create two stronger and sustainable community schools.

All local public representatives were invited to be involved: Councillors Layton and Mihevc as members of the review committees, MPPs Han Dong and Eric Hoskins and MPs Carolyn Bennett and Adam Vaughan, through the public meetings. One clear common goal coming out of the process was to keep the closed school sites and their green spaces as public assets by converting them into multi-use (e.g., arts, social services, health) Community Hubs, the Holy Grail of partnership models.

While discussions with interested local partners have begun, without a funding source to support Community Hubs, pressure will continue to mount on school boards to sell schools given soaring property values and deferred maintenance needs which often includes big ticket items like a roof or boiler. School boards are not funded to maintain non-student occupied schools, so Community Hub creation becomes a Herculean, if not impossible, task. Not-for-profit groups — often ideal partners — don’t have the budgets to absorb leases that include deferred maintenance costs.

The City is looking to school boards to help correct development run wild. Karen Pitre’s work as Special Advisor on Community Hubs, demonstrates the province’s clear support, but the how-to remains unclear. Ottawa has promised to invest billions in social infrastructure but public school buildings have not been discussed.

Rapid residential intensification and shifting demographics are creating a unique Made in Toronto problem in how we deliver schools and green spaces. While Educational Development Charges (EDCs) are paid by developers to school boards when a new school is needed to meet residential growth, EDCs can only be spent to purchase land. They cannot be used to build a new school or repair or expand existing ones. It’s a green field model that doesn’t work for Toronto. Development in our city is vertical and available sites often don’t exist.

Safeguarding public space for the common good is not something that school boards, the city, the province or Ottawa, can do alone. It can only be done by viewing community needs and opportunities holistically, and by creating public mechanisms which bring us together with those we serve.

Those who elected us expect us to sort this out. The time to act is now before more of Toronto’s public spaces are lost forever.