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Currently leased to a Montessori school, the former Bannockburn P.S. sits on 5 acres in an affluent part of Toronto in the Avenue Rd. and Wilson Rd. area. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Currently leased to a Montessori school, the former Bannockburn P.S. sits on 5 acres in an affluent part of Toronto in the Avenue Rd. and Wilson Rd. area.

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Schoolyard conflict: A community playing field or an asset for sale? Add to ...

When Alyssa Berenstein and her husband bought their home on Haddington Avenue in North Toronto in 1999, part of the appeal was the sprawling playing field just half a block away.

The field surrounding the former Bannockburn Public School is where the couple taught their seven-year-old twins and 11-year-old son to ride a bike and ski down the little slope.

“It’s a safe environment where I feel I can have my kids go,” Ms. Berenstein said. “I’m not concerned about the ball rolling down to the road. There’s always people in the community looking out for each other.”

To the chagrin of the neighbourhood, the school board put the two-acre field up for sale in 2013. The fate of the field – one of the rare open green spaces in a neighbourhood where bungalows are rapidly being torn down and replaced with larger houses – is at the centre of a pitted battle among the Toronto District School Board, the City of Toronto and local residents.

Facing enormous pressure to raise money for capital projects, Canada’s largest school board has few options but to turn to selling property to plug a $3-billion backlog of needed repairs. This week, the school board released a list of “underutilized” schools – the one in five that are operating at less than two-thirds capacity – that now face possible closure.

But selling property is far from easy. While the former Bannockburn Public School itself is not on the chopping block as the board will need it in coming years to house students – it is currently leased to a Montessori school – the flap over the sale of its land shows that these TDSB properties are more than just schools to their neighbours.

Valuable green space and walkability are at stake as the board is coming under pressure from the province to sell surplus properties due to declining enrolment. The Bannockburn case shows how the process can get bogged down by competing interests.

Ms. Berenstein is part of a community group fighting against a decision from the school board to sell the field. Her group fears the highly valuable land will be snapped up by a property developer and wants it preserved as green space. Education Minister Liz Sandals, meanwhile, has given the school board until Feb. 13 to say how it plans to deal with underutilized schools.

Daryl Sage, chief executive of Toronto Lands Corp., a school board subsidiary responsible for selling surplus property, acknowledged that the process often puts the board on a collision course with the city.

The school board needs to maximize its return to raise money for capital projects, so it can’t afford to sell the property at a discount to the city, Mr. Sage said. And the city has a mandate to preserve parkland. “The city is saying, ‘we only have so much money,’ so we oppose each other that way.”

Bannockburn sits on five acres of prime real estate in an affluent neighbourhood near Avenue Road and Lawrence.

The red brick school was built in 1924 and housed 325 students, but closed in 1981 due to declining enrolment. Former city councillor Karen Stintz said this was due in part to an aging population, as well as a high concentration of Jewish residents in the area, many of whom send their children to independent Hebrew schools.

The Bannockburn field is one of 25 properties the school board has declared as surplus. With many of the properties, the school remains a core holding and land attached to it is put on the block.

After the school board put Bannockburn’s two-acre field up for sale, community residents rallied against the decision, gathering more than 700 signatures in favour of having the land remain as park space.

The French School Board and Toronto Catholic School Board both expressed an interest in buying the land, but a deal was never reached. Angelo Sangiorgio, an associate director at the Catholic board, said Toronto Lands never responded to its expression of interest in purchasing either the entire site or just the two acres.

Ms. Stintz moved a motion last November not only to purchase the two acres of land, but also to urge the province to ensure that parks attached to schools are preserved as green space.

Councillors approved the motion, but the city missed a 90-day deadline set by Toronto Lands to submit a formal bid, and is now in discussions with the school board to purchase a small portion of the property.

“If it gets sold off to build a couple of town home [developments],” Ms. Stintz said, “that would be so tragic.”

Ms. Stintz’s motion also asked city staff to meet with the TDSB to ensure parklands attached to schools in park-deficient areas not be sold.

After the city’s committee of adjustments denied the board’s request to sever the land, the case was sent to the Ontario Municipal Board. The case will be back before the OMB in May.

Meanwhile, the area’s population is expected to shift again.

Christin Carmichael Greb, the area’s current councillor, said there are applications at the city for multiple condo towers around the area, including along Avenue Road and Wilson Avenue. The neighbourhood’s many bungalows are increasingly being torn down and rebuilt as larger homes for families moving into the area.

“People are wanting to raise their kids in the area, and part of that is having a space for their kids to run around in,” she said.

Jennifer Arp, newly-elected trustee for the area, is pushing for the school board to reconsider the sale of the field. She said the board needs to work closer with the city to protect green space.

“Finances are tight for every level of government, so how do we work together and build better relationships so we are able to protect our public assets?”

Trish McMahon is the organizer behind the Save Bannockburn Park group. She lives near Lawrence and Mount Pleasant, and her two kids, ages 5 and 7, both go to the Montessori school at Bannockburn. During the warmer months, her kids play on the field after school about three days a week. Her older son also uses the field to play T-ball through the Armour Heights baseball league. Ms. McMahon estimates that through the course of the school year and the summer, about 600 local kids in the neighbourhood use the field.

“This is a community hub,” she said. “It’s not just for soccer and baseball. You’ve got families having picnics there over the weekend. You’ve got families teaching their kids to ride a bike. You’ve got kids flying kites because there’s no overhead wires. They’re learning to throw a football. All sorts of things you do in a big, flat, open space.”

She described the local residents as a “tight-knit group” who run community sports leagues out of the field in the summer, who throw “impromptu fireworks parties” on special occasions for the kids.

If the green space is sold off and redeveloped, she said, local residents would have to get into their cars in order to get to the next-closest playing field. And even if the kids could find their way there, she said many of those are already at capacity.

“Our concern is that we’ve got all these kids who would like a place to play,” she said. “We worry about childhood obesity, we’ve got all sorts of safety [concerns] about where kids are playing – if it’s sold for development, and that looks like what’s going to happen – these kids have nowhere else to play.”

Ms. McMahon acknowledged that demographic changes have led to the current situation, but said those same fluctuations should cause the board to think twice about selling off land.

“Bannockburn was closed because of an aging population. … What’s happened is the character of the neighbourhood is changing,” she said. “With the changing demographics, they simply don’t know what’s going to happen with the school-aged population – a lot of those infill houses are being bought by families with kids or who are going to have kids.”

Ms. McMahon, a lawyer who is studying for her doctorate in law, has devoted hundreds of hours to fighting the school board’s decision, and said that most residents in a similar situation would not have the time or resources she has. “For the average Torontonian, it’s a mess,” she said.

But the overarching message from the province is that the school board has no choice but to raise the capital to repair aging schools.

“The board has stated that its renewal backlog is $3-billion, and that it does not have the funding to address it,” said Margaret Wilson, the education consultant appointed by the Ontario government to investigate problems at the board. “The roof repair bill alone is over $200-million.”

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