“As settlement is spreading rapidly west of Dufferin Street, the completed building will be filled almost as soon as it is ready for occupation.” That was The Globe in May, 1909, reporting on the new Kent Public School at the corner of Bloor and Dufferin in Toronto.
One hundred and nine years later, the city’s main public school board has sold that very building and more nearby, a total 7.3 acres of public land, to developers – in a Toronto that’s vastly bigger, and growing fast. It’s a short-sighted decision that ignores both heritage and the long-term importance of public land.
Why is this happening? In short, because the Ontario government starves its school buildings of money, and this is destroying cultural heritage as well as damaging the experience of students. This larger issue needs urgent attention, and there’s still a chance at Bloor and Dufferin to combine new development and hold on to some history.
First, the big picture. At an event on Saturday, I will join the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario to discuss “Toronto School Buildings at Risk.” A quarter of Toronto school buildings, more than 100, are in critical shape, and many more need serious repair. These places are centrepieces in their communities, full of memories and in many cases fine and distinctive architecture.
Why are they at risk? For the past 20 years, a succession of provincial governments has failed to provide school boards with enough money to maintain and construct their buildings. As any public-school parent knows, schools are falling down. The maintenance backlog is huge. The economist Hugh Mackenzie, in a recent report for the Campaign for Public Education, measures it as $15.9-billion and increasing rapidly. The Toronto District School Board’s total is $4.05-billion right now.
That’s billions of dollars in leaking roofs, rotting windows, aging boilers, rusting stairs. And public assets of historic importance, falling apart.
These assets – and those of the Catholic school board – should be managed collectively with the greater good in mind. Right now, they aren’t; the Toronto District School Board is being forced to get rid of space that’s “surplus” to its operations. Which brings us to Bloor-Dufferin. School-board planners have determined that they have too much real estate in the neighbourhood and not many students. In the long term, I strongly doubt that this will be the case. The city is growing rapidly, and the trend is toward denser living in and around downtown. Sooner or later – probably sooner – these public assets will be needed again.
But that 7.3 acres will be gone. The site includes the former Kent Public School, closed by the TDSB years ago, and neighbouring Bloor Collegiate Institute, which has been operating since 1925. In 2016, a group of developers led by Capital Developments and Metropia paid $121.5-million for it.
That is a lot of money, right? Not really. To cash in, the board will tear down yet another building next door, a 1966 high school now known as Brockton Learning Centre. Demolition will have a cost in the millions. Then they’ll build a new Bloor Collegiate at an estimated cost of $30-million to $35-million. (It will be cheaply built, and probably not very good architecture; that’s another story.)
In the end, taxpayers will net a new high school and something like $80-million. Against the TDSB’s $4-billion backlog, that’s not even a drop in the bucket. Selling the silverware will not keep this household afloat.
And what’s getting sold are places that have shaped the lives of thousands of Torontonians, and some very good buildings. The old Toronto Board of Education’s in-house architects, between the 1880s and the 1960s, consistently delivered some of the city’s best architecture.
The board staff, under C.H. Bishop, designed the original Kent School in the beaux-arts style in 1907; then, under Cyril Dyson, the front wings of Bloor Collegiate in 1948-49, in a moderne style that was quite adventurous for Toronto and very well-executed. In the decades to come, each school got a series of additions. The Kent School got a new wing, of glazed brick and glass, in 1961, by architects unknown. It’s handsome and very adaptable. (But nobody has paid it much attention so far, in a classic case of anti-modernist bias.)
So far the developers are planning to keep only the old wing of the Kent School, surrounding it with 2,200 residential units in a series of towers and 250,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. They propose a new public street cutting through the site, a square that’s a public park, and a new privately owned street.
It looks like the old wing of Kent will be home to a “Community Hub,” a provincially driven model to find public-sector tenants for sites like this. Though the process began in 2015, it’s still not clear what that will consist of.
Here’s what should happen. The city’s new chief planner, Gregg Lintern, should bring everyone to the table and ensure that heritage is at the centre of the planning process.
City planners – including heritage and parks staff – should look at the site holistically. They should figure out how to retain as much of the heritage buildings and public space on the site as possible. The front wings of Bloor Collegiate, and both wings of Kent School, are entirely worth saving; they’re beautiful and historic. They could be filled with a mixture of private and public uses: office, studio space, even housing.
This would create a different project than the developers are currently imagining, but it would be a better one. The Bloor-Dufferin developers talk a lot about “placemaking.” Heritage buildings are an invaluable tool for making a new complex soulful and special.
The developers have hired a talented team of architects and landscape architects: Let them figure out a better way to do this.
And then Toronto’s leadership, the school board and the provincial Ministry of Education – who really control the situation – need to figure out how better to maximize such public assets. This could mean a different ownership model. These buildings and sites need to be considered as places, and special ones. Allowing a century’s worth of public schools to crumble would be criminal.
And in a city that is growing rapidly, selling huge pieces of land and tearing down historic public buildings simply doesn’t make sense. In 1909, Toronto was building for the future. We should be doing that again.