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A classroom at Hunter's Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Toronto has a wickedly difficult public policy problem: What to do with the city’s public school sites.

The issue isn’t only about education. Toronto District School Board controls 611 facilities on 5,000 acres – a very big chunk of the city’s public land and buildings. But they are schools first, they are largely rundown and they now have 60,000 empty seats.

The good news is that the TDSB’s real estate agency has a plan. The bad news: Its plan would demolish some of the best public places in the city and it still wouldn’t solve much. What’s needed is a more radical strategy to manage these places.

I recently heard about the board’s plan from Daryl Sage, chief executive officer of Toronto Lands Corp. (TLC), which oversees all real estate for the TDSB. “We have nearly 600 schools, which are in the centre of every neighbourhood,” he said. And, he added, “The board is land-rich and cash-poor.”

Mr. Sage said over the past two years, his organization has taken a fresh approach. “We’re trying to integrate other public services onto our sites to create a common destination,” he said. “When we redevelop a school, it doesn’t have to just be a school.”

He suggests in particular that long-term care beds – Toronto will need tens of thousands of them – could go into a shared building along with a new school, in the middle of a low-rise neighbourhood.

This makes sense. Such deals would keep the school sites in public ownership, while bringing capital dollars. If the provincial Ministry of Education approves, this approach would reduce the huge maintenance backlog – now $4.2-billion and rising – on the board’s books.

The problem is that the board and TLC don’t have the capacity to pull it off.

Their recent track record is poor. Mr. Sage cited a “model project” at Yonge-Davisville, where the city and TDSB are combining forces for a school and rec centre. Good idea. But as I wrote in 2018, this is a badly flawed endeavour. The board should have renovated the existing, historically significant school.

And more than $5-million of the board’s project cost is going toward an underground parking garage. (The board is not obliged to provide staff parking, but it does anyway and is building more garages.)

Similarly problematic is another big idea Mr. Sage put forward: That large schools located near transit could be redeveloped. He cited the example of a current project at Bloor and Dufferin, where the board is going from three schools to one, and grossing $125-million from land sales to a private developer. “We think we have six or seven Bloor-Dufferins in the portfolio,” he said.

But schools aren’t just schools. They are often, as Mr. Sage suggested, the heart of a neighbourhood. At Bloor-Dufferin, a whole block of schools and fields is being reduced to an inferior school building (and a community building) under a mountain of condos. This is a loss.

As another possible redevelopment, Mr. Sage cited City Adult Learning Centre. It was constructed in the 1960s on Danforth Avenue at the Don Valley on a large piece of land. It’s an easy target, since CALC has no parents’ association to fight for it. But its building, designed by the Toronto Board of Education’s own staff, is a masterpiece.

Very simply, there are few Toronto school sites that are worth large amounts of money. And the ones that are financially valuable are important public places. To develop them will be difficult and come with lots of social costs.

Yet TDSB and TLC show no interest in the legacy that they control. In our conversation, Mr. Sage referred several times to the age of Toronto schools – something I’ve heard before from board officials. For them, it seems, schools are just depreciating assets. Toronto school boards had a strong culture of design for most of the 20th century; that has disappeared completely.

And the city’s heritage planning department, which has been overactive on other fronts, has done nothing in recent years to protect school buildings.

The solution is a new model of development – like the one Mr. Sage has suggested. But the city should take over. Toronto’s own development agency, CreateTO, is best suited to do this work. Its staff have some of the private-sector experience required to manage a multibillion-dollar real estate portfolio. TLC and TDSB simply do not.

And they should think long term. Where schools need to close, their sites should be retained as much as possible. In the past, TDSB has sold off entire suburban schools for low-density development. Instead, in the future, they should sell part of a site – start with the parking lot – but develop it at high density. That would require the active and creative participation of city planners and the province.

It’s good news that Mr. Sage and TLC have a holistic view. “We see ourselves as stewards of public assets,” he told me.

But doing this right requires creative deal-making and a relentless focus on place. Triage the architecture, and save those buildings that have cultural value. Stop constructing parking garages. Push aggressively to get density onto school sites. Keep as much land as possible.

And make deals with public bodies. Every neighbourhood should have public space at its heart. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we need more of it, not less. A Toronto of 2060 – denser, more unequal, with a warming climate – will treasure its public places.

Schools, in the past, have been great public places; they should be again.

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